The happiness ceiling

According to Epicurus, we are happy when we feel pleasant sensations and are free from unpleasant ones


Farrukh Khan Pitafi September 24, 2022
The writer is an Islamabad-based TV journalist. He tweets @FarrukhKPitafi and can be reached at [email protected]

It is not the first time I have asked you to pay some attention to the metaphor of man’s expulsion from heaven. Nor will it be the last. What does it tell you? Here is Adam, with a blank slate, with a partner made for him, in the paradise of all places. And that is not enough. He tastes the forbidden fruit and is banished. To me, it reveals two things about man’s nature. Clerics will tell you something about good and evil, rebellious spirit, and sin. But that’s not it. Two attributes. Curious. And hard to please. I am interested in the latter because it is about the pursuit of happiness or lack thereof.

How many times have you been asked this? Are you happy? I bet loads of times. And every time you replied, there were two versions—one on your lips, another in your heart. The lips say yes, the heart says, who the hell do you think you are kidding? Don’t worry. You are not alone. In my modestly long life, I did not meet anybody who was truly happy.

In Homo Deus, Yuval Harari writes: “The glass ceiling of happiness is held in place by two stout pillars, one psychological, the other biological. On the psychological level, happiness depends on expectations rather than objective conditions. We don’t become satisfied by leading a peaceful and prosperous existence. Rather, we become satisfied when reality matches our expectations. The bad news is that as conditions improve, expectations balloon. Dramatic improvements in conditions, as humankind has experienced in recent decades, translate into greater expectations rather than greater contentment. If we don’t do something about this, our future achievements too might leave us as dissatisfied as ever.

On the biological level, both our expectations and our happiness are determined by our biochemistry, rather than by our economic, social or political situation. According to Epicurus, we are happy when we feel pleasant sensations and are free from unpleasant ones. Jeremy Bentham similarly maintained that nature gave dominion over man to two masters — pleasure and pain — and they alone determine everything we do, say and think. Bentham’s successor, John Stuart Mill, explained that happiness is nothing but pleasure and freedom from pain, and that beyond pleasure and pain there is no good and no evil. Anyone who tries to deduce good and evil from something else (such as the word of God, or the national interest) is fooling you, and perhaps fooling himself too.”

The world has created an escape from the tyranny of psychology and biochemistry. Why do you think video games and streaming services today, television yesterday, and books before that are/were so addictive? And regarding biochemistry, all this reliance on happiness or anti-depression pills and pot. All this talk of legalising marijuana owes itself to this craving for an escape.

But here is the thing. I brought up Adam for a reason. The first human being, living comfortably in a perfect world tailored for his convenience and yet bored by the monotony. If this is human nature, surely our generation cannot be the first one to be so miserable. Why do we get the impression from the literature that the previous generations have left behind that they were neither so whiny nor miserable? Pretense? Keeping up appearances? Hypocrisy? Or lack of self-awareness? It is hard to say.

There is another explanation. In the olden times, there were fewer of us and more resources. Therefore could people stay happy? Not quite. Call it villagecore, cottagecore, or rusticcore; this hankering for an imagined past and related aesthetics cannot obscure the fact that in the past nature was severe, life expectancy very low, and the distribution of wealth just as unequal. Every golden human memory is an airbrushed version of the truth. If you were in that past, you would run out of airbrushes but not hideous truths.

There is a quaint little TV series called HAPPYish. It is a 10-episode story of a family that should have been happy. Husband in his 40s, working as a senior executive in the advertising industry, who thinks he can be a good novelist. A painter wife who can’t seem to find a break from parenting, and a minor son who is bullied at school yet accused of bullying. Our gentleman seeks to switch jobs because he thinks he is unhappy there. The headhunter he talks to and is secretly dating our man’s boss tells him that no job will make him happy. Why? Because of the happiness ceiling. Because every person has a limited capacity to be happy, when this capacity is reached, there is no way to make them happier. I must say I had never thought on these lines before watching this episode. You grow up thinking that life somehow owes you something. That, if you keep walking, somewhere across your journey, you will find that miracle called a happy life. But you don’t. You attribute a lot of unhappiness to the absence of things, people or experiences. But if you get them, the novelty runs out swiftly, and you soon stop being happy again. Normalcy resumed. So what is normal? Your grouchy self.

Even though life brought you into this world without consulting you and will drag you out of it without your consent, it doesn’t owe you anything. That is probably why it is such a useful magnet deployed by the corporate world. Keep telling people that if they buy your prestigious stuff, they will be happy. But they never are. The above show then quotes an inscription on Lululemon bags: “The pursuit of happiness is the source of all unhappiness.” And then a US general cites the military wisdom: “Embrace the suck.”

So what is the way forward? Stop trying to be happy? Give up? No. Just stop making yourself unhappy by telling yourself you need to be happy. Stop unrealistic expectations.

I learned at a young age that making others happy makes me happy. But not everyone wants to give you satisfaction by acknowledging you made them happy. And you run the risk of becoming, what the writers of the American series Good Place call, a happiness pump. Someone who hurts their own self to make others happy. Don’t be like that.

Just be yourself. Make peace with life, do your best, and keep going. Along with the broader unhappy existence, life may occasionally bring you rare happy moments that may make it worth your while. It brings to mind an Oscar-winning movie called La vita è bella or Life is Beautiful. Internet says this about the film: “A Jewish father and his family are surrounded by Nazi death camps. Living in a hostile environment, he uses humor to shield his young son from the grim realities of war.” Watch it. You will get what I mean.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 24th, 2022.

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