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Friday, July 6, 2012

Absolute versus Relative Happiness

Now that  A Thousand and One Stories of Pericón de Cádiz has been published, Bow and I are free to pursue other projects. We also have been allowing ourselves more time just to savor the moment and enjoy life. Are we happy? Mostly. Could it get even better? Probably.

 The issue of happiness brings out different philosophies. Some say that happiness is a state of mind, and that we are responsible for our own happiness, because we could just choose to be happy no matter what the circumstances. I don't belong to that school of thought. I believe our feelings are spontaneous responses to the circumstances, and that it's a good thing that we are unhappy when something bad happens to us, because how else will we change a situation, if we have nothing to spur us on to action?

We are responsible for our actions. If we are unhappy but do nothing about it, then our continued unhappiness may very well be our fault. But it's good that we are not capable of being ecstatically happy under less than optimal conditions. Can you imagine how helpful it would be to tyrants if every citizen could simply choose to be happy, no matter what others did to him? Some of these ideas are touched upon in my novel, Vacuum County. Verity does not "adjust well" to being a prisoner, and her unhappiness is what enables her to eventually find a way  to fight the tyranny she has been subjected to.

What about Bow? Is he happy? Most of the time, I think he is. But is he absolutely, one hundred percent ecstatic every moment of the day? Hardly. Do you know anybody who is? Other than drugged zombies, I don't think anybody can be consistently happy  every moment of the day. If they tell you that they are, I would be highly suspicious.

The other day, someone left a comment on my Youtube channel asking: "Is Bow is as happy in his current life as an average chimp of his same age who lives in the wild ? Why or why not ?"

I replied: "Is any person qualified to make absolute statements about another person's happiness? Or relative statements about the happiness of one person in one situation as opposed to another, in another situation? Bow is happy. He enjoys his life very much. This is not to say that it could not be even better with chimpanzee companions. I'm sure it would be, but we're still working on that. Let me ask: Are you as happy in industrialized society as an aboriginal human in the wild? Hard to say, right?" The person came back today with this comment:
"No, it's not at all hard for me to say that, IMO, I'm NOT as happy as an aboriginal human in the wild.And yes, there ARE people qualified to objectively assess a person's -- or an animal's -- level of well-being, based on observable physical and behavioral indications.
The point of my question was merely to get your objective assessment of Bow's well-being without any defensiveness, but it failed."

Even if we ignore for a moment the sudden slippage in terminology from "happiness" to  "well-being", I find the tenor and purport of the statement to be strange. Is this person so certain that a primitive lifestyle would bring him more happiness? If so, why not pursue it?

My response, rather than being defensive, had been open and vulnerable. I've often wondered what it would be like to live as a hunter-gatherer, and while I recognize that there are many things about that lifestyle that are more suitable to humans than the one most of us live under, I also know that my ancestors dropped that lifestyle many, many generations ago, and that I would in all likelihood have succumbed to infant mortality if I had been exposed to the hardships of that life.

But there is more to my doubt than that. Even if I were sufficiently fit to survive, would I enjoy a life  like that? As a woman, would I accept my assigned role? Would I like not having a choice?

And, of course, if you start to think about it from the point of view of someone who never had a choice, you see that the question is kind of moot. How could we ever compare the happiness of one person to that of another? If we become the other person, wouldn't it be impossible to remember what it had been like to be us? I can't even tell if the neighbors are as happy as I am. I cannot say if I would have been happier if I had been living their lives all these years.

For someone to be certain about someone else's emotional state implies that this person is either omniscient, or that he is so arrogant that he cannot imagine the variables involved.

Well, what about Bow? I could just ask him: "Hey, Bow, are you happy? Would you be happier under different conditions? Would you rather live in the wild?" But we probably would not get a straight answer. And even if he did answer honestly, how would he know?

I can tell you this: a few years ago, when Bow was about eight, he once got very mad at me and said: "I don't like you. I'm going to Africa."

