Happiness: Objectivity, Subjectivity, Compassion

helping another

Happiness and unhappiness come from ‘inside’

Like most people, I’ve felt angry, frustrated, and helpless at times – even hopeless – but such negative states of mind are rare at this point in my life. I had hoped to grow out of them altogether, but that was ego thinking. In fact, they seem to be right around the corner, so this will be a bit of self-examination and reflection about happiness and unhappiness – what they entail, and whether we have any control over them.

This post is a personal reflection, different from most of my essays. I generally study, analyze and make critical judgments about macroeconomic, political and societal trends, and their interconnections. Thousands – maybe millions – of people do the same thing on various websites. If my ideas differ, I hope it’s in the degree to which I try to be philosophical, rather than opinionated, or self-promoting, or ‘expressing-myself-because-I-have-as-much-right-as-anyone-else’, or seeking to maximize ‘eyes on my site’ to make money, which is obvious with many blogs and the companies that ‘host’ them.

Over the years, with help from personal therapy, friends in the counselling profession, and lots of study and teaching in comparative religions and history of philosophy, I’m convinced that most of our moods don’t result from what’s going on around us in the moment, but what’s inside, which has been there a long time – our habitual way of processing what’s happening outside. Moreover, the negative states usually come from lack of self-awareness, and a failure to understand and be objective, about ourselves and about what is ‘bothering us’.

I’m lucky to have been given this ‘revelation’, or principle; and when it seems appropriate, I try to share it with others. There are other helpful corollaries to this principle I’ll come back to, but I believe this is the overarching rule of mental health and happiness (and their opposites). I’ve tried to live by it, and what follows from it. Certainly, these ideas weren’t discovered recently – nor in my lifetime. Like most important truths, they’ve been around ‘from the beginning’.

Buddhist thought, for example, teaches that unhappiness results from our tendency to think from ego, rather than think objectively about ourselves. Suppose I were to stumble into a rabbit hole in the field, and break an ankle. It’s very painful of course; that’s natural. It’s natural too, for a person in this situation to ‘own‘ the pain, and think of it as hers. The injured person might start yelling “Ow! Eeow! My leg hurts; it’s killing me! I can’t stop it! Sh*t! Somebody help me! It hurts so bad! Oh no! Please … ! Oh, Ouww…!” But that normal response adds needless suffering – feelings of helplessness, frustration, confusion, denial, anger, etc. – to the pain which is there. Imagine instead trying to practice this kind of conversation with ourselves:

‘That ankle’s probably broken. Feels like it. I should be careful not to injure it more by walking on it. Need something for support. Maybe I can hobble back to the house and get help. Oh, and next week’s meeting… I forgot. Have to put that off a while. Oh, well. This is going to take time. First, I’ll need some help with the pain. Can’t say what’s involved in fixing the ankle. It’ll probably get better – but I shouldn’t expect miracles at my age – enough to keep going though. Lucky there’s an emergency room in town.

In other words, it’s possible to think and talk to ourselves about the situation in the same way we might expect a doctor or a sensible friend to think and talk to us about it. You might think, “Sure, but it’s easy for the doctor to be objective; it’s not her pain.” That’s true, but it isn’t ‘my pain,’ or ‘your pain’ either, if we can come to a new view of ‘reality’. Reality is not what we’ve habitually come to identify with – i.e., the world interpreted through the senses. Buddhists and Hindhus call this view illusory. It might seem these eastern philosophies are trying to escape reality, but that’s not the case. Like all philosophers, in every civilization, their effort is to understand and know reality. To do that, they need a figurative point on the compass – to orient them (a Latin word that means rising, as the sun rises to bring warmth and light). True philosophers need a  different orientation, and other habits of thought and practice. Plato’s Allegory of The Cave illustrates this belief. The new orientation isn’t easy, or natural.

Approaches to happiness vary, and take guidance

An Argentine friend, Hector Sabelli, MD, and his wife Linnea, used to host discussion groups in their Chicago home. Hector (now deceased) was a philosopher, and a psychiatrist, associated with Rush Medical Group in Chicago. He liked contradictions and creative opposition wherever he saw them. Unlike mainstream philosophers, he viewed the whole universe, not as a basically stable whole (centered on some unchanging ultimate reality), but as change itself – an ever-changing interplay of opposites – a Union of Opposites, similar to ideas of the Greek Herakleitos, and the Chinese Taoist, Lao-tzu.

