Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Don't Get Suckered By the Happiness Racket!

WHY is it that happiness is so elusive and ephemeral? Why is it the least accessible attitude or emotion, say compared with anger, excitement and embarrassment?  A clue lies in the Declaration of Independence wherein the framers were wise enough to grant citizens the pursuit of happiness, but not the thing itself. They knew it would be folly to mislead later generations into believing happiness was a commodity to be granted when it was nothing of the sort.

Wiser philosophers, including the Buddhist Alan Watts and others, have exposed how even the pursuit of happiness is useless unless one can somehow form an authentic persona. The real problem was first unearthed by Watts in his masterpiece, ‘The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are’, on pointing out that from the time most of us are tots we’re saddled with false egos, and false personas in order to fit more easily into a fucked up world. The end result is that on account of this process of maladjustment we end up fucked up and can’t accommodate to any prolonged period devoid of our little pet toys, devices, crutches or stimulants.  "Happiness" then is automatically tied to the never-ending consumption of such piffle or the consumption of simulated emotions akin to love - given a false persona is incapable of experiencing the real thing.

As Watts observes (p. 12):

The lowdown on life is that our normal sensation of self is a hoax, or at best a temporary role that we are playing – or have been conned into playing – with our own tacit consent, just as every hypnotized person is basically willing to be hypnotized.”

He adds most tellingly (ibid.):

The most strongly enforced of all known taboos is the taboo against knowing who or what you are behind the mask of your apparently separate, independent and isolated ego.”

Watts elaborates the dynamic of societal false self tomfoolery later, noting (p. 70):

The very society from which the individual is inseparable, is using its whole irresistible force to persuade the individual he is indeed separate! Society as we know it is therefore playing a game with self-contradictory rules. Just because we do not exist apart from the community the community is able to convince us that we do- that each one of us is an independent source of action with a mind of its own. The more successfully the community implants this feeling, the more trouble it has in getting the individual to cooperate.”

He goes on to observe that society has “pulled this trick on every child from earliest infancy” and the child – because it lacks the power of reason at an early age – is unable to resist the social indoctrination.
As a result of this indoctrination, of course, the seeds of toxic societal conditions are born and sustained. The unemployed beat up on themselves ceaselessly for not being “good enough” to support their families or get any kind of a decent job. Since the society has conditioned them to believe they alone are to blame for their situation, they willingly accept the onus as opposed to placing it on a dysfunctional society that gives all its best rewards to speculators.

Children in school may also beat up on themselves for failing a standardized test, despite the fact such tests for their own sake have nothing to do with genuine education and are in fact detrimental to real education (as Jiddu Krishnamurti has noted)

More generally, anyone who aspires to the pinnacle of his or her trade, profession or artistic talent and somehow falls short is condemned to believe he or she is a "loser". If one has not achieved the "mountain top" as it were, then it was all for naught. Via such an irrational narrative and other ways (see 'messages' below)  our own dysfunctional society sets us up to be deprived of even the pursuit of happiness - because it is itself incapable of recognizing the necessary and sufficient condition to attain it.

Thus, people – too many – have been bamboozled into thinking, believing they’re lonely, isolated centers of being. Worse, this superficial fa├žade  is accepted as the real self – when it is  actually a false  one, a pretender. It is an artifact created, as Watts notes, to accommodate our laws, conventions and social institutions so that “we cannot experience selfhood except as something superficial in the scheme of the universe.’

The inherent problem is that a self constrained and operating under these conditions cannot experience anything like "happiness". This latter then becomes more of  cruel, macabre joke- a perverted "carrot" to be dangled at the end of the proverbial string to enforce compliance or delusion.

The irony of it all? While we are told it cannot be "for sale". the actual fact is that in our screwed up false society that's the only way it can be on offer - to artificial, false beings.  No better illustration of this has been found than in William Davies   “The Happiness Industry: How the Government and Big Business Sold Us Well-Being” 

Which describes how happiness has become a major preoccupation and commodity to be peddled by the powerful with corporations, politicians and their auxiliary therapeutic industry seeing concrete financial benefits to promoting this happiness facsimile among workers, voters, and ordinary citizens.

The message to workers: Think happy thoughts even if your job is pure  drudgery, i.e. merely working on an assembly line or flipping burgers

The message to voters: Don't demand or expect  'the world' on a plate when you vote, only what can be practically delivered by our bribery system

The message to citizens: Cease thinking or believing  in negative distractions like conspiracies or powerful networks arrayed against your interests. These will only lead to misery!

By resolutely imbibing these messages we cease to be authentic beings in our own right, but instead appendages to the false state or culture wherein the fake happiness is esteemed as a virtue that transcends all our divisions of culture and creed. The ultimate capitalist prize if you will. How so?

Well. because the "self- help" pabulum can then be peddled as the solution! This meshes perfectly with the Neoliberal market meme that the fake happiness is an "individual matter"  and hence, the larger market society can wash its hands of any individual responsibility. Never mind the society itself is toxic, as Watts points out, and seeks to pander the false self credo at every turn.

But see, the rise of self-help during an economic depression or recession is not new, and neither is pushing people to anti-depressants if they can't cope - instead of digging into the underlying societal toxicity. For example, not having a genuine universal health care system in place, as opposed to a pseudo-system based on for profit insurance companies. (Note to all: "Obamacare" is NOT a true socialized medical insurance program. It is actually a revamp of a program Nixon first advocated with the insurance axis involved. Thus, it is a REPUBLICAN health care program recycled!)

