🪟 14 - The pursuit of emptiness (happiness)
Frame & Axiom #14
Table of contents
The pursuit of emptiness (happiness)
Happiness. I wish to now address this popular ideal that is commonly the end of success, of freedom, of love, et cetera. Do many not work incessantly towards these things so that they might become happy? It is not uncommon to come across one who posits happiness as the ultimate ideal in this manner, to which all of life’s activities are aimed. To what end? To be happy. But is it worthy of its pedestal?
🪟 14 - The pursuit of emptiness (happiness)
The Ouroboros / Uroboros and Sisyphus by pakowacz (Source)
Like many overused words, happiness has many meanings, but above all, it is an emotional state characterised by positive feelings of satisfaction. It is this emotional state that fulfils us in our developmental years, as children do find joy in objects and experiences that are enjoyable, novel or a combination of both. I recall the joy I felt whenever my parents surprised me with toy cars or some local sweets I was fond of. Without it in my control, these special moments of attainment, or reward, shaped what I desired.
But the error of framing lies when we carry over this tendency, unknowingly, to our adult years. We find ourselves in full control of our decisions (purchasing decisions included) but retain the same infantile tendencies, even as the novelties of experience and objects begin to wear themselves out.
If happiness is an emotional state, it is a physiological phenomenon. Physiological forces are beyond our control. Is it not the case that we often feel happy when we least expect it? The mind cannot will itself to happiness. Even if we invented a substance that could alter such things, to what extent should the dial be set? When is one sufficiently happy? Clearly, the desirability of a state of mind is characterised by its rarity. It is difficult to imagine that one could prolong the emotional state of happiness for all time, and still enjoy it. Therefore, our hope for happiness depends on what is called chance: the chance that our physiology might line up in a way that those associated with happiness predominate. As soon as we are able to, we pursue experiences and objects that may affect it.
But there is a simple paradox pertaining to this. A man might attain his long-held desire, say, a mistress or a social status, and turn out unsuspectingly to be more miserable. My own experience of life has taught me that there lies a gap of contentment between attainment and desire, favouring the latter. There is a peculiar form of happiness that lies in an active desire — in the scaling of a mountain towards a certain ideal (certainly, for those whose most basic needs are already met). It is a long-form kind of happiness, that does not feel quite the same as the happiness we idealise as children. And when we do attain something that was desired, anyway, the gift of happiness that may follow it is real... but disappointingly short-lived. It is a good thing to feel happy, but is it wise to uphold it as an ultimate ideal? Is such ephemerality, not even guaranteed, what we really want life and our loftiest endeavours directed towards?
Now, I do not mean to say that happiness is merely one of the many youthful obscurations that need to be done away with. It is more that I believe we do not mean what we mean when we employ such a term. We do not really desire what we think we desire. It is merely the case that we do not learn how to outgrow this tendency, hence we personally and collectively keep this ideal of happiness alive in our ways of living. Happiness is an infantile language, turned into conformist language. It is one of those popular ideas which too many refer to without understanding. Such doctrines deserve the treatment of relinquishment to ordinary language. That is my goal in writing this.
Here is a common expression: “money cannot buy happiness”. To this we may allocate a slight nod, thinking, this is obvious. We often consciously reject the notion that happiness is divorced from our purchasing decisions, and that it either has to be found elsewhere or not at all. But that is only what we think we think, for it continues to remain a presupposition. Implicit in all activities of the marketplace is this: happiness can be bought. No, not just that. Happiness must be bought. The spirit we live by is one of always wanting, always gratifying, never being content. It is the figure of perpetual imbalance, enunciated.
Our ill-interpreted human capacity for happiness has become a hill to climb for opportunists, a small number for their own gain. But here I wish to be clear: they do not do it out of greed, even less out of malice. They do so because they themselves have been fooled by the doctrine they unconsciously uphold. As if happiness will be final by attaining any object or status! To that respect, the doctrine of happiness is not merely infantile or conformist, but as Žižek calls it, unethical.