In psychotherapy, Hector’s goal was to balance opposing forces in a patient’s life, especially the biological, social and psychic (or inner). He advocated a more humane approach to minds and health than the typical ‘facts’ of ‘hard science’ approach about chemicals, cell structures and exact measurements. He suggested basing psychiatry on more variable interpretations of social relations, personal attitudes, historical changes, cultural differences, etc – like the work of so-called ‘soft sciences’. He often said the best way to understand life, as well as humans, would be as a physician – not as a physicist. A physician’s perspective should emphasize taking every patient as a whole, including her uniqueness. He quipped that psychiatrists should try to expand minds, not be “shrinks”.

Jonathan Lear, at University of Chicago, offered other insights, during his classes in the ‘Philosophy of Freud’. Lear is a psychoanalyst, philosopher,  publisher in the Oxford Aristotelian Society, and writer of books about happiness. He’s one of the handful of really great teachers I’ve been lucky to know. I think the best teachers have a deserved reputation for their professional excellence; but in addition, I find they are open, modest, approachable, and genuinely concerned for their students’ benefit. Lesser teachers seem more concerned with their status than with their students’ development. But I don’t suggest teachers should be ‘buddies’ to students, or try to win ‘Rate My Teacher’ polls. That’s the marketing approach to education.

Personal therapy at several difficult times have added helpful ideas about happiness, especially with Richard – a very perceptive and effective talk-therapist, with a PhD in psychology. He showed how most patients try to manipulate therapists, to avoid seeing and facing themselves clearly. I started many off-topic conversations with him, that were unconscious diversions. Richard knew it, and never lost track of the business at hand.

I’m not a mental health professional, but can comment on what I learned about happiness, and it’s requisites; and to reflect on what I failed to learn well enough. To repeat, it involves knowing ourselves objectively, so we can let go of a false sense of who we are. Ideally, without feeling compelled either to belittle or aggrandize ourselves, we should forget ourselves, and live directly. Paradoxically, self-forgetting requires (as I said above) paying really close attention to ourselves, at times, so we can understand, and let go of, beliefs, recipes and behaviors that may have worked for us as young people, but now hamper us as adults. In the process, we may also have to let go of what our parents taught us (or we think they taught us), if it no longer makes sense.

Mental and behavioral ‘coping mechanisms’ we learned early in life rest on patterns of association – connections between painful feelings (guilt, shame, worthlessness, fear, loneliness, insecurity, self-hating, etc.) and some deeply moving words or actions of others – perhaps a parent or important loved one. Often the occurences are forgotten, but their consequences remain. At the time, we interpreted these experiences (whether or not correctly) to imply we were bad, evil, unlovable, not up to par, etc.

No doubt the lists of particular causes and effects may differ, but the outcomes are similar, it seems to me. Similar enough, at least, that an experienced therapist will have seen the pattern many times, and can hold a mirror up to us, until we begin to recognize and understand what we internalized. Psychoanalytic traditions have given very helpful insights about these ‘associations’. And no, it’s not all about sex.

The counselor doesn’t need to be smarter than we, nor must she be able to give us ‘good advice’ or solutions to our problems, like “Stop taking on more work than you can handle”. Clients often expect advice – even demand it. But that’s really a distraction, like asking what time it is, or looking anxiously towards the door, which we use to divert our attention from ourselves and the honest mental work to be done.

Advice about what we should try to do or be to feel happier misses the point. The therapist isn’t there to inform, though she may have informative – even impressive – ideas, or be a good conversationalist. Her job is to help us see, understand and accept that we ourselves are the main source of unhappiness – not ‘the world’ – so that we can make the needed internal changes. These problems don’t have solutions, as math or engineering problems do. But they can be resolved, or better, will dissolve, if we see and work on them.

