Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you The Übermensch – part 2
What is it you really want out of life?
‘To be happy.’
The trouble is, happiness is a slippery creature. Too often we mistake sensual pleasure for happiness, so we substitute pleasurable things like food, alcohol, drugs and sex for whatever it is that constitutes the real deal. Yes, happiness involves pleasure, but it is not the same as pleasure. There can be pleasure that involves no happiness at all. You may be confused and disappointed when tucking into your Wagyu steak, that the meal is unexpectedly joyless. It tastes good but it does not fill the yawning emptiness inside. Tears might be tumbling down your cheeks into your glass of vintage Châteauneuf-du-Pape and even amid a tangle of nubile, naked flesh, you can sometimes still be crushed by a desperate loneliness.
Money too is often viewed as a proxy for happiness and, certainly, money gives you options, but the fact that money alone is not a guarantee of happiness is convincingly evidenced by the otherwise inexplicable phenomenon of millionaire depressives.
Even where what might be regarded as a more wholesome manifestation of happiness occurs, as in the achievement of a challenging goal, the warm buzz of happiness is short-lived. It wanes quickly unless a further, equally or more challenging project is initiated. It is as if your previous goal wasn’t quite lofty enough; it was merely provisional, a stepping-stone to something greater. Like winning the regionals in some sport, only so you can qualify for the nationals, and then onwards to the internationals as the ultimate goal.
We think about the pursuit of happiness in terms of goals. Every goal represents an improved state of affairs that we can envision in the future. That vision motivates us to strive towards it. You may also have your ultimate goal or as they say in modern parlance, your ‘dream’. Pursuing this ultimate goal successfully will make you happy, though it might involve hard work and even some degree of suffering, but the greatest happiness of all comes from its final realisation. That final achievement of your dream is the consummation and happy ending to your life story. Roll credits. Job done. Or is it?
As an imperfect metaphor for this pursuit of your dream, you could imagine happiness as a sort of signal being broadcast from a far-distant beacon. The beacon itself represents your dream - your idea of the ultimate achievement or the optimal life - and so the presence and strength of its signal indicates whether you are going in the right direction or not. The happiness signal is intermittent but, generally speaking, the clearer the signal becomes the more you believe yourself to be on the right course. The weaker it is, the more you have strayed. So you wend your way though life tracking ever stronger signals from the beacon in order to get to it.
But there is an all too common danger that comes from other ‘happiness’ signals; bogus ones. These are the temptations of those unproductive pleasures that feel like happiness, but can wreck your progress towards its more fulfilling varieties. Think alcohol, drugs, gorging yourself on cake or endless hours squandered watching TV, pissing around on social media or sweating over Pornhub. These much more accessible pleasures may be enjoyable distractions but, because they can pull you off your course aiming at real happiness, you can end up scuppered on the rocks of dissipation. The bogus signals are like the Sirens of Greek mythology, whose seductive singing can lure unwary sailors to their doom. Sometimes, dear friend, like Ulysses, you need to respect your own weaknesses and tie yourself to the mast. We will discover later how that trick is performed.
Another flawed metaphor would be one where happiness is a mountain to conquer. Scaling a mountain is an appealing metaphor for aspiration; one Nietzsche himself was fond of. The higher up the mountain you climb, the happier you become, until finally, the toughest, most resourceful and most determined attain to its summit and reside with the gods in an Olympus of perfect contentment. Nice image.
And yet our lived experience tells us that real happiness is never permanently obtained. It is evanescent; a will o’ the wisp that recedes into the distance even as you pursue it. Even on those rare occasions when you do catch it, clutching it for a brief moment, it inevitably slips through your fingers and floats away and the chase must be resumed.
Clearly then, happiness is not a steady state. It is volatile. It evaporates. And it is not a location on any map. It is not somewhere you get to so you can put your feet up. It is not some kind of ideal arrangement of empirical circumstances, like the perfect holiday resort or retirement plan. Maybe this is why the Christian conception of Heaven’s eternally unchanging paradise is so unconvincing. Human beings can become bored and jaded with any state of affairs, no matter how ostensibly perfect. Happiness is not a place. It is instead an epiphenomenon; an emotional side effect. It is most often experienced when you feel you are making sustained progress in activities that you believe to be valuable, meaningful and important. Because of this, it is associated with becoming rather than being and it is associated with processes that involve risk, struggle and uncertainty. It has peaks and troughs - troughs that might in fact be hellishly unpleasant. Happiness is dynamic, not static.
The truth is there is no beacon and there is no mountaintop. Either would be to posit the archetypal and mythic terminus of unchanging bliss – be it Olympus, Heaven, Valhalla, Shangri-La, Nirvana, the perfect Marxist-Communist society or any number of other assorted utopias. Even if such a fanciful place existed, human beings could never be happy there. That’s not how happiness works. We misunderstand life when we assume that it promises absolute satiety and an end to suffering, in this world or the next. There is no beacon; there is only signal. Likewise with our mountain, it has no summit; there is only climbing. Climbing forever. The myth of Sisyphus is a reflection of our psychological reality.
To really understand how happiness works, we need to turn to the powerful and inconceivably ancient mechanisms of evolutionary biochemistry. This we shall do in our next post.
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