Monday, June 26, 2006

Not happiness

I'm not entirely sure how to verbalize what happiness is. But I'll tell you what I think it isn't.

I don't care for the aphorism, "ignorance is bliss." I think curiosity is a virtue and knowledge is nearly always a good thing. Perhaps a more apt saying would be "blissful ignorance is just unhappiness saved for later."

One day in clinic I was discussing smoking with a middle-aged lady. She was convinced that because her aunt who had been smoking like a chimney for decades had never had any problem with her lungs and was healthy into her 90's, the warnings about smoking were overblown and inaccurate. Her personal experience and perceptions of what was true and what made her happy led her to continue behaving in a manner that was likely to result in debilitating disease, suffering, and eventual death. Like many people, she couldn't quite understand the idea of relative risk--the idea that there's no black and white correlation between risky behaviors and bad health outcomes. She's like the compulsive gambler who fails to see the high probability of financial ruin because he's so focused on the real possibility, however infinitesimal, that he'll strike it rich. She's a sweet, ignorant fool playing the odds. Nice lady, don't get me wrong. But blissfully ignorant. Stubbornly so.

And this is not happiness. Pleasant, most likely, but not the kind of happiness anyone should be shooting for.

I was told as a child that you can't buy happiness. And I think I've had enough experiences now as an adult to demonstrate to myself the truth of that sentiment. I've had meals that cost over $100, I've traveled, I've spent a fair amount of time with friends taking in the nightlife. And it's all a lot of fun, but ultimately a bit disappointing. Or rather, ultimately a bit pointless. It's the version of happiness that prompts skepticism at the metaphor of heaven as a cherub sitting on a cloud playing a harp and eating grapes. Sure, you can paint the scenario as beautifully as you want, but what the hell is the point?

I can imagine a life for myself in which I find ultimate sexual fulfillment for many years. I can imagine a life in which I am remarkably wealthy and powerful. I can imagine that this life is achievable for a person of my personal qualities. But, again, what the hell is the point? When the libido wanes, the mind is less sharp, and arthritis sets in, that brand of "happiness" will be over. I don't think such a life could necessarily be described as happy regardless of how genuinely great it would be. And that's why I'm trying my best to choose a principled life instead. I'll live off of an average salary and find worthy uses for anything we earn over that. I'll raise a family and give them everything I can. I'll try to heal people and ease their suffering. And, to the extent I do these things not to find happiness, but because they are what's right, I think I'll be happy.


Foxx said...

If ignorance is bliss and knowledge is power, how much do we have to know to be happy? I mean, we can't know everything.

Enough with the cliche already, Foxx!

Chris (hurricane) said...

I agree with you that principled living provides the best opportunity for happiness and fulfillment.

Elbow said...

That was a beautiful post. Very wise and very inspiring.

-L- said...

Foxx, I'm totally with you. I think my thoughts here were under-developed. I'm leaning more toward attitudes toward our knowledge, not the raw amount of it we have. If we always acknowledge that we want more and that we may find it in unlikely places, we've got a good jump start on happiness.

Just be wise like Socrates. That's all I'm sayin'. :-)