Success in this work takes a perceptive, practiced and empathic therapist. But she can’t do it alone – i.e. with a client who is passive and waiting to be cured. (I don’t like the term ‘client’ which emphasizes a business relationship. But I also dislike the term ‘patient’, whose root meaning is passive; a passive client won’t find a happy outcome.) A ‘self-medicating’ person who takes drugs to escape mental pain, is passive. She’s waiting for the drugs to do the work for her. But drugs can’t make anyone self-aware; they only bring forgetfulness.

If we can learn how we make ourselves unhappy, we can begin to practice not doing it, and open ourselves to a happier approach instead. This doesn’t mean we’re looking for ecstasy, or waiting to be overcome with joy; but relative peace and contentment are certainly within our grasp. Our practice requires staying engaged in the world, as I’ll discuss below. Can we get rid of everything that makes us unhappy? That sounds unreasonable, but it is conceivable. Remember, although many things are beyond our control, how we react to them we can control, as we’ve been discussing.

This is an ancient philosophical idea – long before modern psychology or mental health ‘science’. We’re not responsible for what lies beyond our control, like death, sickness, the weather, people’s misdeeds that impact us, or what others think about us (a huge concern for Americans today, in the age of selfies!) We can control our worries. In fact, if we could get rid of every worrisome thought, that would include the fear of death, as well as the disappointment that happiness can’t last ‘forever’. So happiness – defined as getting rid of needless worries – can be complete, regardless of the length of any life. While we’re alive, we can minimize the effects of uncontrollable events by prudent thinking, finding a few good friends, and simplifying our lives. We certainly don’t need to join the rat-race! All these relevant ideas about happiness can be found in the Letter to Menoeceus by the Greek philosopher Epicurus, who also lived in chaotic times.

Unlike Epicurus, I believe life does continue after death, but I agree that anxiety about it is needless suffering. Thought and appropriate action about our spiritual future (however uncertain it may be scientifically speaking) isn’t a waste of time, or inappropriate.

‘Fleshing out’ healthy attitudes with compassion

The biggest factor in the ‘practice of happiness’ is other people.

The ‘objectivity’ I’ve been discussing here is not enough. We can’t ‘get happy’ alone; we need others. That doesn’t mean others can make us happy, though. No one can do that for us – not even God. Besides, if we believe they could, then they could also make us unhappy. As Sartre famously said, through one of the characters in his play No Exit: “Hell is other people”.

I won’t get into Sartre’s Existentialism here, except to say that he emphasized the (absolute) foundational value of subjectivity. The ‘problem’ with other people, comes from his belief that every person is primarily a subject, who can’t be discovered, analyzed or known objectively, even by the  person herself – much less experienced by another. To every subject, every other person necessarily appears as an object, or thing. We unavoidably objectify others, which is an affront to their true unique selfhood – i.e. who they truly are as individuals. They do the same to us. It’s a conflict without a resolution. I think it’s an extreme view, but fascinating, and very influential. Sartre became almost a cult hero for French students in the mid-20th century.

Leaving existentialism aside, it remains true that we need others in the practice of happiness. It’s a social thing. It involves our behavior to other people – not just a private act of will. If someone intends to find happiness, she will do something to bring it about – not just wish for it. Doing something involves caring, which The Dalai Lama calls being compassionate. That is where other people come in. He put it this way:

If you want others to be happy, practice compassion; and if you want yourself to be happy, practice compassion with yourself (Introduction to the 10th Anniversary (2009) Edition of The Art of Happiness – A Handbook For Living.

I would go farther, and say that we should want others to be happy, just as we naturally do want ourselves to be happy. So we need to practice compassion, or do good, for others, as well  as for ourselves. I think this is the gist of the Golden Rule: “Do to others what you would want done to you” (Matthew 7:12). Perhaps a more manageable task is its negative form, sometimes called the Silver Rule: “Don’t do to others what you would not want done to you”. Some religious traditions call good deeds ‘charity’ (caritas). I like the term ‘compassion’ instead, because it involves a heartfelt commitment to another’s happiness – not just a behavior that might be empty, or even hypocritical.