I felt a little hurt, but I ignored the part about not liking me and asked instead: "Why are you going to Africa?"

"Because you won't give me chocolate," he spelled.


  1. I think it is constructive if an individual is not happy with their own choices in life, and to change things so better outcomes will result. One analogy could be if a person is eating a lot of junk food and complains about being overweight since he does not exercise. Well, if a person continues to not exercise and eats lots of junk food, he really only has himself to blame for the situation.

    I like the part about where you were pondering whether you would enjoy a hunter and gatherer lifestyle, and I thought about that a few times when I went out to the metate rocks where the Serrano Indians had a fall camp and ground acorns. Some of my ancestors were Kansa Indians in the not so distant past, and I have always thought I would like the idea of spending 24/7 in nature, etc. I mean I grew up in the mountains and I might miss the Internet, so it is not so far of a stretch. Then again I like some modern things too, so I do not know how to say it. I would hate having to always be wary of bears and other large creatures, so I think about that too.

    I really do not think anyone is qualified to say whether Bow is happy except for Bow. I am not sure how anyone ever feels it is their place to determine whether another individual is happy or not, and I think such a comment borders on arrogance, or maybe boredom. People who are content with their lives do not roam the Internet looking for negative comments to make about others.

    I have also seen on YouTube people like to comment on how different animals live. Some lady had a bird and a cat who got along, and a commentator told her how mean it was to the bird because he did not have a companion. How would the bird know any better since he grew up with the cat? If a person has only known one life, who is to say they want a life they do not know about. I think it is up to each individual to determine if they are happy or not, and the most spunky among us usually fight for what they want in the end.

  2. Thanks, Julia, for your thoughtful comment.

    It's certainly up to us to change those things about our lives that we don't like, to the extent that we can. In your example of the person who does not exercise and eats junk food and is overweight, he may actually try to change his lifestyle, but unless he discovers something about his own metabolism and the sorts of foods that foster his current state, he may never get out of that cycle. Not exercising can be as much caused by being overweight as the cause of it. Not everything labeled junk food is bad for us. Not everything labeled "healthy" is good. Learning to think for ourselves about nutrition is the first step to changing a situation we do not like.

    I like the idea of how you visit the Serrano fall camp and meditate on the life of some of your ancestors. Being in nature sounds good; I would be more afraid of other humans encroaching on my lands than of bears, though.

    Thanks for your supportive comments. Bow is the one who knows the most about his state of happiness, and he will have input into what he does when he grows up, because after all, he has language and he can speak for himself.

    Even so, none of us really know what something will be like until we actually experience it.

    1. I do worry about humans ruin that place, too. For instance, a lot of the beautiful boulders out of Joshua tree have graffiti, and some of it is from the 1860's when people were coming out to California on horse and buggy. Of course there are other issues as well, such as people not being allowed to pitch a tent anywhere they like without a permit. Some nomad types were recently talking about online how they are not able to just travel and camp anywhere they like anymore like in years past. I think people should be allowed to do this, but other humans have their minds against that.

      When I am thinking about nutrition, I am think people who hit the drive through like every day and eat mass quantities of donuts and soda, and that is definitely not good. I do not have a problem with sweets in moderation, but with the rise of diabetes and the driving culture I see more and more predominate out here, I am seeing two extremes, one group of people who worship the gym, and others who eat fast food 24/7. There is a balance for some, but the polar opposites seem really disconcerting.

  3. Julia, I think the nomadic life should still be allowed on public lands, so long as there is such a thing as public land. Otherwise, what is it there for? I'm not against progress, but there ought to be a choice between the old life styles and the new.

    1. I would not advocate camping on private land, but people are not allowed to camp on national forest land with permits, and why? Because they might get caught out in the middle of nowhere? I think they already made that choice to be out there, so it was their choice with the consequences. Also, when they closed a dirt road that was a bit dangerous for driving, well only thrill seekers and those who did not have vertigo drove down that thing. They could have just put a sign saying you risk your safety driving down this road, but instead they closed it off.