A Theory Of Unhappiness
NOT A Just Another Motivational Article
There are days when the clouds of Bangalore have no intention of showing mercy and the mud-colored sky stretches on till it gets hidden behind some huge ugly tech building. On these days I usually increase my pace of walking back home from work. I love rain. But when it is not pouring down, I don’t wait for it. And this struck me as a very odd behavior, but it is not uncommon.
When you scratch the surface, underneath the obvious metaphor, what you see is a conflict of two perspectives. I want to go running and getting dirty in the rain. Probably even imagining myself in the slow-motion. Actually, no, I’ve never done that. And yet, there has not been a single time while walking on my way to my home that I have decreased my pace after looking at the cloud-filled sky. Because I hate the anticipation of rain. David Foster Wallace once said that we can run any situation through a standard lens of a liberal art analysis and see how each viewpoint is correct given enough context. But he also said that what we almost never end up talking about is where these individual viewpoints come from. I want to talk about where these contradictory viewpoints come from and why human beings are unhappy. It is a bit long, but I promise to keep it interesting, and if at any point I am not successful, feel free to write unpleasant words.
Also note that throughout the course of this I will use horrendous illustrations to make my points. Bear with me.
THE TWO PERSPECTIVES
The reason I started this post with the rain situation is that the two viewpoints here, at their core, adequately represent the ideal conflict of viewpoints.
The First Viewpoint is my deep longing for rain and all that comes with it. The fresh smell, the horrible Bangalore traffic (Since I’m a walker, I enjoy watching people stuck in their cars blowing horns and getting frustrated), and the overflowing narrow streets. Rain has always been a greater connect for me. A connect to the larger universe. On a regular sunny day, we hardly realize that we are part of something bigger, this infinite universe that extends so beyond our imagination that we cannot even begin to comprehend its beauty. Rain, in that sense, is a very tangible proof of that fact. It brightens up the greens, paints the sky with colors that used to seem very distinguishable as a child, and makes us respect the sunlight in a whole different way.
The Second Viewpoint is the anticipation and my resultant increase in pace. It is a proof of the fact that despite the rain being a connect with the existential reality, it also affects me personally, physically, and deeply uncomfortably. My hair will get wet, my clothes will get dirty, my laptop and earphones can get ruined, and so on.
We can call the first viewpoint The Natural or The Existential Perspective. The second viewpoint can be called The Selfish Perspective. I think that existential perspective and the selfish perspective are two core perspectives guiding the entire life of an individual. It is the conflict between these two perspectives that creates unhappiness.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before we even touch unhappiness, logically, I think we need to know what exactly these perspectives are and from where do they come.
THE NATURAL/EXISTENTIAL PERSPECTIVE
When I say Existential Perspective, you do not have to imagine yourself sitting in a room somewhere on a side of the Earth that is spinning at a certain velocity around the Sun which, in turn, revolves around .. something. Physics, clearly, was never my strongest subject.
The Existential Perspective can mean a lot of things. If you want to jump from a building or climb mountains because you feel like it, you’re thinking in terms of the existential perspective. But if you’re sacrificing your seat in the bus for someone who really should not be standing, you’re also thinking in terms of the existential perspective.
Since happiness and obviously unhappiness are extremely personal things, we can perhaps see the existential perspective as something larger than your self (not in size). When you think about something that you are not at the absolute center of, you are thinking with the existential perspective. The reason I find this definition acceptable is that when you are doing and thinking something that is not related to you, you are benefiting someone/something else. Doing so, without the intention of it helping you down the road, clarifies that you are doing this for the greater good.
So, either greater good or to be with nature. Broadly speaking, both combined make up the existential perspective.
THE SELFISH PERSPECTIVE
Logically, if the act of doing (or thinking) something for the greater good or without keeping yourself in mind is called the Existential Perspective, the clear counter perspective is thinking only about yourself, and hence, the Selfish Perspective.
When you superimpose the idea of The Natural Perspective on The Selfish Perspective, you get something like this.
However, we have to be very careful the way we interpret these words. The Existential Perspective and the Selfish Perspective are counter-narratives, there is no attempt to brand any of them as the good or the bad perspective. I think that the idea of happiness lies beyond these qualitative distinctions.
BUT WHERE DO THESE PERSPECTIVES COME FROM?