The Art of Happiness was co-authored by the Dalai Lama’s psychiatrist friend, Howard Cutler, MD. Cutler says happiness is a matter of ‘scientific fact’ – i.e. that there are measurable aspects, observable by brain-scan technology, which confirm  what his Buddhist friend and collaborator (“His Holiness”) had long been saying. I disagree with the ‘naturalism’ of much that Cutler contributes to the book’s ideas about happiness. He seems to suggest it is reducible to brain states, and/or to observable behaviors. But compassion is primarily something mental – an attitude, neither organic nor observable – although it must be acted out to be meaningful. No doubt it manifests organic effects too, just as good and bad mental states have observable effects on our bodily health.

There ‘good reasons’ for unhappiness

From what I see around me in the streets, from what family, friends and acquaintances tell and show me, from what I hear and see via popular media sources of people’s words and actions, not to mention non-anecdotal evidence from ‘reputable’ sources about trends in various groups in the USA, I judge that few people have learned the helpful lessons I was given over the years. They appear generally unhappy – i.e. bored, suspicious, distracted, fatigued, dissatisfied, annoyed, self-absorbed, etc. – and seem clueless about where happiness comes from, or how it might be achieved. There are countless ways to support this claim, but I like this short description of reality in Time, by an outsider – British observer, Ruth Whippman. Her main point is that people here have unrealistic expectations, that can’t be met.

It’s not surprising to read that most Americans stand lower on the 2017 World Happiness Report than  they did 10 years ago, as well as relative to other countries. On some indexes and by other polls, they’re even less happy than they were 30 years ago.  I’m very skeptical about what we can learn from such reports, since it’s difficult to define happiness in observable facts, or know  what indexes can measure it. Even so, concepts like income, job security, optimism, family structure, health, environmental conditions, social and financial inequality, education, trust of government, incidence of drug use, stress levels, suicide rates, and how Americans rank  with other nations, do put some substance into the analyses.

Keeping this is mind, I think most people are unhappy for understandable reasons, but they are not ‘good reasons’ for those who understand and practice what happiness requires. Even so, it’s foolish to deny that our society is full of ills, which need to be understood and addressed, including a great lack of compassion. These ‘ills of society’ are what I’ve been examining for many years – a few of which I can summarize here.

One ‘ill’ I’ve focused on for decades involves how various media characterize and present events and issues to their audiences. Here’s a talk I gave thirty years ago on the topic of TV watching published in Vital Speeches of the Day for 1988. I think the most popular and influential media are themselves a major ill of our society. They are instrumental in ‘what’s wrong’ with America (and other nations) – increasingly ‘part of the problem, not part of the solution’. Whatever the format – radio, television, film, video, print newspapers and journals (or their online versions), blogs, various ‘social media’, and even old fashioned hard-copy books (typically also available online) – their primary activity is marketing, their approach is entertainment, and their goal is money.

This money-making trend in media was well underway before the development of the Internet, as described in Neil Postman’s 1985 book, Amusing Ourselves to Death. It has only intensified since everything is now available ‘online’.  The messages found in mainstream media make people self-concerned, fearful and neurotic about their ‘image’ and how they compare to others. In fact, Americans’ obsession with screen watching has become a dangerous addiction in itself, which Adam Alter describes in his recent book, Irresistible.

I’ve watched for years the growing conflict between TV producers who make kids’ shows, and sell ads, and concerned citizens who want to eliminate advertising from the content, as public children’s shows are intended to do. The producers are winning. Sadly, even some publicly funded shows have started the move to commercial control of content, like the classic Sesame Street.

Especially since the Reagan era, arguments  for protecting children from manipulative advertising have been trumped by arguments for ‘free speech’ – which means in practice permission to control kids’ thinking about products, and through them, their parent’s purchases. Here’s a recent discussion of this trend in marketing to children. In TV programming, up til now, there was a compromise, made by the FTC in 1990, which separated content and ads. In online programming the UK only last year banned junk food ads aimed (directly or indirectly) at children. In America there are effectively no limits, despite recent litigation  in the Federal Trade Commission.  This is a trend that has continued after the 2016 elections.

In the culture of financialization, which has taken off in the last 50 years, the people most successful at money making are those who can persuade others, not only to buy what they sell, but especially to put off immediate payment of purchases by use of credit and loans. This ‘generosity’ of easy credit encourages debt to grow in the lives of most people, while a small number of financiers at the top of the debt pyramid who ‘own’ the debt – the “One Percent” (or better, the .01%) – can control those who have taken it on, whether through ignorance, foolishness, or of necessity.

