The Happiness Problem
Happiness and unhappiness, in all its forms, is a major problem, for individuals, society and the planet…
Everything I have written about so far in this blog has been to understand why happiness and unhappiness, in all its forms, is a major problem, on both an individual and societal level. In summary, I have claimed that:
The function of happiness is to make us to predictably meet our needs for survival and connection.
Surface Happiness – made up of our positive and negative emotions – motivates us to better meet our needs.
Underlying Happiness – made up of our positive and negative moods – motivates us to meet our needs not just now but also in the foreseeable future.
As part of this function, our emotions and moods shape how we see reality– a world full of problems we need to solve, threats we must avoid, and opportunities we must take to meet our needs with ever more certainty and security.
What we feel is strongly influenced by our social context – we understand the problems, threats and opportunities we face, and our strategies for dealing with them, from people we believe are like us.
Now, none of these things are problematic in themselves. It’s good that we have emotions and moods to help us meet our needs both now and in the foreseeable future. And it’s good that we perceive the world via our emotions and moods, helping us respond and adapt to reality unconsciously, habitually and skilfully. Lastly, it’s good that we look towards those around us for strategies to help us securely meet our needs.
The problem is that fully predictably meeting our needs is impossible. We do not live in a predictable world. Almost everything we care about is uncertain and insecure. We will all, at some point, die. We will witness the death of many of the people we care about. We will fall ill, perhaps unexpectedly. We may lose our jobs or home due to no fault of our own. We will, on numerous occasions, and despite our good intentions, fuck up. We will set ambitious goals, which can only be achieved through a long unknown sequence of successes and failures. All the things we care about in our lives will bring us challenges because that is how life works. It is all too complex and fragile to be otherwise.
No wonder that, in response to all these vulnerabilities, we are motivated to eek out whatever certainty and security we can find. We put our efforts into achieving material and financial security, loving and supportive relationships, a stable and comfortable home, good health, and so on. Each of these things may be an oasis of security within a vast desert of circumstances that are out of our control.
The problem is that, even if we manage to achieve the things we care about, they will never satisfy our cravings for predictably meeting our needs. We can always meet our needs for survival and connection in ever more certain and secure ways.
Suppose that we get a stable job. Knowing we have that sorted, we may now look for a just as stable job, but one that also gives us more certainty and security in other areas of our lives. Perhaps a job that gives us more autonomy to developing our skills and interests; or a job that gives us the opportunity to build better relationships with our colleagues; and so on.
Or suppose that we enter into a loving and supportive relationship. This may help us immensely – we may feel more valued and important, have the confidence to do some of the things we’ve always wanted to but never felt we could, and so on. Yet, people (like jobs and everything else in life) change. Our partner may not always be able provide the support we need. They may come to see us differently over time as they build up a fuller picture of our strengths and weaknesses. And we may also come to see the ways in which they are unable to support us, or don’t see some of the important parts of ourselves.
In response, we may look towards other jobs and relationships, which might be able to better meet our needs for survival and connection in the long-term. Or we may try to find ways of making our current job or relationship meet our needs with even more certainty and security.
The point is we will never stay anywhere for long. One of two things will happen. Either the world will change and we will lose whatever hard earned security we have (our stable job, supportive relationship, etc). Or, we will change: we will try to change ourselves, others or our environment to more securely meet our needs.
Again, this isn’t a necessarily bad situation. It is good to strive for a better life. The problem is that we often do so in harmful ways.
This happens when we try to find certainty and security where there is none. We will never be able to predictably meet all our needs, so our attempts to do so via a combination of good jobs, relationships, homes, health, hobbies, activities, etc., will be futile. These pursuits can help us, for sure. But they will never eliminate our desire for and against change.
A good example of this is the so-called ‘midlife crisis’. We may be lucky enough to get to a stage where we have achieved all we had hoped to achieve – successful career, family life, etc. However, we may still feel as if our lives are missing something – that they are still not good enough. Instead of seeing these feelings for what they are, we may see our situation as a problem (or ‘crisis’) that we can solve by having an affair or buying an expensive car. We can’t. Even if the affair or expensive car helps in the short-term (which is doubtful), our motivation to meet our needs in ever more secure and certain ways will remain.
This is the case for each part of our lives. We will never be able to have a perfectly secure or stable job, relationship or home. Of course, there are things we can do so that each part of our lives is more fulfilling and secure. But, seeking out too much security or stability, within circumstances that are often out of our own hands, can backfire.
Consider, for example, someone who tries to control or manipulate their partner or friend in order to feel wanted and safe in the relationship. Or the parent who imposes their own views of what is best for their children in order to feel they will be okay in life. In both of these examples, not doing these things is scary – it requires being out of control, not knowing how things will go. And things could go badly after all. But this is the state we are in – having to figure out just what we can and cannot do to securely meet our needs.
On a societal level, I believe we are currently doing this in an unacceptable way. Our predominant strategies for predictably meet our needs is to all achieve a meaningful and stable job, a long-term romantic relationship, a fulfilling and successful family life, good health, and enjoyable friendships, hobbies and activities. This is fine. However, what is not fine is trying to achieve these things at whatever cost. It is generally considered to be okay to pursue these strategies regardless of their impacts on others and the environment. If our material and financial security is propped up by cheap labour, trade injustices, brutal conflict and environmental degradation, that’s considered to be worth it for all the certainty and security it provides us, and others like us, with. Well, it is not.
This is a problem that will never go away. We will always be motivated to meet our needs with ever more certainty and security. We can, however, respond to this demand in better and worse ways. This is what this blog is all about.
3 suggestions for further reading:
Jonathan Haidt: The Happiness Hypothesis
Tim Jackson: Prosperity Without Growth
Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett: The Spirit Level