Why We Are Unhappy

Walt Whitman wrote, famously, that he thought he could turn and live with animals.

They do not sweat and whine about their condition.
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins.
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things,
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago,
Not one is respectable or industrious over the whole earth.

To be fair – though rarely is this poetry’s ambition – animals are much more than the surging physicality and alertness to the world that Whitman goes on to describe in his “Song of Myself.” Our animal friends rage and cringe, and bow before those acknowledged to be their superiors. They jump when startled and behave despondently when dear ones depart. Perhaps they even whine in the night. The emotions we feel are extensions of their concerns.

But of course, the great poet is right in the ways that matter. We humans have special abilities for furbishing our environments with ideas. Ideas – and images too, for these give color and movement to reflection – alter the character of those environments. We rely on ideas and images, as Whitman does in his poem, to describe worldly happenings and impute meaning to them. What has happened, is happening now, and will happen in the moments ahead? Ideas frame our lives and connect us to the other things we’ve done.

But our powers of ideation go far beyond this. We are able to summon conceptions independently of the situations we find ourselves in. So we dream and daydream, plan and reminisce, and yes, lie awake at night brooding about things that never happened and never will.

It is this capacity for independent, abstract thought that helps us establish models or standards, fixed conceptions for the world’s occurrences. We imagine “ideal” conditions – as well as the opposite of those ideals. And we compare what is before us with those visions.

It is the human predicament to live in the shadow of these standards.

All this may seem a bad thing, at least as I’ve introduced the matter to this point. But abstract standards also offer us a distinctive kind of fulfillment, perhaps unknown to animals. We are made happy when we feel ourselves reaching, or even just approaching, our idealized visions.

My previous essay discussed some aspects of that happiness-making process. Four pathways of experience – work, play, communitas, and ritual – were presented. Each was seen as a willful strategy for directing behavior and establishing meaning. Successfully conducted, work produces pride; play, gratification; communitas, blessedness, and ritual, reverence and resolve. These conditions were said to be “versions” or happiness, differing primarily in the role the person played in what occurred. But they are united by the sense that in each case a desirable end was reached, a “good” time was had, and the self was realized in sometimes unanticipated ways. To be happy is to feel oneself moving along personally approved lines. [Read More…]

Source: Psychology Today

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