Happiness or Compassion?

Empathy can be a wrecking ball.

You switch on the news and you’re in pieces. But it’s up to you if you want to piece yourself together again. The state of the world impinges itself on our emotions, but it needn’t make us unhappy.

There’s a pervasive attitude that compassion and justness are forms of suffering, or must necessarily stem from suffering.

The assumption is that we must suffer if we “care” about people, animals, the ecosystem and so on. We can’t be happy in a world where there are terrible problems. We can even feel guilty for being happy.

I would argue that we must fight this assumption to actually make the world a better place.

A couple of months ago I wrote a post about how the internet enables doom-mongering at unlimited scale.

Lots of comments levelled the accusation that if I’m not panicking about something (let’s say, global warming) then I’m not taking it seriously. So let’s abstract that a level: if I’m not suffering, I’m not a good person.

What really is happiness?

Part of the problem here is that we can fail to understand what happiness really is in the modern world. We can slip into the trap of thinking happiness and compassion are diametrically opposed because we have a view of happiness that likens it to indulgence.

Happiness isn’t scoffing Wagyu burgers in the back of a limousine, it’s not slurping on martinis by the infinity pool or gazing into your reflection in the face of a Cartier as you check the time.

We too readily think of happiness as a positively defined emotion. We have to be doing something to be happy, usually feeling pleasure through connection (family, friendship, love, sex) or consumption (food, drink, material stuff) or participation (games, exercise, watching).

All these things may be pleasurable, but pleasures are fleeting forms of happiness, not the lasting kind that you can describe yourself as being, as in: “I’m happy.”

I suspect this is largely due to advertising and the media (which is, of course, mostly funded by advertising), which tells us constantly that we have to buy things or experiences to be happy.

Advertisements usually connect different forms of pleasure or good fortune. For example, the guy with the expensive watch that’s being advertised is also good-looking (desirable) and surrounded by friends (popular) in an exotic bar (well-travelled). He’s really enjoying life, and the watch is part of that enjoyment. But it’s a fantasy designed to provoke envy.

You can be happy and have it all, but you don’t need it all to be happy. The ancient Epicureans believed that the material things sufficient to live were also sufficient to make us happy people.

Happiness is to enjoy just… being. You have everything you need to be happy — a body and a mind. As long as you can nourish the body and mind, you can be happy.

The Epicurus put it as follows:

“when I say that pleasure is the goal of living I do not mean the pleasures of libertines or the pleasures inherent in positive enjoyment […] On the contrary, it is the result of sober thinking.”

So you don’t really need to be doing anything to be in a sustained state of pleasure except just living and making the most of what you have.

Being constantly sad about the state of the world, about the plight of other people or the ecosystem doesn’t fix any of those problems. It’s sad that people must wrestle with the paradox of feeling guilty for being happy.

Catch Negative Emotions

There are lots of scary and horrible things going on in the world, but why must I pay the penance of unhappiness until these problems are fixed? I’m more useful to help solve these problems with a positive and optimistic mindset. You can protest and be happy.

Compassion is a feeling of sympathy for another being that is stricken by misfortune. It’s accompanied by a powerful desire to alleviate the suffering. You can feel that without feeling sad, anxious or angry.

Those other emotions lead not necessarily to positive action, but to negative attachment: sadness can lead to despondency, anger can lead to bitterness.

Being driven by negative emotions could also lead us to a thirst for revenge or retaliation on those we think to be doing evil. Anger can spur on our sense of justice, but love must be our bridle.

Of course, we all feel emotions. Seneca wrote that we feel negative emotions like anger well up inside us as we witness injustices just as we’d shiver if cold water was poured on our skin.

The idea is to catch those instinctive feelings, analyse them and do something with them rather than let them do something with you.

I often momentarily feel anger, sadness, grief, incomprehension, shock, and disgust. But I refuse to become inconsolable or despondent. I try my best to figure out what I can do to help the situation that has given rise to these spontaneous feelings.

In doing so, I give myself permission to be happy, and I hope you can do so too.

The lessons of philosophy and history, their practical benefits for your life and work. Feel free to get in touch: stevengambardella@gmail.com

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