Monday, 24 December 2012

How happy days lead on to a spiral of pleasure-seeking misery


For most of my life I was an atheist; and therefore my life strategy was to be happy in this life.

(Sometimes I self-denied that I was trying to be happy - but all this amounted to was seeking long-term happiness within this life rather than immediate happiness; for example by studying for exams (not enjoyable), or reading dull philosophical discourses - in order to have a better chance of a happier life later.)


Looking back I can perceive that there were periods of my life - particular periods of up to several months together, up to about a year - when I was exceptionally happy: when I was happy in the here and now and looked forward to even greater happiness unfolding, almost inevitably.

For certain periods, therefore, happiness was easy, came easily, lacked the usual conflict between the short- and long-term. 


And I can also see (I noticed this years ago, but couldn't explain it) that these periods of extended easy happiness were followed by dark times, miserable times, times when life seemed meaningless and irritating, and when I could not recapture the happiness of just a few months earlier. These times typically lasted severalfold longer than the easy happiness times which preceded them.


A factor which explains this patterns was that the times of easy happiness resulted from successful hedonism; successfully organizing my life around pleasure seeking. And this strategy paid-off - for a while - with greater happiness; but the result of this was to entrench and make habitual, systematic hedonism, as my major life plan and expectation.

Then sometimes luck turned, as it will; but mostly it was a matter of coming-up-against the basic biological principle of habituation: repeating the same stimulus leads to the diminution or disappearance of the response to that stimulus.

(Or more generally, the fact that strict repetition is an impossibility; doing something/ anything for the second, tenth, hundredth, thousandth time cannot ever be the same as doing it the first time; it will always differ significantly.)


The response is typically that of the addict: escalating doses of the stimulus.

The outcome is also like that of an addict: to become addicted to pleasure seeking despite the lack of pleasure; to become wretched and miserable at the repeated self-administering of an ineffective pleasure-stimulus; yet trapped in the pattern because ceasing to self-administer the stimulus causes immediate and even greater suffering.

Thus the once-successful hedonist is trapped in a chronic situation of low-grade alienation, purposelessness, meaninglessness and misery - a state that is selfish and short-termist and exploitatively sinful in attitude and action - trapped in this state by and because they seek pleasure and (for a while) got exactly what they sought!


In other words, the longish dark periods of alienation followed the briefer happy times precisely because they were caused by the happy times; caused by the bad habits that had been ingrained during the happy times.

This, then, is one of the ratchets of sin as it operates in someone leading what is, overall and in world historical terms, a fortunate and comfortable life; the ratchet by which happiness is turned to alienation; and an attitude where the world and everything in it, including the people in it, is seen as a potential source of pleasure and life strategy a matter of using knowledge, reason and experience to extract the maximum of pleasure at the minimum cost of pain (and effort).

It exemplifies how atheism is not just meaningless, in terms of rendering everything that might be of value either infinitely trivial or a delusion, but self-defeating - because it is thwarted by the intrinsic and unavoidable nature of biology as it applies even to the simplest of animals - even an amoeba is subject to habituation.


The state is common, near universal in the modern West, as Thoreau perceived when he diagnosed that the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.

Unfortunately, Thoreau's prescription, which I was indeed following and explicitly so, was to recommend a more thorough and individualist hedonism.

What Thoreau failed to perceive - due to his vague impersonal deism/ atheism, as did I, was that Thoreau's remedy was in fact the precise cause of the disease it purported to cure - or rather that quiet desperation was merely a less severe version of the gratification-addiction which would, inevitably, result from following Thoreau's recommended life strategy of paying the minimum in time and effort for the maximum of personal gratification (see the chapter 'Economy' in Walden where this is explicitly stated).


The only escape from gratification addiction in a secular world view is to obliterate awareness - intoxication, a state of perpetual distraction, a state of animal-like unconsciousness - or suicide, with an expectation that death is the end and this will obliterate all consciousness.

Which all amount to the same thing: for the secular hedonist the prescribed cure for being human is to stop being human - either by becoming something else, or by ceasing to be (especially ceasing to be aware).

