Notes on Happiness: #1, stability

A few days ago, amid the pseudo-stress of exams, I met up with a friend that I don’t get to see very often. We met in a little tea shop, downtown Chicago – it was a bit cool out. Along the course of catching up, we stumbled upon the the topic of happiness (not something too many people readily talk about, in my experience). We had different sources of happiness, at least on the face of it, but there were some noteworthy similarities. For starters, we were examining what made us happy – we spent time – outside this conversation – inspecting and exploring our sources of happiness. Secondly, the sources were largely personal – and they had not necessarily started out that way, they evolved. Thirdly, they were immaterial.

Exactly how we got on the path of discussing happiness, my minds fails to recall. I do know, however, that at some point we were looking at the happiness – actually, lack thereof – of people we had been close to at some point. What was interesting to me, is that the sources of “happiness” here cited also had similarities. Their effects were temporary, they were physical or material, they were rarely if ever examined – and for the most part left little room for exploration. In the cases of which I spoke, I had personal accounts of an underling, lingering unhappiness. What’s more, is that in all cases of unhappiness that we brought up, there was a sense that we could hardly know – truly – the person so afflicted. (I have made the argument before that they can hardly know themselves.)

At any rate, this is what we discussed. Not in a condescending matter, though there were traces of sadness for the unhappy, but it was all discussed rather frankly and matter-of-factly. I’m wanting to explore some of those ideas. Here I will look at how stability plays a role in happiness.

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As I have discussed before, externalized sources of happiness seem problematic for me. They seem necessarily unstable. This instability seems less than ideal. It is not obviously clear to me that a happiness that will necessarily be followed by unhappiness is desirable. When you pursue such a temporary happiness, it seems only a means to an eventual unhappiness. Are you then, actually causing happiness, unhappiness, or both? Assuming you want as much happiness as possible, this unstable route seems undesirable.

What, then, if you externalize the source of your happiness to something permanent? Say, you depend on a star for your happiness – a star that you know will outlive you. I might wonder, could you still be happy if you could never see the star again? If you were locked in a small room with no windows, could the star make you happy? If you tell me “no” – I would suggest that the star was not your complete source of happiness. Rather, your happiness is dependent on the fact that you can see the star. This is an unstable form of happiness. Your vision of the star can be taken away – I can poke out your eyes, the sun can drown out your star. If you say to me, “I can be happy without seeing the star” – I would conclude your happiness was based on the idea of the star. The source of your happiness is an idea – it is stable. Right on.

Of course, rarely is externalized happiness on something permanent. If happiness is derived from a substance – it is necessarily unstable. Your next glass of beer is dependant on your ability to buy it, or collect the materials to brew it yourself. The former is dependant on your ability to retain employment, the latter is constrained by time and materials. The more expensive the substance, the more unstable the happiness.

If your happiness is from the newest “stuff” – you are also constrained by time and money. If your happiness comes from a pet – your pet may/will die. If your happiness is dependent on another human – they will/may die too, or the may leave you.

Of course, the possibility of your source of happiness vanishing, does not necessarily mean it will happen, I know this. If your source of happiness never becomes unobtainable, it will never necessitate unhappiness. It is likely just as good in the end as a genuinely stable form of happiness.  The real issue here, of course, is that most of the time externalized happiness is guaranteed to be actually unstable. Most people do not have enough funds to procure their substances indefinitely. If they have a job – most will be forced to abstain from their source of happiness while at work – and most need work to procure the substance. If it is a pet – most live for less time than a human. If it is a partner – unfortunately divorce is on the rise. The person is likely to change; it is nearly guaranteed that they will do something to make you unhappy. Admittedly, the partner is probably a more stable source than most materialistic sources of happiness.

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I am well aware that in order to make these arguments, I have to make some assumptions. I assume that the source of happiness can be chosen or altered at some point, I also assume that the most happiness is the most desirable, I must also assume that YOU will not change so significantly as to make your once genuinely stable form of happiness a source of unhappiness.

These are some pretty huge assumptions. I’m going to explore them more later, but I’m using them now because I would use them in conversations today. In other words, I know I still have some thinking to do.

That is precisely what makes me happy.

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