On Buddhism, Happiness & Pessimism

Published on Monday August 15th, 2011

The question of how to be happier is sort of boring to me, a bit like “How can I save over 50% on my car insurance?” It’s probably worth knowing what the answer is, and especially useful for people who are paying too much for car insurance. But the knowledge is not, in itself, very interesting. I already know that certain things will make me happy or unhappy, and having positive psychologists tell me what those things are with greater specificity is a minor discovery in the scheme of things. We learn very little about the human condition that we didn’t already know by finding out that social connections are important to happiness, for example.

A more interesting question is why people relive unhappy events long after they’ve passed, and continue to suffer from things that aren’t happening to them despite immediate conditions that are quite pleasant and comfortable. If humans are hedonistic machines looking for happiness and avoiding pain, why do we endlessly return to painful memories when we could easily choose to think happy thoughts instead? Those who claim to only think happy thoughts are almost always suffering from either repression or disavowal - why is this necessary, if not for the fact that the past has the same deadly fascination for them that it does for everyone else? There are good reasons to doubt the claims of self-styled optimists who can’t deal with their own memories.

Pessimists are less troubled by the past. They expected the future to be bad, that belief is confirmed in the present, and they aren’t especially worried about it once it’s over. An optimist is surprised when things turn out badly, so they feel robbed, which is a much worse feeling. If Buddhism offers anything, it’s not practical steps that we could take to improve our day-to-day happiness - how would a 2500 year-old how-to manual be relevant to today’s world? Instead, it’s the “pessimistic” recognition that dissatisfaction and disappointment are part of life, not things that in themselves require going into crisis mode. Lacan and Buddha agree on this point. We can’t get over negative experiences in the past because there’s something beyond the actual negative feeling: the belief that something profoundly exceptional happened to us. We can easily weather hardship, but can’t deal with the feeling of having been robbed.

This is obvious in the literal situation of having something stolen. People are generally more upset by having their property stolen than losing it, partly because its more painful to know that someone is enjoying in your place, a tendency that leads to the common feeling, “If I can’t have it, no-one can!”

Final points to avoid misunderstanding: First, I don’t think that believing in the inevitability of disappointment leads to being politically passive. If I believe my suffering is unique, how could I be motivated to make radical changes to the system? It’s a belief that the status quo functions, with a few minor exceptions. Second, pessimism is a flexible term that’s used to cover a variety of beliefs and attitudes, and everyone seems to have a different idea of what it means. Terms of abuse have a tendency towards semantic expansion as more meanings are added - “narcissist” and “troll” are two examples. If you want to stigmatize something, it’s easier to expand the definition of something that people already hate than to invent a new one. There may be people who are considered pessimists who are resentful about the past - I’m not defending that kind of pessimism.


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