This is to cure the human condition by killing human-ness - rather like making a 'better world - a world without suffering - by destroying the world. 


I take this experience in my life as a reductio ad absurdum of the idea of trying to live for gratification, as an atheist, with a timespan restricted to human life, without a personal God who has personal concern for me.

Any strategy primarily to seek earthly happiness is self-refuting, and leads (deviously, but certainly) to pleasure-addiction and earthly misery; except it be embedded in an infinite frame: which is the quest for eternal happiness

Earthly happiness is then seen as a secondary and contingent by-product of the true primary goal of human life. 



stephens said...

I cannot imagine there has been a time, in the western world, where a hedonistic life has been so over-promoted.
Permissive society stepping up the drug bit by bit. Liberated from the restrictions of the past.
Just another promotion, partner, or perhaps a bit of cosmetic surgery and everything will be perfect.
Certainly not the meaning of Christmas, there will be many glum faces by January.

James Higham said...

It's the lulling into this false sense of wellbeing and affordability which is the true evil.

Merry Christmas, Bruce.

Bruce Charlton said...

@s - "Permissive society stepping up the drug bit by bit. Liberated from the restrictions of the past."

Yes, only by this stepping-up can the societal state of immiseration be maintained and expanded.

And the process is, must be, open-ended and 'permanently' transgressive.

Which means that it is inevitably self destroying, on the one hand; but also that there is no limit on what it might do, what it might permit, in the insatiable search for an effective fix.

Imnobody said...

It's curious: Buddhism makes the same analysis but reach a different conclusion: since living for attaining earthly happiness leads to unhappiness, you have to kill the desire to be happy. Hence you kill the unhappiness.

I guess that you classify this Buddhist way as another way to stop being human (being desire a part of being human). Am I wrong?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Imnob - yes, that is how I regard Buddhism (at least Zen): an attempt to stop suffering by stopping being human through elaborate mental discipline.

But most people achieve the same by intoxication or immersive distraction (computer games, TV etc).

It would be quicker, simpler and cheaper to have a pre-frontal lobotomy, to eliminate self-consciousness, worry about the future, planning etc. - i.e. just chop-out the bit of brain that is necessary for higher functions distinctive to humans.

Wm Jas said...

So have your patterns of happiness/misery changed significantly since you became a Christian?

(Of course it will be hard to distinguish the effects of your conversion from those of just getting older.)

stephen c said...

Merry Christmas, Bruce, lets hope that come January, or even earlier, many of those glum faces - and there are a billion or so of them, so lots can find the truth on any given day - will figure out with the Holy Spirit's help the truth you are commenting on here... and I look forward with hope to hearing from some of them, either soon, or in my old age, or later, about how the Lord "restored to them the years the locust had eaten" Joel 2-25

Sylvie D. Rousseau said...

I suppose you know from your inquiries into classical philosophy that the Greek term for earthly happiness is eudaimonia. It is precisely what Mormons tell their religion promises them: to extend earthly eudemonism into a physical Paradise in an infinite time. I had it confirmed from a Mormon who knows something about philosophy – an erroneous something from a Thomistic point of view, but I believe he has the eudemonism concept right.

I answered with excerpts from Maritain’s Moral Philosophy and reposted them on my blog under the title “Eudemonism or beatitude.” Maritain explains this is another Protestant influence through philosophy on the understanding of morality and salvation. Kant pointed out correctly that a certain preaching on morals and salvation (mainly Protestant, but it is also seen in bad Catholic preaching) was in fact a “transcendent eudemonism.” Mormonism high moral standards are certainly to be admired, but their doctrine will eventually cause their church to decay and disappear. As you say, it has many good Old-Testament-like features, but it is still far from the real thing and contradictory to its prophecies.

Bruce Charlton said...

@WmJas - "So have your patterns of happiness/misery changed significantly since you became a Christian?"

Oh yes, of course.

Before, it was as if I was trying to be as bad as possible but was irrationally held back from selfish-short-term-hedonism by the love of others, by scruples I could not discard and by instincts I could understand but not master.

Now, everything is turned the other way about.

imnobody said...

Thank you, Bruce, for your answer and Merry Christmas.