Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Retrospective happiness

I've been pondering the strange phenomenon of being happy without realising you are happy; or more to the point, of realising only retrospectively that a period of your life -- perhaps a period during which, at the time, you were aware only of busyness and low-level anxiety and tiredness (let's say: to do with kids and your job and the like) -- was actually the happiest of your life. How can that be? I mean, how can a person not know they're happy? Yet it strikes me as a very common phenomenon. (I'm reminded, not for the first time on this blog, of the line from Blade Runner that works as a superbly profound gloss on human nature itself, 'how can it not know what it is?')

There's an SF story about this, by I-can't-remember-whom, that I read in the Penguin Science Fiction Omnibus volume. I can't remember the title of the story either, and don't have the volume to hand.

4 comments:

Wally said...

[I apologize in advance for the tone of this comment. Haven't written anything in a while, babies and holiday travel being what they are; hopefully the following at least makes sense.]

This phenomenon no longer strikes me as strange, though it vexed me for (literally, melodramatically) decades. Every piece of (let's call it) wisdom literature I've read indicates that 'happiness' is one of the most poorly-defined concepts in all the idea-West. We tend to equate it with satisfaction, which is knowable and indeed measurable: 'I have this item - check - which I've long desired; I must be happy now that I can identify a happiness-metric.' That sort of thing. Folks can't help saying stupid things like 'I'll be happy when this [drudgery, relationship, unwanted circumstance] is over.' But that's just projecting a measure of satisfaction from now onto then - good ol' human time-sense messing us about, as it does.

Happiness, near as I can tell, is more immersion than anything: matching capacity to task and vice versa; fully engaging our animal brains without metacognitive pissing and moaning; ceasing to delude ourselves about the nature of things (chance, connectedness, transformation). The birth of my son was the hardest day of my life and the best; I was purely present that day. There's this idea that ecstasy must mean 'unbearable goodness,' but I think it has to do with depth of immersion: all channels open and flooded.

Presence, rather than pleasure, is the root of joy.

Or to put the essential problem of human existence more succinctly:

Sex is nice. Orgasms are nice. Orgasm being the sharpest pleasure associated with sex, it's tempting to think we should hurry to that point as quickly as possible, no matter how the rest of it feels. After all, mustn't orgasm multiply the 'happy' feelings associated with sex? Mustn't it bring them to a (narrative) climax? Isn't the end of the book the reason we read the book?

But of course the one thing orgasm most often does to sex is end it.

I don't think reflection-on-happiness has anything to do with joy; it has to come afterward, when the most interesting bits are done. Happiness is to being atop the mountain as joy is to climbing it in the first place; happiness (satisfaction) without joy can be purchased. Joy - like love - can only be made.

Well: good thing they can be made in limitless quantities.

Wally said...

[I apologize in advance for the tone of this comment. Haven't written anything in a while, babies and holiday travel being what they are; hopefully the following at least makes sense.]

This phenomenon no longer strikes me as strange, though it vexed me for (literally, melodramatically) decades. Every piece of (let's call it) wisdom literature I've read indicates that 'happiness' is one of the most poorly-defined concepts in all the idea-West. We tend to equate it with satisfaction, which is knowable and indeed measurable: 'I have this item - check - which I've long desired; I must be happy now that I can identify a happiness-metric.' That sort of thing. Folks can't help saying stupid things like 'I'll be happy when this [drudgery, relationship, unwanted circumstance] is over.' But that's just projecting a measure of satisfaction from now onto then - good ol' human time-sense messing us about, as it does.

Happiness, near as I can tell, is more immersion than anything: matching capacity to task and vice versa; fully engaging our animal brains without metacognitive pissing and moaning; ceasing to delude ourselves about the nature of things (chance, connectedness, transformation). The birth of my son was the hardest day of my life and the best; I was purely present that day. There's this idea that ecstasy must mean 'unbearable goodness,' but I think it has to do with depth of immersion: all channels open and flooded.

Presence, rather than pleasure, is the root of joy.

Or to put the essential problem of human existence more succinctly:

Sex is nice. Orgasms are nice. Orgasm being the sharpest pleasure associated with sex, it's tempting to think we should hurry to that point as quickly as possible, no matter how the rest of it feels. After all, mustn't orgasm multiply the 'happy' feelings associated with sex? Mustn't it bring them to a (narrative) climax? Isn't the end of the book the reason we read the book?

But of course the one thing orgasm most often does to sex is end it.

I don't think reflection-on-happiness has anything to do with joy; it has to come afterward, when the most interesting bits are done. Happiness is to being atop the mountain as joy is to climbing it in the first place; happiness (satisfaction) without joy can be purchased. Joy - like love - can only be made.

Luckily they can be made in limitless quantities.

Adam Roberts Project said...

Wally: that's very eloqient, especially in stereoscopic vision. I agree with almost all of it.

Happiess as immersion is a very appealing way of pitting it. But I still don't see why we are so often unaware of that immersion whilst it is going on.

As for the hurrying-to-the-end tendency, yes I take the force of what you say. Except, except: there's a part of me that can't relax whilst (say) we're out as a family and the kids are clambering up trees and rushing about, for fear they'll fall and break something. But I can relax when they've had a good day, and bathtime has been and gone, and I've read them bedtime stories and they're asleep, because there's no longer any immediate danger.

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