I need not prove these ideas here; they are increasingly well known by those who are not kept ignorant by popular, corporate media. An excellent summary of these trends is Michael Hudson’s recent book, J is for Junk Economics (2017). His bio and many of the themes he deals with are at his website. Another more focused study of financialization is by Scottish economist John Kay (2015) – Other People’s Money – which concentrates on changes in banking culture, and the damage to the real economy that its emphasis on investment and speculation in derivative markets (what Warren Buffett called “financial weapons of mass destruction”) that add nothing to the ‘real economy’, here and world wide. Kay discusses the same issues in this 2015 video (25′ presentation; 25′ Q&A).

Public health is another area negatively affected by financialization. The health of large parts of the population has not significantly improved in decades, and in some respects is worse (e.g. in the epidemic problems of obesity, unhealthy food sources and diet, and drug use); and overall, health care is more  costly for everyone. Don’t think the cost is due to expensive technological improvements in medical procedures and products.  In other industries, the cost of new technologies comes down over time. The ‘medical industry’ too is under the control of financiers, who look on health, not as a public good, but as a financial opportunity. The evolution of health care as business is well documented in Elisabeth Rosenthal’s book An American Sickness (2017) – now in paperback.  The introduction and a lengthy  ‘preview’ of the book can be found by pushing the “Look Inside” button at this site.

Finally, the list of issues I regularly think about must certainly include education. Schools – both public and private – have become financialized too, which I’ve watched develop over a long teaching career. Rather than informing and educating, they are now becoming ‘job training’ factories for the students, and money-making businesses for the management. Teachers are primarily employees, whose diminishing respect in communities results from their perceived role as ‘labor’, rather than professionals, cheapened by negative publicity encouraged by ‘management’ and the politicians and financial supporters who benefit from lower wage costs, in the name of cost-effectiveness. Students are referred to as ‘customers’. The highest market ratings go to schools and teachers who are best at ‘customer satisfaction’, not good education. Interestingly, a Google search for “Financialization of education”, only dealt with higher education. Not a word about public (or private) K thru 12 schooling, with one exception: Life in Schools (2015), by Canadian teacher and critic Peter McLaren.  The book is radical, and provocative. My experience and study confirm the author’s claims, whether or not I agree with his proposals. The 6th edition gives an even stronger indictment of public schooling than previous editions. (To get McLaren’s general critique, scroll through the Contents, Forewords and Preface, to Part I – “Class Dismissed” – and read the first few pages of this selection.)

This is a summary of some of our ‘modern ills’, and my judgments about them, in broad brush terms. Although supported with documentation and reasoning, they are generalities. For that reason, a reader can read about them – even understand them – without being emotionally disturbed by them. That’s because taking the ‘big picture’ viewpoint often allows a person to ‘rise above’ things, and think in a rarefied atmosphere that often seems abstract, theoretical, and somehow removed from reality.

Even if we understand, what’s going on down there (in the streets and the countryside), we may comfortably think, ‘These ills don’t apply to me’, even though they often do. I point this out, because I too, although convinced these ideas that I study and report are true, can remain ‘objective’ about them, and so avoid being depressed by what they show. But is this objectivity a kind of selfish escape from pain? Personal, emotional involvement is something altogether different, which I’ve tried to avoid in most of my long carreer. This worries me now. Maybe I should be depressed.

Every effective news reporter knows the need for emotion-laden examples, in trying to move people. Reporting that over 5000 migrants died crossing the Mediterranean in  2016 (which is true) doesn’t have nearly the impact of a story about a single drowned child, especially if it’s illustrated with a photo. Let me suggest, however, that it’s not the particulars, or instances, that give life to the generalities. It’s the feelings they can bring to the viewer. But that happens only if the facts relate to something she has experienced personally, or involve someone important to her.

People live their lives personally – even when they think in general terms. That holds for me too. I must remember it, and follow it, if I would live a real life, applied in compassionate action. It’s easy to live in the clouds, and even to imagine a day a  heavenly life – as traditionally depicted – where one is so ethereal she can sit on a cloud, harping praises to God. But I’m sure that isn’t reality, either now or in the hereafter.






Leave a Reply