Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Unified Theory of Happiness - Part Four

Several years ago I had a terrible flu, the sickest I remember being. Lying in bed, I was so drenched in sweat I'd have to change the sheets every few hours, a monumental task I'd accomplish in a reeling delirium before collapsing back into near-paralytic exhaustion. The room took on an evil, haunted atmosphere, the ticks of the walls, the dripping of rain on the sill echoing uncannily, as through some vampiric forest. On the third day I managed to bundle myself into my car and drive, chattering teeth, bones aching like an old man, to the doctor's surgery. Antibiotic prescription in hand, I then went to the pharmacy next door and sat on a chair under a searingly hot floodlight to wait for my pills. As I sat there, a terrible feeling began to grow inside me. I couldn't say what it was, just that something was awfully wrong, and something bad was about to happen. I suddenly desperately needed to remove the coat I was wearing, but as I sat forward to take it off, I heard a sound from behind me like an onrushing train, and then...

Darkness. But in the darkness, a light. I don't know what, where, who I am, but I can see that light, a perfect star of such purity, such utter bliss that words cannot describe it. And I realize: the light is me. I am that light. And that's all I am, pure and whole and free. I don't know how long this lasts. Seconds, an eternity.

Then something is changing, a tide is pulling me back into a murk of strange sensations that slowly resolve into me - the all-too physical me - lying face down on the pharmacy floor, a puddle of blood forming drip by drip from where my nose has hit the deck at full velocity. And some woman in a grey coat whom I will never forget looking down at me with a smirk on her face. I close my eyes again and wish myself back to that star, though of course it's gone for good.

Still, such an experience leaves an after-glow, a trace in the heart, and when the lovely nurse from the surgery next door came and picked me up and established my nose wasn't broken and looked after me until I was ready to face the freezing drizzle again to head back home to my cold, damp sick bed, I think she may have been slightly puzzled by my almost erotic radiance, a love and gratitude shining through the murk of my illness despite my attempts to simply be an obedient patient.

So far my Unified Theory of Happiness (I hope you've picked up the note of self-deprecating irony?), apart from spending most of its time straying egregiously from the topic at hand, has dealt with the notion of our 'set point', and how we simply normalize whatever circumstances we find ourselves in, thus giving the lie to the idea that more of what we want is the answer to satisfaction. The sublimely funny and insightful David Foster Wallace, writing about the failure of a luxury cruise to satisfy his wanting self, put it this way:

But the Infantile part of me is insatiable - in fact its whole essence or dasein or whatever lies in its a priori insatiability. In response to any environment of extraordinary gratification and pampering, the Insatiable Infant part of me will simply adjust its desires upward until it once again levels out at its homeostasis of terrible dissatisfaction. (A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, 1998, Back Bay Books, p. 317, fuck the Chicago Manual of Style or whatever).

So happiness, I never said explicitly, must at least partly consist in adjusting the satisfaction one experiences at the set point of normality, rather than trying to spin the treadmill of desire ever faster, chasing the next gratification, stuff the insatiable hole. Put like that, it's sort of obvious.

But there's still a question of where this happiness is to come from, once one accepts that this is it, that there's no greener pasture, no magical Tattslotto moment around the corner when All Will Be Well (and here I can cite the research showing that a) lottery winners are as happy one year after winning the lottery as they were before they won, and that b) paraplegics are as happy one year after the accident as they were before it (incredible but true, at least if the ABC is to be believed, and this being a slack-arse blog, I'm too lazy to go chasing the actual research). So you might as well wish for paraplegia as for a Tatts win, if happiness is what you're after). The answer, I'm going to argue is: it's there, it's in you. It's the light inside you that it sometimes takes a fainting spell while overheating with the flu to reveal.

Be yourself, and the happiness follows. Though it takes courage to be that self against the social currents that tell you to be otherwise. Tiziano Terzani called it a 'life in which one can recognize oneself' (in The End is My Beginning), a phrase that had a powerful resonance for me when I read that book on various borrowed couches in frozen Berlin last year. Perhaps it struck a chord because of a developmental quandary that quite possibly strikes many forty-ish people: with age you let go of the fierce fight to assert your identity, but in the same moment as you breathe a sigh of relief at giving up this taxing effort, a vague, at first unnameable unease rises in your gut, to ambush you at three a.m. with feelings of pointlessness, as if something of great value that you nevertheless can't pinpoint had quietly evaporated on you, and along with it, the memory of what it was. It comes down to this: if the precious you that you fought so hard for requires no such effort and was in fact an illusion then... what's left but more of the same and more of the same and so on and so on until death? It's so easy, with the comfort in one's skin that is the supposed pay-off of maturity, to settle into mere placidity and consign the real aliveness, the vital, raw awareness of being, to a bygone youth. Being yourself, it turns out, is a much more active, seeking thing than mere self-acceptance, as important as that is.

'A life in which you recognize yourself'. Yes indeed. Perhaps it's not possible to recognize oneself in every moment, but the focus to find and express the nature of who and what you are in itself inevitably brings forth this self and makes failure impossible. Give up on the extrinsics and devote yourself to the intrinsically joyous. It turns out to be the same for us all, I think: the people we love and the activities that make us feel most truly ourselves. It's amazingly liberating when you realize that you don't have to worry about the things you never really wanted to worry about anyway: how many Facebook friends you have, whether you're getting ahead, whether you're Missing Out somewhere.

Really, it's not string theory is it? The Unified Theory of Happiness is, like, pretty much derr when it comes down to it.

So I'm moving on to something more radical. The Unified Theory of Self, Part One! And this really is a unified theory. It's come to me out of nights lying awake at five a.m. (I'm a shocking insomniac - perhaps this blog is revealing why!), puzzling over a paradox that just won't let me go. My Unified Theory is the only solution I can find that makes any sense, despite its radicality, and I've therefore decided to inflict it upon you even though several factors militate against its publication: namely that it is difficult to understand (not to me, but apparently to others), possibly boring to read, and preposterous to common sense. Anyway, it all begins with a thought experiment I'm calling the Cryogenic Paradox...

No comments: