Posted On 14 Jul 2010
The happiness formula is not well understood. Since we all would like to be happy, if we understood how to become happy, presumably a lot more of us would do it.
The truth is that it is difficult for human beings to be happy.
If we distinguish physical pain from suffering, all sentient beings experience at least occasional episodes of pain. Suffering, though, is uncommon among nonhuman animals.
By way of contrast, suffering is nearly universal in humans. Suicide is the deliberate taking of one’s own life. No nonhuman animals commit suicide, and suicide occurs in all human societies.
Since happy people do not commit suicide, the happiness formula is not well understood. This is hardly controversial. Recognition of the ubiquity of human suffering goes back at least as far as The Buddha’s First Noble Truth, which was formulated about 2400 years ago.
So it seems that there must be something tricky about becoming happy, some feature that makes it difficult.
Since humans have all the abilities that nonhuman animals have, that feature is not something nature hasn’t given us. Instead, it’s a feature that comes from an ability that we have that animals lack, namely, written language.
As David Abram and others have argued, the Greek alphabet was developed from the Semitic aleph-beth in about the eighth century B.C.E. Soon only other humans and their technologies were speaking to us. The mountains, wolves, clouds, and lakes fell silent. We began to live most of our lives in our thoughts cut off from their larger-than-human context.
Since separation is the cause of suffering, this divide is the major cause of human suffering.
Our written language enables us to use the principles of instrumental reason and rational discourse to solve problems with respect to objects outside our thoughts. This works so spectacularly well that we have come to dominate all nonhuman animals.
Does it matter much? Are you as happy as your dog?
Few of us are. How many people do you know who are genuinely happy? What has gone wrong?
We have become bound by language. We fail to understand how to live happily because we fail to free ourselves from literacy.
From the time of ancient Indian sages to Steven C. Hayes and the ACT therapists of today, some thinkers have been urging us to become happier by learning how to keep literacy in its place. What works to solve problems outside our thoughts fails to work for our private experiences.
Suicide seems a natural response. Not understanding how to escape from guilt, worthlessness, blame, grief, and other aversive private experiences, people give up their lives rather than to continue suffering. Because they don’t understand the happiness formula, they find that the only way out.
With respect to public objects, our happiness increases with our ability to control them. However, with respect to private objects, attempts to control them backfire. The happiness formula requires giving up the attempt to control private objects!
For example, suppose that you don’t want to continue to experience the grief you feel over the death of a loved one. How can you avoid it? What can you do? The more you fight it, the more you’ll experience it. The happiness formula requires accepting it. To use the happiness formula, become one with the grief. That’s the only way to freedom from it.
This is why mystics and others have always recommended mastering certain breathing or spiritual practices. If you want to master the happiness formula, master one of those practices.