The main reason these perspectives exist is because of the issue of contradictory identity in human beings. As a human being, you might know that there is this extremely stupid thing that we do called thinking. We have invented a concept called the self that is different from everything else in the world, with a bunch of philosophers going as far as to say, and not unconvincingly, that the self is the only thing that exists and not the world. So, we have this idea of the self as an unbreakable identity and then there is the entity that encompasses everything else. Nature. However, because we are thinking beings, we also know that nature encompasses us as well. Our identity is split into two here, with us being a part of both, nature and the self.
But our definition of self and nature is such that they can have no overlap. This contradiction of our identity creates these two perspectives. One being the natural part of our identity where we are generous and compassionate and helpful to others and are basically a part of the nature. The other being the selfish part of our identity where we are ambitious and lustful and seeking success and fame.
I would again emphasize that the selfish perspective is not the bad perspective and the natural perspective is not the good perspective. Both are different ways of looking and reacting in different situations. The reactions and their actualization in the world can be considered good or bad, but those are concepts created by us, unlike happiness. We simply use them to label things.
AND WHAT DO THESE PERSPECTIVES WANT?
I think we can best understand the two perspectives by finding out what they want.
- The Natural Perspective wants to maximize happiness for the greater good by not keeping the self at the center.
- The Selfish Perspective wants to maximize happiness for you by keeping the self at the center.
Now that we are aware of the two counter perspectives that we spend our lives through, we should see how they co-exist in our minds.
When you are about to fall, you brace yourself to minimize the impact and save yourself. This is obviously not a selfish act, however, this comes under the Selfish Perspective. The idea is to see whether you are at the center of the decision or not. When you are jumping into the water to swim, you’re operating in the selfish perspective, but at the same time, when you get relaxed and let yourself go, you tune into the existential perspective. When you’re walking down the street and a sight of a beggar sends shivers somewhere deep inside of you, you start thinking about how our accidental births decide so much of our lives and you feel a pang of self-loathing, you are in the existential perspective.
You can see that one particular perspective is not bad or good. Both the perspectives are necessary for different situations. And there lies the root cause of unhappiness: An imbalance between these.
THE THEORY OF UNHAPPINESS
There are two key points about these perspectives that you need to know to understand this diagram-
- Going fully into one perspective equals happiness
- If you try to go fully into one perspective, the other perspective pulls you back.
GOING FULLY INTO ONE PERSPECTIVE EQUALS HAPPINESS
This article originated with the idea of conflict. Conflict is the cause of unhappiness. (More on this in the Point 2.) When you choose one perspective and submit yourself fully to that one, you also eliminate this conflict.
Let’s say you want to become a successful ballet dancer and so you adopt the selfish perspective and do whatever it is necessary for you to become the ballet dancer (Including harming the opponent who is perhaps a better dancer).
Or let’s say you are fed up with the city life and want to go and live near the mountains, you go there, make a hut and start living. You also figure out how to get food and that is all that is needed.
If you only follow one perspective, it may lead you to do things that are anti-social, immoral, and illegal. But society, morality, and legality are stories made by us and believed by us, you can choose to live outside of it. Happy, with your choice.
ONE PERSPECTIVE PULLS YOU BACK FROM GOING FULLY INTO THE OTHER PERSPECTIVE
We can take the exact same examples that I mentioned just now. If you want to be a ballet dancer and you have been consumed so much by your selfish perspective that you are going to harm someone, but at the last moment you may realize what you’re doing and the existential perspective seeps in and brings a little morality. Same way, when you’re picking up the third piece of wood to make a hut on the mountainside, the selfish perspective knocks on the door of your consciousness and your stomach grumbles in hunger. At the same time, you realize that you know absolutely jackshit about making a hut and you catch the next bus and come back home.
Because you have this conflict in your head, every time you get closer to one perspective, you are pulled back by the other. And you spend your life oscillating between these two circles endlessly never going to the other side and as a result forever unhappy.
SO, WHERE DOES THE HAPPINESS LIE?
Well. Damned if I know.
As mentioned earlier, when you are fully into the existential perspective or when you are fully into the selfish perspective, you are happy. But none of that is made for a practical life. What I can tell you is where practical happiness lies on the diagram.
The goal, now, remains to be able to control that line.
I think what it boils down to is to be aware, in any situation, that there is always another way to look at it, another perspective to obtain before making the decision and not when it reaches to a point where it makes you unhappy. If we are aware of these two perspectives and how they are playing in our head, we would get to know ourselves better and see which are the things that we do for the sake of being a good human being and which are the things we do for the sake of making ourselves better.
When we do this we, sort of, navigate the frequency line and make it into something that allows us to make better decisions, which would lead to a happier life.
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