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Happiness is Stupid

"Want to be happy for an hour? Eat a steak. Want to be happy for a day? Play golf. Want to be happy for a week? Go on a cruise. Want to be happy for a month? Buy a new car. Want to be happy for a year? Win the lottery. Want to be happy for a lifetime? Win a championship." Coach Lou Holtz addressing the Texas Longhorns. 

So after a post about how America is great, let's talk about how the world is terrible. Actually, I don't really believe that, and it's another kind of sentiment people express regularly that discourages me. What I do feel is that in certain important ways, the global family is headed in the wrong direction. The spread of liberal democracy and global culture, which I would concede seems preferable to more traditional cultures and systems of government, is inappropriately zealous in its insistence that the whole world conform. That is, I'm afraid that I might be living in the last generation (or two or three) where the world sustains thousands of distinct cultures and modes of organization that represent different values and ways of life. The way the liberal west explains its cultural colonialism to itself is that diversity is simply a matter of color. In this utopia we will be white and black and purple and atheist and Muslim, but also all democrats who celebrate homosexuality. I certainly have no issue with homosexuality, but the hairs on the back of my neck go up at the prospect of a sort of global civilizing mission where homophobic culture is rooted out, even in Amazon communities that may not be aware of the concept. It's also important to note, I'm incredibly sympathetic to gays or their allies who are terrified at the prospect of young gay people living in a society that hates them. I think my discomfort lies in the idea that any way of thinking, no mater how logically or morally justifiable, would become universal. 

I'm sure some would say we are nowhere close to the unified global culture I'm afraid of, but I think we have technological prerequisites that mihjy make it inevitable. If America can be seen as a test case, it now seems like many of us were only able to tolerate one another because we were unaware of each other's beliefs. Politicians lied and effectively smoothed the edges around our political redlines, and we were happy in our ignorance. Now, technology has made every man a pundit, and every other man disgusted at his punditry. I cross my fingers that the current level of anger manifest online is simply remarkable for its shrillness and not for high rates of participation, and further that more and more people will get exhausted and bail out on the flame wars. Even so, I think ignorance of the beliefs of others and not attempting to discover them may be an unheralded but necessary condition for social cohesion. Once people are exposed, the culling and forced conversions commence. 

I will note here that there is a very controversial book I read in graduate school somewhat related to this topic called "Desiring Arabs" by Herculean asshole and academic Joseph Mossad. At the time I first became familiar with the book, I was disgusted with what I took to be the premise. I will probably butcher his point, and it's very difficult to summarize dense and intentionally alienating academic writing, but it went something like: in the Arab world, men who wanted to fuck each other had always found ways to do so in private, and separate from the goal of raising children in a family with a female partner. In Mossad's construction, these men were perfectly happy to pursue both a desire for homosexual sex and normative family life. This delicate balance, Mossad claimed, had been disrupted by Western advocates who were only familiar with a western style expression of homosexuality, which proposed that sex and love were inextricably linked and homosexual nature could not be sated through sex alone, but through same-gender companionship and perhaps even a "gay lifestyle." I'm not sure I buy Mossad's premise today, and certainly most things he writes are stupid or untrue. That being said, I am attracted to the idea that we may not have a monopoly on how best to let different types of people live. I imagine if you are a man in America today who wants to have sex with other men, but cannot give up an attachment to a concept of family life with a female partner, the archetypes we've built may not help you. Worse, you may be accused of suppressing your own nature just for having this conflict in the first place. 

I think in the history of virtually every human science or way of life we see that there is strength in diversity. This is how dynamic economic systems emerge, how species change and survive and how individuals pursue happiness. I can't help but think that there is some sort of weird reversal taking place where the very country that has gone the furthest in promoting individual liberty is now engaged in the project of insisting the rest of the world provide the exact same amount in the exact same way. My first concern is that we have no moral authority on which to export our way of life, it is just happening by virtue of the popularity of our entertainment products and political and economic dominance. Almost as troubling, the world becoming Americanized seems that it could create a sort of black swan situation for our species, where we stagnate and decline because we aren't different enough to be conducting many social experiments simultaneously. 

I think one of the biggest problems with how the US and western institutions more generally justify their own cultural creep is through the use of meaningless metrics.

Its difficult to come up with metaphors regarding how the rational evaluation of life and human progress only creates the kind of metrics modernity will excel at. First, a little background on the phenomenon in general. There are always people who worship a combination of the present and future. Jordan Peterson has gotten on this train, citing the work of Steven Pinker and UN studies about global rates of poverty and starvation. I don’t actually contest that moving out of poverty enhances human welfare, I think I'm more skeptical about another sequence, from agrarian to industrial, or from working class to middle class and middle class to wealthy. These are the areas where skepticism comes in. It's also interesting to look at some of these ''metrics of progress."

