Sunday, 31 May 2015

The Perplexing Conundrum of Two Happinesses

It's been a while. I haven't had much enthusiasm for writing. I haven't much to say, I suppose, though this has been a tumultuous time in my life. I can't even really remember why I used to write here. except...
Sometimes I write in my van. In the woods, in the rain. I don't really know why.

It always seemed that use of words, in careful and considered combination kept the paths from being overgrown in my mind. To wander along them once in a while in order to reprise and express some thought that had popped into existence earlier is to to keep them open and accessible in order to get to other places of interest. The careful selection of words and phrases to explain exactly and precisely some indistinct meaning seems to be a very helpful analytical process to get at what I am actually feeling.

Life is a bit weird at the moment. I think I can safely say that here, since nobody really comes here much. But I think the key feature of this strange virtual "place" is that someone could. That these words might be read by someone else instills in me a discipline to ensure they are cogent and consistent.

Not that there is necessarily anything of value to read in these words. Just that life is stranger at the moment than it perhaps ever has been, except perhaps when I was in the depths of cognitive incoherence and it was an overwhelming challenge to discern a potato from a banana at the greengrocers.

Well, yes. It is a strange world I inhabit at the moment. All old certainties seem swept away by time's broom, out of the front door with one decisive swish of the bristles to be caught by the wind and scattered into myriad unrecoverable motes, never to be gathered and reconstructed again. No, a new reality lies before me now and I am both terrified and exhilarated by it. But mostly terrified if I am honest.

Enough of the cryptic. As a result of events, I find myself carefully regarding the notion of "happiness" and thinking how unhelpful the term is as a concept. It is not really one idea, but several, the most prominent of which are (and I shamelessly plagiarise Daniel Kahneman for this, since this is where the idea seems to originate) immediate or experiential happiness, which provides us joy in any particular moment, and "life satisfaction" as perhaps we might term it. This latter is what you feel when you regard your life in general terms and what you feel when you examine what you find. This type of "happiness" is enhanced by having goals and achieving, or even working towards them.

The two appear distinct, possibly even disconnected. And the question as to whether they affect each other is moot. I really couldn't say, though I feel somehow the aggregated experience of moment to moment pleasure must surely have a bearing on how satisfied you are with your life in general. And perhaps the ability to experience immediate joy might also be influenced by how comfortable you are in general with your place in the universe.

According to the research, Prof K says, in America, $70,000 is the point at which you stop being measurably miserable. I think this is the best way to term is since we have surmised that to say "become happy" is an ambiguous statement which does not distinguish between the two types of happiness.
Below this figure, life will usually be unsatisfactory. Does this undermine the pleasure of a sunset or a simple piece of crusty bread with butter and jam? Personally I don't think so, though if you are worrying about how to pay for the bread, perhaps. I find it cheaper and more satisfying to make it. That adds to both types of happiness as I get to eat really good bread and also to carry around with me the knowledge and experience to make it repeatably, which makes me feel like I carry something of value all the time I exist.

My famed Chelsea Buns and olive and sundried tomato sourdough. Which is never sour.
I am not sure how to look at the value of each of these two feelings. Life satisfaction must surely be the measure you use when you get near the end of your life and appraise all that you have achieved. How about "all that you have experienced"? Does a succession of happy times make you overall more satisfied with your life? And in which category does looking at thriving descendents in whose development you had a significant hand? Do the rope swings in the woods and subsequent delightful giggling of your children count as an immediate emotional happiness or a component of life satisfaction?

"What are you wittering on about, man!" I fail to hear you exclaim. "Surely it's just a mood thing? You feel happy or you feel sad! Or something in between!" Well, no. I have been thinking about it and I have conclued that it is definitely significantly more complicated than that. As does the esteemed Professor Kahnemann, and many others.

Only.. it is at this point I get a bit confused and have to throw this question out to you. It is a pertinent question: Are we well advised to sacrifice some of what we feel to be life satisfaction for the opportunity to engage in more experiences? Or vice versa? Will it be worth the trade-off? Or will the dread of regret assail us for ever more? Is the fear of regret at potential losses of life satisfaction worth a life of unfulfilled longing for moments of emotional pleasure?

I started writing this in an attempt to explain something to myself: To clarify the factors involved in some of the decisions I have recently made. These are big decisions. Subsequently I am not sure about how my life satisfaction has been potentially diminished in the long term, though admittedly the short term enjoyment of good times with friends has definitely been most incrementally joyful.
I am no closer to an understanding of what there is to be gained by any potential sacrifice.I only know that, for me, the key to both immediate and long term happiness is people; Access to people, interaction with people, connection with people. In this respect, I feel my decision has unquestionably served its purpose.
I think I have arrived at a conclusion of sorts (via several red-herrings perhaps). Albeit, as all conclusions should be, a provisional one: I have to go with the situation where there is a greater opportunity to interact with people. This is clear.

So thank you once again, words. You lead me to a place of, if not clarity (which I feel is always to be distrusted anyway) then at least calm and comfort. Though not necessarily of enlightenment. Maybe  I will, like this fellow, end up where I started, wiser and perhaps happier. Whatever that means.
Seen on a local coffee shop wall and encapsulating a thought I find simultaneous both comforting and disturbing.


Kay G. said...

My, I am from America and I am nowhere near that $70,000...I guess I can kiss happiness goodbye!
From your writing, I am reminded of this: "Give us this day, our daily bread" and
"In the beginning was the Word".
I hesitate to type this thinking you might think I am preaching. I am not, just telling you what came to me.
Just as I told you about Patricia Neal and Roald Dahl after your illness!
I would say to you that I, for one, am most impressed by your brain and your writing skill. You will say to yourself...the way you write, lady, you SHOULD be! HA! Keep laughing, I say and show kindness to all...that is the best way. THE way.
Love & Peace,

PerlNumquist said...

Thank you, Kay. I know you are not preaching :-) These are phrases which exist in the popular lexicon and, to me at least, do not allude particularly to their biblical sources. Your writing leaves nothing to berate yourself for! And specifically (and this is my measure) if the act of writing provides what YOU want, then what other judgement is there? I am not really closer to peace after writing and love is a confusing concept at the moment. But thank you for wishing them. I hope we can all move closer to both :-)

Librarian said...

Two happinesses? I've never really thought about it that way. Small things (like a sunny day) can make me just as happy as big things, while other things contribute to my overall happiness but in themselves don't make me happy "as such".
For example, I now have more money than ever before in my life. My financial situation has been rather precarious for many years, but I was used to it and it did not make me unhappy. Now that I don't have to think twice about going out for a meal with friends, or if I can not decide between two pairs of shoes I like, I simply get both - well, that does of course make me happy. But it is more the sense of not having to worry much, just in case something big and bad would happen, like some major repair at the house, or losing my job. Therefore, I definitely can not relate to fixing one's happiness to a number expressed in monetary terms.

Yes, life and love can be very weird and complicated at times. But not necessarily unhappy, right?
Glad you are writing again, and those loaves of bread look so delicious, I can almost smell them!