Happiness as we know it is an error of framing, an ineffective judgement of value, necessitated by the prevailing ideology. Like any civilisation, the Western ideology values certain things more than others. While that has led it to countless spellbinding achievements, in doing so, its adherents are led down a spiral of emptiness. A woman buys, then sells, in order that she might buy more... all to the end of happiness. Certainly, the consequence of radical freedom, disconnected from a higher ideal, is that we default demandingly toward our childish ideals.
More often than not, it pays to strip life back to its simplest assets: what Nature has already endowed. I think the Orientals excel in this regard. Their appreciation for beauty imparted by the purity of nature and the passage of time over the glossy, perfect and illusory beauty of the Westerners means they are more effectively oriented when it comes to the appreciation of life itself. (Truly we are beings defined by our value judgements!)
To restlessly pursue happiness is to reject the current state of self and of life. It is to chase the thrills of mere glimmer and sparkle, and indulge the eternal need for something other than what is. Happiness... the pleasure of attaining or realising a desire... except something is always desired! The irony is that in the eternal pursuit of happiness, we find ourselves eternally unhappy. This is because such things are not just ephemeral and unreliable, but so often trivial, for happiness is also a close relative of Envy. A woman desires what her neighbours desire and keeps her current state comparable, preferably dominant, to them. One’s peace of mind should not be reliant on such things. They are fleeting, for our numbness to every new normality always catches up, and prove ultimately empty.
The doctrine of happiness requires the rejection of self. It is the worldview lurking behind the expressions if only I was... if only I had... I would be happy. It is an illusion that we are conditioned into by the marketplace (and just about every piece of media) as soon as we were able to perceive and want a thing! We are not taught how to contend with our desires as we mature. The reality is that we do not know what we want (and let alone need). It is when our lust for attainment shows itself to be insatiable, that we find ourselves either radicalised to that end, or disillusioned and in need of something higher. I shall address the latter category, for that corresponds to my own experience.
What we are searching for is not happiness as we tend to speak of it. It is rather a peculiar form of happiness that is evergreen... but then that cannot really be classified as happiness at all, for there is no such thing as a long-lasting emotional state. I think it is something more like ultimate contentment. It is something beyond emotional states. That which is long-lasting must be that which grounds emotion instead of participating in it.
Where one will find such contentment is very rarely where the language of happiness is employed. I am now going to contrast the happiness doctrine to another extreme. My hope in doing so is that an area of balance might become apparent.
Diogenes, the archetypal Cynic from the Roman era, famously lived by the opposite of such doctrines. The Cynics, adherents of the Hellenistic philosophy of Cynicism, aimed towards happiness by way of living in accord with Nature (as understood by reason), that is self-sufficient and divorced from the vicissitudes of life. They upheld the ascetic ideal: that one flourishes through ascetic practices that make one free from influences such as wealth, fame and power that have no value in Nature. Thus, the Cynic rejects the conventional values, living only by bare necessities. Diogenes himself practised this to the extreme, living in an empty wine cask and without owning so much as a staff and an old cloak (which characterised the Cynics), a cup (which he famously threw away after seeing a boy drinking water from his hands and eating food off a piece of bread, exclaiming “this child has beaten me in simplicity”), and other necessities — living by the charity of others. As the Stoic Epictetus later wrote of him: “How is it possible that a man who has nothing, who is naked, houseless, without a hearth, squalid, without a slave, without a city, can pass a life that flows easily? See, God has sent you a man to show you that it is possible.” As Epictetus also writes, the ideal person ought to be "sick and yet happy, in peril and yet happy, dying and yet happy, in exile and happy, in disgrace and happy”.
To be more happy with less, instead of more. What kind of irrational happiness is this? Yet, one should intuitively see that there is wisdom in these propositions. Now, I am not necessarily advocating the anti-material life of a Cynic, although I certainly admire its spirit. I would advocate for an area of balance 1: between indifference to trivialities and the pursuit of things that prove just in the ultimate test of time.
