Introduction: rejected pleasure and asceticism
Happiness, the designer drug conferred upon the human condition by the Gods, has three mechanisms of action: future, present, and past. We have discussed in a previous essay how it is that happiness interacts with the future, how we yearn for specific outcomes that we stare at from a cliff ledge, waiting for the right moment to leap. But we have yet to concern ourselves with happiness within the now: the present. After this essay, we will then deal with happiness and the past, so prepare yourself accordingly (Jan, 07).
There is an infamous saying amongst westerners, a saying which is practiced far less than it is uttered: namely, short-term pain, long-term gain. This phrase is very much similar to notions that regard the future as possessing happiness; that is, one acquires reward in some near or distant future by enduring periods of pain: suffer now and then receive the bounty of thy suffering later. Indeed, up until the importation of quasi-eastern philosophy, a majority of western culture reflected the philosophy of pain first reward second: depression then happiness. As a child, we are told to eat our vegetables, then have dessert; go to school, then pursue our dreams; develop a career, then have a family. The west, being driven towards capital gain, has, arguably, developed a masochistic mentality: negate pleasure and pursue gain.
In many ways, the west is utterly blind the present moment. Children are told at a very young age that they need to begin the consideration of careers, that they should strive for future success, and that they should find a means to retire early on in life. Even more so, the adults tell each other how much fun they will have come the weekend, how they cannot wait until their vacation from work which will take place in a months time, or how excited they are for the next video game or cellular phone. It is no wonder that soo many people are saddened, they never get out of the waiting room for happiness.
Of course, there is also no denying the efficacy of the deferral of pleasure; children that differ rewards tend to be more successful, and most accomplishments that are grand in nature, like writing a book, require years of deferral. So, there is something to be said about the deferral of gratification, though whatever that may be, it will be said elsewhere. Thus, this essay shall be understood as an alternative to the deferral of pleasure, not an argument against it.
Each Moment and the Future: model of happiness
When one seeks out happiness, they do so because of a void: an empty space where happiness ought to be. That describes the pre-conditions for those that seek a future laced with joy. In that process of seeking, there is a requirement of impulse control, a restraint on momentary fulfillment; if we want to earn the title of “graduate,”, “CEO,” or “champion,” then we must spend endless nights with books, work, and practice rather than friends, clubs, and television. The reliance upon self-control to achieve an envisioned future. This is the essence of the future happiness model.
Comparatively, momentary happiness, the happiness of now, requires no such deferral of reward. Momentary happiness requires, in the barest sense, the devaluation of values and the cessation of desire for future outcomes; this is much easier said than done, and may even take years of reflection to be sufficiently understood.
It may seem odd that momentary happiness requires the devaluation of some values first, but, for those who have been entrenched in a given culture throughout their lives, it is necessary nonetheless. And devaluing cultural values is no easy process; hence the years of reflection.
Culture and Values: the great devaluation
When we develop alongside a particular cultural background, values that have been picked by others rather than ourselves influence our intuitions about the world. In the west, children that are around the ages of sixteen and seventeen concern themselves with which universities they will attend; however, in other societies, for those of age sixteen or seventeen, there may be no such concerns. Even more so, for westerners that are around age 30, having offspring or developing a life-long career becomes an immediate concern, yet this pattern is far from universal. The point being, we implicitly value some cultural ideas far more than others, and some cultural ideas place a great emphasis on future happiness. The university student spends countless hours memorizing terms and definitions to score well on an upcoming exam, all so they will appear valuable to an employer, which will then bring the student happiness. It is when we consider how our cultural values influence us, and whether these values are necessary or not, that we then begin to see how a devaluation of values brings us immediate happiness: a liberation from cultural chains.
Even furthermore, there are those pernicious cultural values and beliefs that place us into a permanent depression, a depression that will be relieved by a future full of glory; however, this glory will be reached, if and only if we follow the dictates of some book, leader, or rules. A president that comes along during an economic hardship can promise a future of wealth, if and only if we follow their economic plan. A religious book can promise future glory, beyond life, if and only if we follow its demands. A boss can promise success in the not so distant future, if and only if we follow what he or she asks of us: internships. Many of these sources of dictation have an implicit assumption of sadness, depression, or incompleteness; that is, those who follow those rules, leaders, or books must be seeking future benefit due to unhappiness with the present. The book can describe the prevalence of evil or sin within a society, and thus within the reader, and offer its self as a way to a better future without, a future without evil or sin; the leader can offer themself as the means to monetary abundance, and the boss can do the same; in doing so, they become a fulfiller of someone’s economic desires. The relationships we have to these sources of production are also non-arbitrary; meaning, the valuations we assign to leaders, books, and presidents is greatly influenced by our cultural backgrounds. These group established values, as mentioned, can murder one’s happiness.
Stops Signs and Desire: the cessation of desire
After considering the influence that our values have on our intuitions about happiness, there awaits yet another aspect of momentary happiness to consider: the cessation of desire. The structure of desire has an inherent preference for future states of affairs; that is, desires are things that can only be quenched by an acquisition or something. If I desire food, then my desire goes unfulfilled so long as my plate remains empty. Desires are always accompanied by a yearning for futures, for a desire demands something different from the present.
There is nothing wrong with desire, nor is it the case that one cannot be happy whilst desiring something; however, it is certainly the case that desire makes it harder to be happy in the moment. Not only does having a desire mean one is not completely content but it also lowers one’s overall level of contentness by adding further to one’s inadequacies. To elaborate, desire emphasizes the fact that one does not have what they want, whereas a lack of desire means one needs nothing more than what they have. A billionaire that wants a billion more has less momentary happiness than that same billionaire when completely content. Thus, a prerequisite to absolute momentary happiness is to the cessation of desires.
Now, it must be said, the cessation of desires does not mean the cessation of long-term goals or daily activities; rather, the cessation of desires only means an alteration in perspective. Instead of reading a book to pass a class, read a book because it is fun. If one does not find the book fun, then do not pass the class. Those who pass the class and do not pass the class are both headed nowhere. There is no linear-progression towards “success” when one becomes happy in the moment. Both the student that passed and failed will both die and have their atoms redistributed throughout the universe: I.e., the stars died and became humans. Once one breaks free from the doctrine of “be successful,” they can start being happy. And if that which makes them happy just so happens to be “being successful,” then so be it. At that point, they will be doing things that make them happy rather than things that they desire, and this will allow for happiness in the moment. They will no longer desire success, they will just enjoy the behaviors that bring them success, a subtle but impactful difference. Again, this is easier said than done, because it requires one to never be motivated by failure or success; the student need not fear a failing grade, the CEO need not fear the collapse of the company, and the investor need not concern themself with massive losses.
And be cautious of those that claim to be experts on stress, as they will argue against this view. More specifically, in modern mental health, this would be referred to as a maladaptive response since the level of concern is not proportionate to the events (1)(2)(3). They would argue that stress, in some regard, is healthy. However, it seems far more maladaptive to be concerned about something that will not matter. Whether one becomes a billionaire or homeless makes no difference in the outcome of one’s life. We are all going to die, and to race around in a worry will not change that. Thus, the acceptance of the inevitable allows one to engage in the enjoyable: momentary happiness. Do what makes one happy rather than desiring a specific outcome, for all our outcomes are the same.
In Conclusion: now what?
Our discussion has led us to new lands, lands which many of us have never seen before let alone step foot on. When journeying through this new land, it is important to remember that values are perfectly fine to have, we will always have them. One of the great misunderstandings of nihilism: the view that everything is meaningless, is that it should be permanent. In reality, it is quite the contrary; nihilism is only a vessel to arrive at a new destination, not a place to live. The person who lives on the vessel will have no land to call their home; a constant journey to nowhere, forever lost at sea.
If one wants to be happy in the moment, then one must first revisit those implicit values developed through cultural and psychological development that place a heavy emphasis on the future. Begin to reflect on how it is these cultural values influence one’s view on life, especially those that require a delay of reward. Devalue those values and restart. Read books for joy rather than to be the best student in the class, or invest in stocks for fun rather than to become a billionaire. Once we stop desiring things, the probability of us being happy skyrockets. We begin to focus less on the outcome and more on the moment; the here and now rather than the there and later. To be happy in the present requires a journey on the nihilism river.
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(1) Barkham, M. (2013). Clinical psychology. London: SAGE.
(2) Kring, A. M. (2018). Abnormal psychology.
(3) Trull, T. J. (2005). Clinical psychology. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.