The Complexity of Happiness
A few weeks ago in my Dark Romanticism class, we read Ursula K. Le Guin’s work of short philosophical fiction “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.”
The narrator describes a summer festival in the utopian city of Omelas, a city whose prosperity depends on the perpetual misery of a single child held captive in a basement. The blissful community is extremely advanced and its citizens are intelligent, sophisticated, and cultured. Everything about Omelas is so colossally pleasing that the narrator decides the reader can’t possibly be convinced of its existence, as they have been conditioned by society to think that the community would be composed of “simple folk.” The narrator explains, “The trouble is that we have a bad habit, encouraged by pedants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting. This is the treason of the artist: a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain.”
After reading this, I found myself thinking a great deal about happiness and returning to the text for assistance. I started noticing my friends partaking in competitions of “who slept the least?' or “who is the most stressed?' as if either of those titles is admirable. I started to wonder why we automatically associate happiness with simplicity. Why do we treat pain like it’s an accomplishment? Why is it just so hard for us to believe in a town like Omelas? The reasoning has much broader implications than an anomaly occurring in our school or in Le Guin’s short story. We’ve all heard the saying that “ignorance is bliss.” This concept borrows from the idea that happy people might be afraid to look into the ugly truth of things that more often than not lies under the surface. Ignorance makes it easier to accept things at face value and may leave you happier. This may lead to the conclusion that happy people must be irrational, delusional, or foolish. But, to me, it seems rather that society has a fundamental ignorance about the importance of bliss. We often erroneously think the “deep” people are the ones who brood. The darker the movie, the less redeeming the ending, the more creative it is. The more damaged the painter or the musician’s life, the greater their artistic achievements.
This assumption should not and cannot be a universal truth. Achieving bliss is not a result of ignorance, but rather of increased consciousness of hardship. It requires emotional depth to be positive and hopeful in the midst of adversity. Happiness simply equips us with the tools to combat misfortune effectively. In truth, negative emotions stem from the most primitive part of the brain, the autonomic nervous system, that responds to fear and threat, “fight or flight.” Seeing the negative is easy; formulating a cognitive strategy to positively respond to challenge requires much higher-order functioning in the brain. When we are positive, our brains allow us to create new patterns of success and widen the number of possibilities our brains can process.
The real story of happiness is that every person has a range of potential – in terms of intelligence, athleticism, musicality, productivity, etc – and we are more likely to reach the upper bounds of our brain’s potential when we’re feeling positive, rather than negative or neutral. For instance, dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps us experience pleasure, has an additional benefit: it activates our cognitive learning centers, allowing our brains to function as intellectual sponges. Everyone experiences this at some point, whether it was recent or will occur in the not-so-distant future.
For example, if you were stressed for your biology final and crammed for it the night before, you may remember the information while taking the test but can’t remember any details three days later. On the other hand, you probably remember your favorite song lyrics from more than a decade ago; information that was important to you at some point in your childhood, but is essentially useless to you now. Nonetheless, your brain retained the information. You remember that information partly because of the musical patterns, and partly because your brain’s learning system was activated by the dopamine released when you heard the song.
Many of us attribute how happy we are to our genetics, our environment, or a combination of the two. There is no doubt that both factors have an impact, but one’s general sense of wellbeing can be surprisingly malleable. The habits you cultivate, the way you interact with your peers, how you think about stress – all of these things can be managed to increase your happiness and your chances of success. Nonetheless, happiness is most definitely something hard to achieve and we cannot simply choose to feel it.
This then leads to the degeneration of one of our most commonly held formulas for success. Conventional wisdom holds that if we work hard, we will be more successful, and if we are more successful, then we’ll be happy. If we can just ace that class, or win that award, or get into college, then happiness will follow. Despite the near-universal acceptance of this blueprint for success, this formula now appears backward: happiness fuels success, not the other way around. When we are positive, our brains become more engaged, creative, motivated, energetic, resilient, and productive at work.
If Le Guin’s short story teaches us any one thing concretely, it’s that happiness is complex and not easy to accomplish. It is something that cannot possibly be unraveled in only 1000 words. Not only are the words themselves hard to define – what is happiness, what is ignorance, what is pain – but their relationship is so intertwined that achieving the level of serenity of Omelas always seems out of reach.