To deny our lust for happiness in favour of one that is evergreen is to unravel the treasure trove that Nature herself has endowed, which is accessible to all, if only it was not outshined by the youthful illusions of the marketplace. It is the case that the aims of human life, as enlightened by the ultimate test of time, are often achieved simply by more introspection and appreciation, than by the perpetual pursuit of more. An attitude of indifference ought to be allocated towards things that are undeserving of ultimate concern. Our desire for more, the pursuit of emptiness, is one of those things. A man who has outgrown his childhood must learn to accept his current states in totality — that includes his longing.
Modern man wants perpetually more than he already has and many times more than nature has already endowed him. The main problem is not that man hardly finds himself happy, but that he finds himself enslaved to it, in a passionate but immature pursuit of that which glimmers and shines — never paying heed to what he has been given, only what he has yet to attain. Yes, we ought to be contented, for it is only in contentment that we can accept life, and all things, in totality. It is only in contentment that we find ourselves firmly grounded, and not unsuspecting puppets of doctrinal ideals. Where we will find such contentment is in the appreciation of what we have already been given, but even more so in the appreciation of our longing — the eternal divide between us and our greatest ideals!
The doctrine says: Every person has a right to be happy. Happiness will pass when there no longer lies any such divide. A life of a struggle to bear, a hill to climb, a rock to carry... is contentment as reliable as we know it. But we must first learn to see it that way, for such contentment awaits like a treasure trove to be dug up. It is even the case that greater struggle corresponds to greater happiness. St. Paul writes in a letter to the Church of Corinthians: “Our hearts ache, but we always have joy. ... We own nothing, and yet we have everything”. Therefore, our buildup of immunity to the vicissitudes of life is in order. Perhaps the doctrine is better reframed in this manner: Every person has a right to struggle.
As Žižek writes: “the only life of deep satisfaction is a life of eternal struggle, especially struggle with oneself”. Perhaps we ought to switch around another narrative, and go from the pursuit of happiness to the happiness of pursuit.
One who finds such contentment no longer pursues happiness, for a desirable state has been grounded by something more reliable. The ultimately contented cease to pursue happiness, for there is nothing that they desire to the point of dependence. They let happiness pursue them instead. Happiness evades those who pursue it anyway! And what do they bring their attention to? Their highest ideals. Why pursue the emptiness of attainment when you can pursue the adventure of living? Scaling the highest mountain, experiencing profound music, creating a work of art: these things are not happy. No, they are better than it. Where one will find ultimate contentment is very rarely where the language of happiness is employed, for that is too shallow for it. Instead, such contentment can be found where the language of profoundness, depth and meaning is employed, for that is precisely what it offers.
There is wisdom in grounding the emotions, tumultuous as they are, on something more reliable. It is important to build our houses on solid ground. Earlier I had posed the question: Happiness... to what extent? My answer is this: contentment to the extent that Nature has already endowed us, then in pursuits to the extent that lies within our locus of control. Anything that lies outside our locus of control, similarly dependent on chance, warrants indifference and ought to be no more than a signal for that which lies within it. We may endeavour with heart to be happier, to create a freer world, to attain success, to find love... and we must be contented with the climb itself. The outcomes that follow are not worthy of ultimate concern, if we want to remain masters of our own destiny.
Why should you lose sleep over an emotional by-product that you may or may not attain? You should sleep soundly because you already have what you need. You must be content with Nature’s endowment, first of all, and then with your greatest pursuit. There is a paintbrush that you hold in your hands. Use it to paint the strokes your soul compels you to, towards your vision of the ideal. Within you, there is a purity and rigour that you can exert on the canvas of reality. Right at the door of such a mission, not ahead of, but right there, you will be met with a wealth of profundity, depth and meaning: that is happiness as sweet as we can find it. Let everything else happen without the expense of your concern.
Till next time,
Side note: As I like to recount in my self-talk: Ask not whether you are happy. Ask whether you are content. Is your life one that you wish to relive, and not just a series of moments, but life in its entirety? If yes, take pleasure in it and make the most out of it. If not, why? You must see your existence and the world in a new light, so that you will find beauty in existence. Nothing is worth missing out on life’s beauty.
It can be argued that the Cynics had themselves idealised their own philosophy of living, and made it their greatest pursuit. Certainly, Diogenes has become (quite literally) a monument to it!