What’s Negative about Being Positive (and Pursuing Happiness)

Radioactive-happiness-face Overhearing younger folk talking about “life”, I heard a statement that gave me pause: “All we want in life is to be happy.” As axiomatic as it seems, this short assertion does not make sense. The plague of much modern thought rests in attempting to cure itself with “happiness”: some ill-defined single mechanism or property of existence that we each strive for that completes, fulfils or renders whole our entire existence. Note: I did not say we do not wish to be happy; but this is different from saying all we want is to be happy. Indeed, as the great AC Grayling has highlighted: “The first lesson of happiness is that the surest way to be unhappy is to think that happiness can be directly sought.” Its epiphenomenal property is obvious: happiness arises as a by-product of other endeavours. From this we must take notice that to seek out happiness directly is juvenile, misguided and often retarding of the process of living a good life in the first place.

Studying psychology, one is forced to realise that no one book, one person or one attitude can spur you toward greater things; an obvious conclusion, you would think, when you read dust-covers that each states this author, this book, this practise will change your life. How many times can your life be changed before it is no longer yours? Rather your life is handed over to some quack who claims to be/is a motivational-speaker, a healer, a guru, an angel guide, a psychic, a priest, a philosopher. Often these people have had some powerful subjective experience that creates a sense of authority in attaining “enlightenment”, “wholeness”, “being”, or some other important-sounding word. Whether it’s because they rode around Africa on their bicycles, came from poverty to wealth, are able to read auras and sense angels, they all take their experiences as a reason to be considered an expert in guiding you toward happiness. (There are some excellent books about happiness – often debunking all the previous books' claims – but they share a coherence with reality; indeed, the best are classics written by Plato or Epicurus or Aurelius for example.)

A recent example of quack advice, in the last decade, has been The Secret – written by Rhonda Byrne but features full-length nonsense advice by self-described experts in fields ranging from quantum healing to psychic manipulation of the universe. Indeed, the whole “secret” is based on positive psychology but wholly devoid of rationality and evidence; instead, it drives a wedge between modern thought’s understanding of causality and our ancient superstitions: that is, when we finally stopped saying the gods caused lightning and understood electricity, when we stopped saying witches cursed our children and washed our hands. The “secret” is that by simply wishing it, it can be so: something known as the “law of attraction”, the bizarre notion that “like attracts like”. That means the universe can detect when you want or need something.

According to the publishers, the “secret” makes its appearance in many ancient documents and was utilised by great people, like Plato, Leonardo, and Einstein. Damian Thompson sets about debunking it with razor-sharp precision in his book Counterknowledge: “The formula can be summed up in three words: Ask. Believe. Receive. No one knows why it works, we are told, but it may have something to do with quantum physics.” (This is doubtful but is appealing, since quantum physics is complicated and inexplicable to our petty human minds, therefore it can be used as an explanation by appealing to its complicated and inexplicable nature. It is for this reason we see the word “quantum” involved with so much twaddle: it is useful as an explanatory tool because it is [almost] inexplicable).

There are many terrible methods like The Secret available. Indeed, some publishers, like Hay House, devote their entire output to nonsense like this.

Pastel-coloured, bright lines, the author’s face, perhaps a waterfall or rainbow, are found on the glossy or soft bendable cover; it has blurbs from authors that would surround it in a bookstore; it will either be a sequel or part of a sequence of books, written by this author or group claiming to be the way to change your life; to add some spice, there might be an Eastern flavour in the form of Chinese, Japanese or Arabic writing which you probably can’t read (or anything that is “not Western”: Aztecs, Mayans, Sioux, etc.); and, my favourite, the claim that this is “ancient” knowledge, as though being around for an extended period of time is a good thing (murder, rape, earthquakes are also ancient). (Click here to see an example: I only saw this after I wrote this paragraph, though you might think I was simply describing this book)

Petty as this may seem the self-help, quick-fix industry, whether it has the wings of angels or the label of psychology speaks deeply of how many of us see the world. We all know that we shouldn’t prefer instant gratification over more meaningful endeavours; we all know that surface reflections say nothing about the dark blue depths beneath. But with spindly legs, people dance across the surface, smile at their reflections and call such posturing and posing a meaningful life.

Even supposedly more down-to-earth formulations are prone to retard the process of self-knowledge. For example, Oprah gave birth to a “tell-it-like-it-is” “quick-fix” talk-show host called Dr. Phil McGraw. McGraw’s procedures are entirely without merit since they provide instant advice which for the most part can help no one but his bank-manager. He is to psychology what tinned-tuna is to fish: packaged and compressed into bite-size, tasteless, and unbeneficial forms. McGraw has other compressed cohorts pushed in alongside him, all talking about solving life’s problems, getting a first date, getting thin, finding your “soul mate”. Though these are not spun with angel wings, the fairy-dust is visible in the chasm between proper help and InstaHelp.

Immanuel Kant said, in his famous essay on morals, “the concept of happiness is such an indeterminate one that even though everyone wishes to attain happiness, yet he can never say definitely and consistently what it is that he really wishes and wills.” Barbara Ehrenreich, in a her latest book Smile or Die, about the negative effects of “positive thinking” (a fad which has offspring like The Secret), says:

There is an anxiety… right here in the heart of American positive thinking. If the generic “positive thought” is correct and things really are getting better, if the arc of the universe tends toward happiness and abundance [as most of the authors of positive thinking books claim], then why bother with the mental effort of positive thinking? Obviously, because we do not fully believe that things will get better on their own. The practice of positive thinking is an effort to pump up this belief in the face of much contradictory evidence.