A genuine universal health care program or single payer program would more resemble what we now have for Medicare, so that program would be "Medicare for all".  Instead of people having to be shocked with sudden rate rises, denied coverage or going into bankruptcy over a medical issue (sure to make anyone unhappy!)  their essential needs would be taken care of, excepting dental and eye ware - as the case with Medicare. As for being "too expensive" - not at all! Merely redirect the 2.4% of 4.9% of GDP now going to the military and it's paid for.

In line with the above, it is clear austerity measures are also going to make many people unhappy, even miserable. Anything that undercuts a citizen's ability to make it or survive will engender dissatisfaction and mental stress. Even if defining happiness may be elusive, we know certain things can create unhappiness!   For instance, In their analysis of how recessions affect public health, David Stuckler and Sanjay Basu demonstrated the precise ways in which austerity policies lead to deteriorating mental and physical health, and unnecessary deaths. They also indicated alternatives whereby recessions can be an opportunity for improvements in public health. Which route is chosen is ultimately a societal question, determined by whether the society believes citizens are all "on their own" or part of a larger whole wherein localized pain, grievance or dysfunction compromises the whole

Sadly the entire Neoliberal market system, based on the Pareto distribution and economics, see e.g.

is such that citizens are only regarded in an atomistic sense, detached from considerations of societal welfare. Thus, Neoliberal economists and policy-makers focus exclusively on whether an individual has work or not, without considering the nature and purpose of an organization or company and its psychological and physiological effects on employees.

Overlooked for instance, are people who find work more fulfilling in not-for-profit organizations or, leading to lower stress levels. This bears out other criticisms made by Alan Watts, on the shortsightedness of modern society, i.e. viewing work as some contributor to economic well-being, as policy-makers now tend to do, without considering the purpose of work.

When an employee is unhappy at work one of two things must be at fault: the employee OR the work. The false happiness industry exonerates capitalism for engendering a largely mindless service sector which pays very little - and is based on repetitive tasks. Also, little chance in the society itself for advancement.  (Too many highly qualified people chasing too few quality jobs).

But never mind, it's not that the work is underpaid, the hours unreasonable or the product pointless. It's that the employee is just unhappy  - so maybe needs some Zoloft!    This is surely to fall into the behaviorist fallacy of viewing people as lab rats, just with slightly more developed ‘verbal behavior.’

All this suggest that any genuine change toward a mentally healthier society depends on altering social and economic structures - which will not be easy.

If one then cannot alter the current system, it is necessary to change the nexus, i.e. how that system interacts with us. Those underpaid, for example, can 'get back' at the system by saving more as opposed to blowing money on useless junk or diversions. Since the system depends so overwhelmingly on consumption, each saver who extends the national savings rate (now at 5.6%) will exert an impact - perhaps toward a day when a true livable wage will be on offer)

Our cognition of getting the best, or having the best also needs adjustment. Half a billion people on Twitter can all "tweet" all day so that the quality of tweets is debased by the sheer numbers of them.  Keeping "score" of followers or page views (for blogs) is also another introduction of conceivable angst over being "one-upped". Does 500 followers or 500,000 make one's blog better than one with 20? That depends! What is the content of the mass blogs? Is it showing a kitty on a stool punching out doggies? The point is that a mass-followed blog is not necessarily a quality content blog.  It is more likely evidence for too many pursuing the false happiness meme.

Then there are the "friend" numbers on one's Facebook page. How many use this index to measure their acceptance? Sadly, too many do which is why Facebook then becomes a millstone rather than a liberating means of connecting to family, REAL friends (who you've at least met and formed a real bond with).

In terms of academic research, there is also the inevitable "pecking order" of status, which supposedly confers some innate happiness. If one is therefore a prof at Harvard or Yale he's assumed to be "happier" in his work than someone at the University of South Florida or the University of Alaska.  But this makes assumptions which are themselves subjective. Perhaps the profs at USF opt for warmer weather, or those in Alaska. chose that venue because they love being near to the Brooks Range and having access to nature unseen in the lower 48.

Thus, if we want to live in a way that is socially and psychologically prosperous, and not simply highly competitive, isolated and materialistic, there is much evidence from clinical psychology, social epidemiology, occupational health, and sociology regarding what is currently obstructing this possibility. The problem is that, in the long history of analyzing the relationship between subjective feelings and external circumstances, there is always the tendency to see the former as more easily changeable than the latter. As many positive psychologists now enthusiastically encourage people to do, if you can’t change the cause of your distress, try and alter the way you react and feel instead.  In other words, if you have 20 FB friends as opposed to 2,000 for Joe Schmoe, celebrate it as "quality over quantity".  If a friend's instagram feed is depressing you with constant images of Paris, Rome, and Switzerland, maybe get off instagram.

In the end, all status -seeking based happiness is doomed to fail because it's predicated on artificial assumptions and one ironic truth: there will always be someone, somewhere who is superior in some way or form to you! Somebody with more money, a bigger home, a better blog, more Facebook friends, a seemingly superior academic pedigree , a better job .....or whatever.  Rather than cry and pout at that, the realistic option is to pursue your own well being in terms of fulfilling your own particular potential, whatever that may be. Indeed, a favorite Buddhist saying is that: "Happiness is being able to use one's abilities to the maximum".

That may be the closest we can get to any actual, practical definition usable in the here and now!

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