Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Happiness is...

So I just finished watching the Russian film Stalker. (By the way, this clip does not do the movie justice--it's three hours long, long takes, not much happens, but every single frame I'm screaming "This is the best movie ever!!" in my head.) (Yes, with two exclamation points.) The wife of the stalker (meaning, like, guide or hunter, not creepy following guy) has this great Eve-esque monologue to the camera where she describes how hard it is to be married to a guy who sneaks people into a terribly dangerous illegal Zone so that they can make wishes in an abandoned room (I'm telling you, this is a really awesome movie), but how she never regretted it because if things weren't miserable, she wouldn't know happiness, and, more importantly, she wouldn't know hope. In general, the movie makes the argument that happiness is hope, however ephemeral.

So what is happiness, anyway?

This isn't the first time this week I've pondered that. In the econ class I T.A., we're talking about GDP and HDI and that elusive end of economic prosperity, welfare. Which is to say, happiness. Can money buy happiness? I don't know for certain, but I do know that money can buy my sister not being a widow. Money bought 70 Cambodian children not getting measles, mumps, rubella or hepititis last Christmas. And, to be less dramatic, money bought the Netflix subscription to watch Tartovsky's Stalker, which has brought me a lot of joy. (And even the Soviets dumped a lot of money to make Stalker--it had to be reshot after a problem with the film they used.) But, as economic indicators all seem to agree, we're getting richer every generation...but are we getting happier? Rather famously, Easterlin says we're not.

Happens too, this week, that I'm reading Bentham in my Victorian Rhet class. Bentham, you may remember, Father of Utilitarianism, coined the phrase "greatest happiness principle" and to prove how great and how principle, he enumberated types of happiness. (You'll be pleased to know that he mapped out 14 sources of pleasure, while only 12 of pain--we seem to have pain outnumbered) I figure I'm a sort of Cosmic Utiliarianist, in that I'm a Foundationalist who beleives that God has our utility figured out to a T and wants us to be as happy as possible for as long a period of time as possible. Little wait now, big reward later, like with that famous experiment with marshmallows.

Speaking of psychology, I'm listening to this podcast explaining how adult behaviorist therapy doesn't work with kids, because they can only really understand four emotions: mad, sad, glad, and scared. I'm glad to see that happiness made the list, but I'm sad that it's the only positive emotion of the batch, and scared to think what this might mean about human nature. (I'm not mad at anyone for this, though). Did you know that psychology journals are more likely to publish about depression than happiness? (I read that in Harvard Medical Journal years ago, but I can't find the source now.) What is with our preoccupation with unhappiness?

If we have two terms (happy and sad) and we privilage happy and see sad as a deviation, that means that we think happy is the norm. If we see happiness as the "natural" state, and everything that's not happiness as a deviation--sad, mad, scared-- then does that mean that we are naturally programed to be happy? That every negative emotion is just a different flavour of "not happy?" What standard of happiness are we supposed to be judging these emotions by, anyway? Happy as in "I just had a nice bowl of oatmeal" or happy as in "I just had a nice bowl of diamonds dropped in my lap"? Maybe, as they say, even the happiness in the lowest Kingdom, will be better than anything we could imagine here.

That's all very well and good for now, but what do I tell Stalker's wife? What do I tell Eve? What do I tell anyone who's had to wade through a seemingly endless swamp of misery (in other words, everyone)? Wait it out? Hope's going to come through for you? There's a point to all this suffering, somewhere, and you'll be just fine? Nice on paper. Harder on film. Devilishly difficult in life.

That's rather grim; let's look at this the other way--I'm a very cheerful person, by nature. I think. Am I cheerful because however bad my bads are, they could be worse? Why am I so happy? Is there something wrong with me being happy? Am I missing something by being happy? Should I be sadder in the hopes that it will make me more hopeful and then, somehow, more happy?

Bah. It's too late to think about this anymore. I'm going to bed. My polka-dot blanket makes me happy. That's good enough for now.


Makayla said...

I want your opinion on something. The marshmallow study... do you suppose there are events or situations in a child's life that might dramatically change their ability to delay instant gratification, one way or the other? I mean, can a patient kid have something happen and somehow turn into an impatient adult? How much of this is nurture? (I'm not talking about HUGE things like Post-traumatic stress disorder, or whatever, but just, life things: death, divorce, disappointment, family influences, peer influences, etc). What do you think?

Also, your question toward the end, about should you be sadder, made me think (again) of something that's been on my mind lately. Dr. Talbot talked in London about how it is necessary that we have experience, but we can't have experience without some degree of sin, realistically speaking (we were doing William Blake... go figure). Anyway, so I have lately been thinking about how in the world one can, say, gain the same appreciation for the atonement through righteous living as the one who has sinned grievously and repented (thus, who has really experienced the atonement in a major way). That's kind of a lame example, but it's just what came to mind.

I'm happy that you're happy though. It's good for the rest of us too.

Jamie said...

Mary makes me HAPPPPPPPPPY!!!!!!!!!!!! Yahoooooooooooooo!

mlh said...

I don't profess to be a theologian, but I think there is an important distinction between sin and transgression. We must transgress to leave the garden and progress; when we sin, the garden leaves us and we damn ourselves.

Here's another good "garden" movie: The Fantastiks. That's a fine, fine film about experience and happiness.

Marcee said...

I was just beginning to wonder where had all the trumpets go-o-o--ne and then you post. I just read Wirthlin's "Come What May" conference address. Bears another read.

Makayla said...

Yes... I believe we talked about that distinction too. :)

What about the marshmallow thing?

ke said...

"Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

Why do we concentrate so much on depression? Why is happiness the only positive emotion? Because happiness is boring unless you yourself are experiencing it. And even then. (Why is this? We covenant to mourn with those who mourn but not to rejoice with those who rejoice. Which is harder sometimes...)

Day said...

I have always loved how Mormonism makes god a teliologist and thus neatly avoids the deontology/teliology split. I also like your sin/transgression distinction, though it seems a bit nonsensical how one would identify in advance which is which--but then, I find most theology to be a bit nonsensical (not having studied it much, as theology) so that's nothing new.

On another note, the relationship between material goods and happiness--and goodness--is really interesting. If you Aren't Mormon, of course, you also have to deal in the question--what if happiness, even the best kind of happiness, doesn't mean ethical/moral goodness? I'm more or less a utilitarian after John Stewart Mill, who made the important distinction that there are different qualities of happiness which aren't all created equal. . but I digress.

The conclusion I've come to on this is that the thing people need more than anything else is to be loved--and that the utilitarianism I'm in favor of is largely about supporting that--about, what's the kind of society where people are most likely to get this thing, that they most need? For a start, it's pretty clear that when you love someone you don't let them starve. . Of course, just as Mill favored some kinds of happiness over others, there are some things that people call love that I would deeply reject rather than attempting to support.

Also, for Makayla, I think an impatient kid can just turn into a patient adult. . . after all, an impatient adult can turn into a patient adult. :)

mlh said...

I love Mill. So much. I really, really love that man; it's kind of awkward.