I do not want to argue that perhaps this is not what The Secret or Hay House or angels say; that would be to get into the torrid metaphysics of each, which means accepting the premise that the universe views us as important. Let us begin dismantling these vain assumptions on the purposes of our lives and happiness.

As Ehrenreich has correctly pointed out, the universe is not “a happy place”. Indeed, looking at our planet alone, this is not a place of sunshine, rainbows and bunnies leaping with chocolate. Sometimes there are moments of genuine beauty, love, fulfillement; but mostly it is a place of madness, death and horror; it is a place where parents sexually abuse their children for decades, where we attempt to annihilate an entire group of people by a random property we give them as their identity; it is a place where judgments on strangers fly hard and fast like bullets; where morality is neither debated nor considered because, for the most part, an arbitrary deity has decided what is right and wrong. Between angels and insects, longing for the life “after”, humans with bloody hands and quivering eyes look to a god or the world or nature to make things right

In another excellent study on happiness, Jennifer Michael Hecht, focuses on everything from philosophy to poetry, politics to psychology, “exploding myths” about happiness (the quotation comes from the cover of her book). In the book The Happiness Myth, Hecht says: “Despite their many opinions about what we should do with our lives once we get our happiness under control, the philosophers, the wisdom writers, and the self-help leaders all say the same thing about what we should do to get to happiness. That is why self-help leaders can indeed help many smart people, and why even the wisest of us might find an insight among the sugary encouragements and tough love. There are four doctrines found in all happiness theory from wisdom literature, philosophy, psychology and self-help. They are:

– Know yourself

– Control your desires

– Take what's yours

– Remember death.”

The great Bertrand Russell said: “Contempt for happiness is usually contempt for other people's happiness, and is an elegant disguise for hatred of the human race.” (Of course, DH Lawrence claimed to see through Russell's professed love for mankind and stated that deep down Russell hated humanity. It may be more correct to say Rusell loved humanity but hated people).

My contempt is not for happiness, itself, but the direct pursuit and fruitless endeavours proclaimed by people as being fruitful. All we want is not happiness but things which, indirectly but perhaps as a by-product, bring fulfillment, pleasure, a sense of worth, a slither of vanity that we are part of something greater and better. Some of us realise that we might not have happiness but rather moments of these latter properties, each of them the tip of an iceberg not even contemplated. Instead of direct happiness, I want health, stability and fulfillment for my fellow man; I want delusions of grandeur and vanity to be placated and pacified by the humility that a thousand dawns occur all the time, which are reflected on near-infinite oceans on uncountable worlds in our sprawling universe (this is a scientific fact which, when realised, is much more beautiful than any notion of angels or spirits). Some of us realise that we can encounter and tap into such numinous moments, but they are fleeting. Nonetheless, they are there.

Yet we must face up to our plight.

We are doubly afflicted: by physical and mental wounds; the latter of fear, anxiety, rage, horror, sadness. Our realisation of our own existence comes with the price of realising its ultimate meaninglessness. To rectify that, we make ourselves centre of all existence, of the known sphere of reality called the universe. Astrology, palm-reading, The Secret, all speak to me-me-me. Me as centre, me as important, me as meaning. But the stars are not created with us in mind; doting parental figures in the sky do not protect us; we are alone, frightened, and still afraid of the shadows we create. We are a species that would kill for an idea we do not completely believe in, rather than attempt to struggle with a better idea that dismantles it. Even the average life is hard, lives that do not have to face the horrors of war or individual evil: often we fail, our goals never completed, people we want to love do not return it, our endeavours and struggles and hardships amounting to nothing with the full-stop of the gravestone.

Call me a pessimist if you want, but facing up to the world and our individual challenges is important. Covering all this in a veneer of angel dust or ancient knowledge or anthropocentric vanity will not make our world and its horrors disappear. What we need is a new way to tackle this; a way not arising from placing humans-as-centre but humans-as-fallible. Let’s not give in to the quacks and hucksters and fraudsters who would put us on a pedestal so that our fall into their palms is harder. Let us rather face the world, with its horror and indifference (to many, the latter is worse than the former), and make meaning ourselves.

We must not let this meaning be vain or replete with the mistakes of superstition, but grounded in reality: we are fallible but we can learn from our mistakes. We are meaningless to the universe but meaningful to our loved ones. The world will turn to nothing but right now, it is here, it is alive and we are a part of it.

It is easy to give in to the positive thinking that places us as centre. It is easy to call these people optimists and anyone, like myself, who thinks it’s nonsense as sad-faced, grey, pessimists. I do not think this will be a happy world in my life time, but that is all the more reason to attempt to make it so. If we see the world as it is, we want to make it better. By deluding ourselves into thinking we can change it by merely thinking and not acting, by worrying more about our own lives than the social and political fabric that binds us together, we have no reason to do anything. Basically, if you think things are OK, there is no reason to change it.

But things are not OK. So: let’s change it.

Who knows, maybe happiness might just decide to pay us a visit if we try to do the best we can for our fellow humans, instead of the best we can only for ourselves?