On Choosing Happiness

I believe on any number of counts, including personal experience, that we have the power to choose to be happy but that the road is not altogether straightforward.

Our philosopher friends would tell us that happiness is a “quale” – one of a number of different “qualia” which we humans can experience. Qualia are subjective conscious experiences and other examples include emotions such as sadness or anger, or the taste of wine, the redness of an evening sky, the joy in music.

A quale is “what it subjectively feels like to”….feel sad or happy, or even to be a bat. Or to stare at beauty or ugliness and feel something about it. It is simply the way things seem to us. The nature and even the existence of qualia is a hotly debated topic and Wikipedia has a fair selection of current views on the matter.

Need this debate worry a seeker of happiness? Not if you are one of the lucky few who by nature get up in the morning with a smile on their face and warm instantly to the day.

To those of us not so favoured in our disposition, it would augur well to think a little on the subject of happiness and to ponder what it might be and where it might come from.

I have said elsewhere that much has been written on consciousness, but little empirically proved. In relation to qualia it is fair to say that nothing has been proved as to how or why they arise.

Progress has indeed been made on what philosophers of mind like to call the “easy” problem of consciousness. The behavioral aspects. Neuroscientists and their learned brethren have made much progress in mapping the neural correlates of our actions and experiences – we are learning to see which parts of the brain light up when we raise our hand, see a bright light, or have an orgasm.

We most of us readily accept that these are all physical attributes of our make up. That part of us, our brain, which enables us to drive a car, speak, or go to work belongs very much to the physical realm. While we have a very long way to go before answering the “easy” questions of consciousness, few would doubt that the answers will come from physics and its derivative disciplines.

The “hard” question of consciousness (a term coined by philosopher David Chalmers) is the problem of explaining why and how sentient organisms have qualia or phenomenal experiences. How and why such experiences arise from the simple atoms we are made of.

As Chalmers put it:

It is undeniable that some organisms are subjects of experience. But the question of how it is that these systems are subjects of experience is perplexing. Why is it that when our cognitive systems engage in visual and auditory information-processing, we have visual or auditory experience: the quality of deep blue, the sensation of middle C? How can we explain why there is something it is like to entertain a mental image, or to experience an emotion? It is widely agreed that experience arises from a physical basis, but we have no good explanation of why and how it so arises. Why should physical processing give rise to a rich inner life at all? It seems objectively unreasonable that it should, and yet it does.

My own preference is to believe that this aspect of consciousness, just “is”. That phenomenal experience is a fundamental aspect of nature in the same way as electromagnetism or gravity.

Phenomenal experience is what you get when matter is arranged a certain way. Where it comes from or why we may never know. It is irreducible – you can’t look into it and expect to find anything deeper. In the same way we may have to accept that electromagnetism just “is” or that matter may be made up of infinitely small strings of vibrating energy.

Where does all that leave you as a seeker of happiness? It leaves you in the position of needing to explore what factors, internal and external, physical and mental, will produce in you this subjective experience we call happiness.

Happiness is a pleasant or joyful emotion we subjectively feel within us. We take pleasure in our lives, in our work, in our families and all those around us. We are positive, we are hopeful and often as a result, kind and loving.

What external, physical factors may help to bring about such a state? Taking care of our material well being first and foremost, although the ascetic may take a different view. Looking after our health, eating and drinking properly, finding warmth, shelter and medicine when we need it. Exercising, being engaged, active in the world.

Some of us will have different external needs to others. I may crave peace, silence and nature, others the excitement of the urban sprawl and the company of fellow humans. But whatever it is, this is the easiest part of happiness – you can mostly fix it.

The internal, mental elements are something else and here it is not yet clear where you can choose and when your material constitution chooses for you.

Here there is overlap between our own volition and introspection and the way our brain is wired, but both can be fixed. And my certainty is that the mechanics of so fixing our physical machinery will become ever more sophisticated and effective – thanks of course to science.

Even if happiness is irreducible – even if like its fellow qualia it’s instantiation in base matter remains a mystery, we will become ever more able to induce that state.

If we are physically broken we must try to fix ourselves – our brain that is. My friend Alfred seems to have made great steps in that direction with the use of psilocybin.

The volitional part requires us to consider choice: are we free to choose? Do we have free will? We must proceed on the basis that we are so free – to concede to determinism is unlikely to ease the mind.

And what mental effort must we make to enter the land of the blessed?

Belief, above all we must cultivate belief. Belief in ourselves. Belief that even if the universe has no meaning or purpose pe se, we can create that for ourselves. Kindness also – we must extend it to ourselves and others. Love, by any other name.

And interest and knowledge and beauty and good things. We must sing and paint and draw and dance – we must pour our thoughts and actions into those things we know creates in us the subjective experience we so desire.

Have I gone too far? Will I be accused by the skeptical physicalist of spouting new age nonsence and airy-fairy bullshit?

Perhaps so, but to such people I would say “this is how I see it”, “this is how I try to achieve happiness and often achieve it”. If for some of my readers I manage to bring a smile of recognition to their face, then I too will feel a measure of happiness and achievement for having done so.

13 Comments

  1. Anthony,

    I particularly enjoyed this posting among the group of recent entries you’ve shared with your readers, and as is often the case lately, your ideas seem to prompt additional thinking about the subject at hand.

    While philosophers do generally tend to emphasize the difficulties inherent in attempting to describe subjective experience, your approach simplifies the question and narrows the emphasis in an interesting way. While I’m not sure I agree that we “…can’t look into it and expect to find anything deeper,” it may be that subjective experience is phenomenally irreducible, and that our scientists, philosophers, and materialists will eventually have to acknowledge the existence of ineffable factors which may be responsible for Chalmers’ “hard problem.”

    As to the question of why “physical processing should give rise to a rich inner life at all,” perhaps the reason it seems so intractable is because physical processing isn’t the actual source of our rich inner life at all. Clearly, we utilize our brain physiology, our central nervous system, and our five senses to interpret the physical world around us and to generate our cognitive capacities which permit pondering these ideas, but if, as you suggest, our phenomenal experience of consciousness “just is,” then perhaps the source of electromagnetism and gravity and the universe itself may also be the result of a source beyond the physical processes we observe and experience in that universe.

    I’m also not certain that “…Phenomenal experience is what you get when matter is arranged a certain way.” Current scientific wisdom suggests that if we are somehow eventually able to construct an “artificial brain,” that precisely replicates the physical structure of the human brain, that we will produce a “sentient machine.” This idea just seems implausible on the face of it in my view. The challenge is enormous just as a matter of practicality and our technologies will have to improve exponentially to even approach such a task, but no matter how sophisticated such a device may eventually be, it will not be “alive” in the same sense that we are and being a living being clearly requires more than simply arranging our matter in a certain way.

    I agree with you that “…we must pour our thoughts and actions into those things we know creates in us the subjective experience we so desire,” and your posting did have the effect of bringing “a smile of recognition,” to my face, and I am grateful for that.

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    1. “Perhaps the source of electromagnetism and gravity and the universe itself may also be the result of a source beyond the physical processes we observe and experience in that universe.”

      I must say John, I have thought the same thing myself, so often. It is not a very acceptable thought these days since it hints at some external “god” (or could be taken to so hint) but who knows?

      Despite what other readers of this blog may assume, it seems to me that the investigation into the “hard problem” are little advanced, despite progress on the “easy problem”.

      I suppose that is what philosophers are for – to speculate and fill in the gaps with thought experiments until such time (if ever) as science can show us the empiracle truth.

      I don’t think much will happen in our lifetime regrettably, bu then that is the case for so many of the mysteries we would like answered.

      Thank you as ever for your interest and your comment!
      A

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  2. I am focusing on 3 things this year in my “happiness project” – cultivate self-love, have fun, maximise joy. But above all – do not overthink! You can not think yourself happy. Find a way to leave your mind behind, to stop the whirring mill, the need to analyse everything – and just be. And surprise – there it is, where it always was 🙂

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    1. I have always been an analyst and maybe the calling was not a wise one for someone who so often finds life so difficult. You are right of course – just be. And yet my thoughts have been helpful to me these past couple of years. By writing I have got a lot out of my system. Probably time to truly ignore the past now.

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      1. Maybe accept rather than ignore? One day you will find yourself too tired to analyse and experience stillness of the mind. It is terrifying and wonderful. There will be no going back. The sense of peace is just too amazing. You will realise you are not your mind. And time is a mind construct. No mind – no time 🙂

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  3. I’m with Daniel Dennett. Although I don’t see it asserted that a ‘quale’ is a thing, it is certainly an abstraction, therefore not real. Psychophilosophical schemers are attempting to be scientific by identifying and measuring ‘things’ they have hypothesized and named. As for ‘happiness’, I wonder why I have never aspired to be ‘happy.’? I have been (temporarily) satisfied, at peace, gratified, and so forth. My perception of ‘happiness’ in many others is in the achievement of an aspiration (an award or credential or marriage), or getting a thing, or a lot of money in the bank, but these ‘happinesses’ last just so long. To be possibly pedantic, ‘happiness’ is a process, not a place. Doing is more gratifying than having. Thanks for responding to my blog article; now I can enjoy your thinking & writing.

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    1. Thanks for the response Ron. Yes, I agree happiness is a process and one which is not so easily achieved or maintained. Certainly I have not found it in money or “things” however much at one time I thought I would. And yes, I think you are right – experiences are more important than possessions. Although you need the wherewithal to survive.

      As to Dennett I have a tendency to read but then dismiss ideas I find either too painful or too contrary to my own sense of what is out there. Dismal Dennett is one of those I just have to ignore!

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