After work today, the temperature was right and I had an errand to run, so I walked about a half hour from the office to Dufferin Mall. I’ve been thinking a bit lately about music and how to make it, so I cranked one of my favourite mashups and counted bars to try to get a feel for how the pieces were structured. It made for a great study; because the mashup had a variety of sources (though largely within electronica), there were a range of speeds, rhythms, and styles for me to try to get the feel of. The mix wrapped up pretty much perfectly as I arrived at the mall.
As I walked up to the mall, switching gears from headspace to the real-world, I thought a bit about awareness, and it brought my mind to a friend’s book I’m reading about the simple concepts behind buddhism. I got into a very thoughtful, appreciative mood while I walked around the mall, trying to be calm and just to see. I watched people buy, and argue, and examine things – something notable was that I only saw two people smile the entire time I was in the mall. I also saw a little girl get very excited about one of those car-machine-rides that’s always outside of zellers/wal-mart/toys-r-us sort of places, but I didn’t actually see her smile.
On my way back from the mall, I noticed a little elderly asian woman jog-walking down the other side of the street, a man who looked very quietly angry, and a bunch of other things. I tried to keep my attitude of observation with me. Coming to the corner of Dufferin and Bloor, I sat down on a bench near the church entrance, and while I did my best just to see the world, my mind took note and waxed reflective. I began to think about the nature of happiness and how it relates to life goals and situations. The words of Solomon were in my mind — also echoed in the simple buddhist book — that even if a person manages to possess all that they wish for, they will leave it behind when they die. My feet got restless, so I turned on a tune and strolled west along Bloor.
I eventually walked past a sign that read “Samosa – 3/$1” and also advertised Dosas. I like these things, and I was still fairly hungry, but I wasn’t done thinking yet. The store that the sign belonged to sat on a corner of a one-way street that exits onto Bloor, so I walked up the street a short ways and sat down to let the song finish and to try to collect my thoughts. This is roughly where I got to:
I thought of the following possible “descriptions” of how happiness could work, as a mechanism:
- There could be just a single sense of happiness, which is:
- independent of your actions / life’s situations
- fully dependent on your actions / life’s situations
- dependent on your actions / life’s situations to a point (positive, negative, or both)
- variably dependent on your actions / life’s situations
- There could also be two senses of happiness: a momentary, event-based happiness, and a rest-happiness felt in the absense of a direct event which affects your mood.
The variable-dependent and dependent-to-a-point situations are very similar. For the variable dependency, one’s happiness can be noticeably affected by an event or situation, but gradually, as one becomes happier and happier (or less and less happy), the effect of an event or situation is lessened. In the “to a point” situation, a situation or event has the same effect over and over again until a certain level is crossed, at which point the event no longer affects how happy a person is.
The fully dependent version would suggest that you could do the same thing over and over again (provided it won’t make you sick or via some other means start harming you — so eating, sleeping, etc don’t count as counterexamples — think instead of reading a joke) and it should continuously increase your level of happiness by the same amount, after every reading.
The fully independent version suggests that no matter what you do — whether you accomplish something, or lose something, or stay the same, you will remain exactly as happy as you are right now. I’ve noticed anecdotally that events do bring (at least temporary) bursts of happiness to me. So full independence does not seem to be a realistic situation, unless you add a second form of happiness: rest happiness. The happiness you have when there is no force acting upon you is what would be independent of events and situations, and it is posited to be essentially unchanging. It could likely be altered through prescription drugs or mental illness, but that’s outside of my desire to speculate upon 🙂
The fully dependent model from two paragraphs ago also didn’t sound very reasonable — so that leaves us with the variable model, the to-a-point model, and the two-happinesses model, and possibly mixes of these concepts.
Having narrowed down the field of possible mechanisms of happiness, I decided to think about the consequences of each of the remaining candidates, to see if I could rule anything else out or find that any categories were actually collapsible. I felt that they were! Essentially, the dependent and independent versions are what matter; I was unable to rule out either of them as a broad class in earlier thought experiments, so it’s worth considering as a whole what each might mean.
Happiness independent of situation or action means that a person could win the lottery and marry a perfect mate and raise perfect kids and accomplish all of their goals and be renowned and respected and essentially have all of their wishes granted, and yet be no happier on average than a person who lives in a waste matter sewer after breaking multiple limbs falling into it. It means that regardless of your actions, your desires will never be fulfilled.
Happiness dependent upon your situation (to at least some degree) means that your happiness is affected positively when good things happen and negatively by the bad. Winning the lottery should then make you extraordinarily happy in a lasting, fulfilling way, but this does not appear to be the case. After great personal victories, people seem to experience a short bout of happiness, which subsides. There appears to be a cooldown on happiness levels. This means that, to reach and keep a certain level of happiness, one must continuously find fulfilment and enjoyment — they will never reach a point where this need ceases.
Thus, both roads lead to the same place: no matter what a person does, they will never ‘feel complete’, or find true, lasting happiness by accomplishing a goal. That, I think, is one of the things worth seeing about buddhism: fulfilment, real happiness, and painless existence are not the idea. It appears that one must simply accept that they will never feel truly fulfilled in a lasting sense. Two corollaries arise: regardless of how great or crappy your life is, momentary happiness is available, and even if you can’t find permanent fulfilment, it is not beyond possibility that a person could flood their life with positive events to try to maintain a feeling of fulfilment. It would just be tiring and wasteful. It’s much the same as food — you can always eat it, but you’ll never be done. And you could probably find a way to eat it continuously, but it wouldn’t be a pleasant experience.
This felt like a worthy result to arrive at, and I found it surprisingly comforting. Seeking fulfilment is not utterly pointless, but it’s also not worth fretting over if I feel that I am not at my happiest at a given moment. Another story from the simple buddhism book came to mind: a man who felt he had many problems sat with buddha and listed each one of them out, then asked for buddha’s help. Buddha responded that he couldn’t help with the problems listed, but might be able to help with a different problem. The man asked which, and Buddha responded “that you think you must solve your problems”.
Having reached a good thought destination, I went in for some food — delicious and cheap, wow! $5 for a styrofoam container full of rice with 2 large splotches of different veggie curries on top, and $1 for 3 samosas! I didn’t go for wild, but I could have paid $3 for 10 samosas! They were incredibly delicious. I ate as I walked home, grabbed some strawberries (going to taste test the expensive ones and the cheap ones), and of course thought some more. I also took an opportunity to smell some flowers, and to enjoy a stunning vista of the moon framed by high park apartment buildings and a construction crane on Bloor.
A productive walk. This is why (and how) I enjoy my free time.