Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Contempt for the goal of happiness

Apparently Hugh Laurie, more famous here in the UK for his role as an upper-class twit in Blackadder, has received a Golden Globe in the US for his role in 'House', described as 'perilously close to perfection'. In spite of these successes, Mr Laurie is still not happy and has suffered from clinical depression in the past.

His insecurities stemmed, it would seem, from a mother who continually criticised him, having set goals for him that he could never attain. With typical British understatement, he has described her as "contemptuous of the goal of happiness".


This got me thinking. It seems that contempt for the goal of happiness is quite common, yet I came to the conclusion long ago that it is such emotions that ultimately drive us - not abstract ideas or principles - and that if a person displays contempt for happiness it's just that they have a more convoluted pursuit of happiness than most. What they really have contempt for is other people's ideas of happiness or what they see as lack of ambition. But they are still in pursuit of their own happiness which happens to be deferred until certain goals are achieved.

A great many celebrities and other highly ambitious people suffer from the same sorts of problems as Hugh Laurie. Their ambition is a carrot and a stick which goads them to further achievement in pursuit of fleeting pleasures - happiness which is often based on flattery from the recognition of a fickle public. Some of the happiest people I've met actually have a rather modest life.

The evolution of our genes and our economies and cultures aren't 'interested in' our happiness except in so far as it acts as a carrot on a stick to get us to do other things such as reproducing and doing productive work.

Genuine happiness (as opposed to carrots and sticks) is something we have to sometimes step back from the genetic and economic treadmills to find for ourselves. It wasn't until a few years ago that I really started to take the business of finding out how to be happy seriously. Until then, like most people, I had a sophisticated contempt for it. What mattered was my values, self-expression, intellectual understanding, short term sensory gratification, experience for its own sake, having an interesting life, creativity.

A few years ago I realised that while I wasn't exactly miserable I wasn't really very happy either and took conscious steps to do something about it.

Now, I'm not saying that my life is perfect or even that I'm unusually happy, but I'm significantly happier than I was. It's difficult to know how much is down to having a great relationship with Emily, how much is down to being the father of a great little boy, how much is down to practicing Zen and how much is down to just growing up. But what I do know is that its important to not to choose a partner for egotistical reasons - because it's flattering in some way - do it for love and companionship. Know the difference between infatuation and love and between lust and love.

I also know it's important to appreciate the present and not defer your happiness to some imaginary time in the future. I don't mean that we should live entirely for the present - we can pursue goals for the future while living in the present and enjoying it and realising that if we put all our hopes on what lies over rainbows we'll be running after them forever.

There is nothing wrong with goals - we need to make provision for the future and we can enjoy doing it, but if we make ourselves slaves to goals they will make us unhappy. What goals to set ourselves is a personal and sometimes an ethical decision. But we need to look after ourselves and to do that we need to know what is really in our interests - we need to evaluate which goals are good for us and which ones are just dreams to make us run around on our little wheels all the faster.

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