Thursday, November 3, 2011

One Thing

One of the fundamental tennets of happy existentialism is: everyone does what she does in order to become happy or happier.

Before going further, let's remember that existentialism is a philosophy, not a religion. Unlike religions, philosophies do not embody truths; they are simply models, ways of thinking about things. Science is philosophical (hence the Ph in PhD). For example, we talk about electrons elipsing around neutrons and protons as though the pictures we see in the science book are photographs. They're not. They're just pictorial representations that model how the physical universe works. Scientists developed the models because they're useful. At best they're rough approximations; they're not true.

This is the case with all philosophy. We don't study it to find truth. We don't study it to "know" it. We study it to find something useful to us. So, a great way to think about a philosophical statement is to qualify it with the words "what if?"

What if everyone does what he does in order to become happy or happier? How would that change my approach to others and myself?


I believe this seemingly simple (and perhaps inane-sounding) question is profound. It suggests that all actions by anyone at any time are motivated by a single, unvarying goal: to be happy.

Happy, Shmappy
If you're thinking, "That's not true! People do things for all sorts of reasons!", please suspend disbelief for a moment and remember that this is just a model.

I understand the word "happy" can be a bit off-putting. However I haven't been able to think of a better word to serve as a proxy for any number of words that we associate with a positive state: contented, satisfied, fulfilled, joyful, loving, peaceful, calm, ecstatic, thrilled, blissful, safe. All these qualify as happy. So let's change our what-if to:

What if everyone does what she does in order to become more contented, satisfied, fulfilled, joyful, loving, peaceful, calm, ecstatic, thrilled, blissful, safe or happy? How would that change my approach to others and myself?


There are lots of words I overlooked; so please plug in whatever one(s) work(s) for you.

I'll Show You Motivation
Your next objection might be that people do things for other reasons: guilt, self-preservation, love, sympathy, remorse, apathy, fear, self-interest, altruism, anger, hate. There are plenty of reasons that people do things are than to become happy or happier. This seems to be the case, at least on the surface. However, if you dig deeper, you'll always find a motivation that ties back to happiness.

Consider a little boy with autism who regularly bangs his head against the wall. Why does he do that? According to our model, he does it to become happy or happier. That sounds crazy. Nonetheless, if you dig a little deeper you'll find that the model actually works.

Children with autism often experience challenges with sensory integration. A child may have difficulty processing aural, visual, tactile, vestibular or aromatic stimuli. The cacophony of an urban street corner, the flashing lights of a stopped police car, the touch of a wool sweater can be more than overwhelming; any one can physically painful. When a child experiences sensory overload, she does whatever she can do to stop the pain. This frequently involves drowning out the noise (visual, aural, tactile or otherwise) by stimulating another sensory system, sometimes quite vigorously.

If he's overwhelmed by sound, he might stimulate his visual system by flapping his fingers in front of his eyes. If he's overwhelmed by visual noise, he might run in circles to stimulate his vestibular system (inner ear) or bang his head against a wall to simulate his tactile system. Sometimes her actions may seem odd, sometimes self-injurious, but nonetheless, they're motivated by a desire to regulate her sensory systems, to find peace and calm, to find happiness.

If you look under the cover of any motivation, you'll find happiness (at least within this model). Every act of selflessness has some underlying motivation: to alleviate guilt, to find fulfillment, to feel good about who you are, to repay a debt, to do the right thing. All these tie back to how you feel about you. You may resist digging down to the "selfish" motivation, but that's only when you judge "selfish" as "bad". There's not a thing you do that doesn't tie back to your motivations and at the core of them is: happiness (or at least in this model).

This Makes Me Unhappy
You might argue that you do things that make you unhappy. I overeat and gain weight; how does that make me happy? I overslept and got fired; you're telling me I did that because it makes me happy?

The problem is that we often have conflicting elements in our happiness set. We love to eat and we'd love to be thin. We love to sleep in and we love to get a paycheck. Your elements and metrics of happiness change.

So What?
You might be thinking, "This is just philosophical bullshit, a semantic game, intellectual masturbation!"

In that case, what you're really thinking is, "So what? How does this change anything?"

That brings us back to the "what if?" Let's add another qualifier to our thesis: the best way he knows.

What if everyone does what he does because it's the best way he knows to become happy or happier? How would that change my approach to others and myself?


What if my boss always blows his top because it's the only way he knows to become happy? What if my kid acts out at school because it's the best way he knows to become happy? What if my mom uses guilt trips all the time because she's found it works best in becoming happy? What if my kid tortures the goldfish because he doesn't know a better way to become happy?

Think about someone challenging in your life. What if everything she does is motivated by becoming more happy (contented, satisfied, fulfilled, joyful, loving, peaceful, calm, ecstatic, thrilled, blissful, safe)? What if she does it because it's the best way she knows? How would that change things?

Happy Thursday,
Teflon

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