The UNs happiness report uses the following question, delivered via gallup poll, to determine happiness: "it asks respondents to think of a ladder, with the best possible life for them being a 10, and the worst possible life being a 0. They are then asked to rate their own current lives on that 0 to 10 scale." Additionally, there are six subcategories that allow for analysis of contributing factors to happiness, but these sub-measures are not themselves taken into the score. They are levels of GDP, life expectancy, generosity, social support, freedom, and corruption.

This is an interesting mode of analysis and I don’t mean to dismiss it out of hand. How to measure happiness is very tricky. It seems to me however, that when asked to rate if you have "the best possible life" or the "worst possible life" respondents are asked to make an objective assessment of their life conditions relative to others, rather than their own feelings of contentment. This would encourage people who are materially well-off but spiritually bereft to overrate their own happiness. The subcategories seem further confused. Does life expectancy make us happy? Maybe if its reflective of the lack of wars. On the other hand, if life is meaningless extended through painful treatment and medicine, it may contribute to the opposite.

This confusion could, in part, explain why many countries at the top of the UN happiness ranks also have high suicide rates. For example, in 2018 the US happiness ranking gave Finland the overall highest ranking. Interestingly, Finland has the 32 highest suicide rate out of 183 measured countries. Iceland, the 4th happiest country, has the world's 40th highest suicide rate. Inverting the analysis, many countries perceived as miserable by the UN study have vanishingly low suicide rates. War torn Syria came 150 on the world happiness list in 2018, and experienced just 2.5 suicides per 100,000 or 176 out of 183 countries measured. There are dozens of other countries that populate the low end of both the happiness and suicide rate lists. Virtually no one commits suicide in a number of Caribbean countries, and does anyone actually believe that Finns are happier than people who live in Barbados?

These statistics are not explanatory and they don’t really undermine the UN's findings, they simply suggest that populations who rate their own happiness highly often have the additional characteristic of high suicide rates. In some ways, you could view this correlation as logical, as people in free societies, liberated from oppressive social structures and expectations, may feel more empowered to end their lives if they no longer enjoy them. Or perhaps in societies where so many people are happy, those who are lonely or sad are further depressed by the joy around them. This certainly seems to be the attitude in northern Europe. I think the bigger problem is with the word happiness itself. Is this a relevant measure of the state of humanity? If happiness is not an inoculation against suicide, what is, and why do so many miserable places seem to be inoculated?

I don’t really know the answer to this question, besides the much observed fact that happiness is different than meaning, and a sense of meaning can often keep people going, even through pain and suffering, more than happiness. This is sort of the thesis of the excellent "A Paradise Built in Hell" (another excellent literary gift from my brother) which uses examples of numerous disasters to show how utter misery can compel people to summon decency and sacrifice they never thought they were capable of, which in turn animates and affirms them.

All I know is that this topic has got me thinking about basketball. In all sports, there is a tendency to argue over whether or not yesterday's stars could hold up against the players of today. Those who worship the present might note that exercise and nutrition were virtually absent in the past, that the NBA is drawing from a larger pool of players than ever before, that the players are getting bigger, that they actually play defense now, and that the shooting has improved at all positions. These arguments are all incontrovertible and certainly convince me that today's players engage in a more difficult version of the game than previous generations. But basketball is entertainment, and these various measures have nothing to do with that. We have made surrogates for the quality of the game: effort, talent of players, shooting ability; and surmised that as these go up, so too has the quality of the game. However, if you ask NBA fans if they prefer the showtime Lakers or the Golden State splash brothers, I think most fans will either find them equally enjoyable or prefer the past .

These aesthetic judgement that occasionally go against the metrics we've decided upon to measure improvements are why many people prefer college sports, even while acknowledging that the professional leagues feature a higher level of play. I think this is the story of the global measurements of happiness. If we break happiness down into component parts, or ask people to evaluate their lives objectively, many western countries, especially in northern Europe, will conclude they are the happiest. If you, on the other hand, assess how people seem to be experiencing life, there is little evidence that Canada is a happier place than Kosovo, and if you're Albanian Kosovar, you get the added pleasure of knowing that your mere existence infuriates Serbs. 

When you suggest that the modern world is the best place ever, and we have greater ability to impact our own emotional fate than at any time in the past you end up saying stuff like this: 

Pinker

I can only respond to this ridiculous statement with the thoughts of a much more superior philosopher. 

Rule 2

Furthermore, long before Pinker wrote his "embarrassing" book, Louis C.K made the same argument in a much more enjoyable format. 

 

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