Imagine you are a young man living in a nice city. You are healthy and attractive. You have skills and are professionally qualified. You are attractive to women. Life is good. The future appears bright. You are happy.
One day you realise that your life had been a lie. You are actually a prisoner of artificially intelligent computer beings who keeps you in a vat of liquid for their own purposes. The world in which you live is only a virtual reality that the evil forces have programmed into your brain. It is not the twenty first century and there are no cosy cities anymore. Earth is a hostile dark radioactive wasteland with some free humans hiding underground in pathetic conditions.
Some rebels want to rescue you. Would you want to be rescued? This is of course, the dilemma faced by the protagonist in the epoch movie Matrix.
What would you do? What is the meaning of the happiness experienced by you if you are living in a fantasy world, totally out of touch with reality?
Prashant was a friend of mine. We were in school together. In our adult life, we had met only a few times. He was doing a successful business. One day his wife called me, and said that his behaviour had changed. His usual caution was gone, and he gambled money on many risky ventures, losing much of it. He had started drinking heavily, and that was unusual for him. He suddenly attracted a circle of shady friends and got into drunken fights with others. He developed an excessive interest in other women, much to his wife’s dismay.
When I met him, he was the same guy. The personality was same. He was a reasonably happy person, and outgoing. Now he was excessively happy. He talked incessantly and told many dirty jokes in the presence of the wife and children. Once or twice he broke into spontaneous outbursts of song. When I hinted at his recent unwise behavioural changes, he had no clue to what I was talking about.
“I am so happy, man. Life couldn’t be better,” He said.
It turned out that he had contracted a mental disease called mania. It is a psychiatric illness characterised by a permanently elevated mood. Incessant and excessive happiness for no reason. The patients have extreme self-confidence and believe that they can do no wrong.
A few consultations with a psychiatrist and one month of medicines cured him totally. He started his old life again and rebuilt his business successfully.
The Psychiatrist was an old friend of mine. He had done a thesis on Psychopaths and their mood. Psychopaths are persons who look and behave absolutely normal. But they have an abnormality- they have no conscience. Self-centered in the extreme, they never think twice about murdering or raping other people. Many are serial killers. Usually extremely intelligent, they manage to fool the authorities into thinking they are reformed. Once released, they may quickly start their old ways again. Unlike my friend Pramod’s problem, it is not an episodic illness.
“ It is a feature of their personality, and largely incurable, though there are different lines of thought” My Psychiatrist friend said.
“But they are always happy. They get angry and frustrated at the retribution society gives for their actions, but they never get depressed.” He told me.
More problematic is the fact that some perverts, like sadists get joy or derive happiness by actively inflicting pain or discomfort on others.
There are drugs, like alcohol, that make you happy. Is that good?
The last one is an easy argument to address. We are talking about long term life happiness. Drinking will make one happy, but then one has to drink more amounts more frequently to stay high. That is it is addicting. It is an addictive thing. It is a downward tightening spiral. The money runs out, the wife and kids leave. Society shuns such a person. He gets cirrhosis of the liver. And he is miserable.
So, when you consider this question, we should modify our definition a bit.
When we say ‘happiness, we don’t consider meaningless happiness, like that of a mentally challenged person or a person with injury to the prefrontal cortex as true happiness.
We should always consider other people’s happiness or the society’s happiness in addition to our own while evaluating factors that can increase our happiness.
So, the sadist’s happiness doesn’t count. He decreases his victim’s happiness. The sadist himself may lose his happiness when the society punishes him. A horrible ruler or dictator tramples on an entire community’s happiness.
A person with the psychiatric illness of mania, you may note that he greatly decreased the happiness of his wife and kids and all others near and dear to him.
We see that our innermost feelings can only make sense in a larger context. Consider another psychological concept- ‘Self-Esteem’. Recently almost everyone was in the self-esteem band wagon. “I want to boost my self esteem”. I also want to boost my kid’s self esteem. I am always right. My way- or the high way. Intellectuals theorized that criminals do dastardly acts due to lack of self esteem.
Systematic enquiry reveals that the most sustained and unshakably high self esteem is enjoyed by criminals, thugs and goons. Your local street side goonda may be wallowing in self esteem. He may actually be ‘suffering’ from it. One cannot say –‘suffer’. Because even when society punishes him, he keeps his self esteem- because- the society is wrong; it is an ass; or he doesn’t care what it thinks.
One can imagine Hitler, Stalin, Henry the eighth, and the North Korean dictator to be full of unjustified self esteem.
But there is one aspect that is good about self esteem- it makes you feel good.
Even mundane things like happiness and self esteem comes with certain qualifications. One has to earn it. And most others in our society should be happier and feel good about them just as we do. It is not I win- you lose. Win- win- up to a point. This is revolutionary new idea, historically speaking.
Read more in my book- ‘Health and Happiness without Bullshit’