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Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Limit of Human Happiness

A thought experiment.

I do not know how we would measure the upper limit of human happiness or even how we could determine from signs who is most happy—and that’s not because, as Hamlet knew, signs can be faked but because different people express their happiness in different ways. His smile may for all I know mean so much more than her laughter. I do know that there is an upper limit to human happiness. I like the expression “totally happy.” If you are totally happy, you are as happy as you can be. Anyone can be totally happy. No one can be totally happy all the time—or even most of the time. Some people can be happy to have a strip of bacon on their cheese and tomato sandwich. Some people cannot be happy with a 100 foot yacht on the dock of their Mediterranean villa. It seems to me that the former are the luckier.

Emily Dickinson observed,

Could themself have peeped –
And seen my Brain – go round –
They might as wise have lodged a Bird
For Treason – in the Pound –

Himself has but to will
And easy as a Star
Look down upon Captivity –
And laugh

There is a conspiracy not just in our culture but in our genes to make us discontent with our lives. As yawns and laughter are contagious, desire and all emotions, stances, points of view are contagious. There’s nothing more natural than jealousy—biblical covetousness. Like everything else, it is in itself morally neutral. Like alcohol, surrender to it leads to unhappiness. The realization of this leads to religious renunciation or Nietzschean sublimation.  It is hard to be content with one’s life when both the culture and the DNA work against us, and when death keeps reminding us it’s drumming its fingers and holding the door. But it is possible. One can be on the constant lookout for new and more. One can spend one’s limited time piling up more unique experiences and more things. The action in itself is morally neutral. It may make one person fuller and more content; it may make another person emptier and more desperate. One can also understand that every moment is infinite. One can go deeper and deeper into being in the cloister. For one person the neck of a guitar is too big to ever hope to fully understand; for another the whole world and all its riches are too flat and too shallow. It seems to me the former is the luckier. It seems to me that the mind is infinite and deep or trivial and shallow. 


  1. Sir this is an amazing blog! How long have you been writing? I was perusing blogs today on blogger and happened upon yours. May I become a follower? Feel free to follow mine as well - though mine is very novice in comparison to this!

  2. Thank you for your kind words. I'm fifty and I've been writing my whole life as far as I know. I would be glad to have you subscribe to this blog. It's open to all.

  3. No middle ground? Either cloister or shallow world curiosity?

    1. No middle ground? It's all middle ground in fact. The edges are only conceptual. And I said "luckier" not "deeper." There's nothing shallow about "world curiosity." A person who can become totally happy in his own back yard is luckier because his back yard is always there and easy to get to. It's not a moral difference.