Happiness Is Quickly Becoming The Only Acceptable Feeling

Declan Wilson
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I’ve never read a book before that made me instantly double-check the often ignored first few pages with all the publication and copyright information. As soon as I finished reading Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, I had to flip to the front of the book.

1932, this book was published in Nineteen Thirty-Two. That can’t be right, I thought to myself. Books that are nearly 100 years old are about whales or parries or the French Revolution. Was Huxley a prophet among mortals?

Brave New World is a work of speculative fiction about a future World State whose main purpose is to keep everyone happy. The society has everything: a wonder drugs called soma (all the highs, none of the hangovers), personal helicopters, genetically engineered beautiful humans, and orgies, lots of orgies.

Everyone is happy all the time. No one is allowed to feel otherwise.

As you can imagine, the novel describes a dystopia rather than a utopia. Having only one acceptable state of being — happy — comes at a cost, namely, no more free will, only endless distractions from reality.

As I read this book — again, from 1932! — I couldn’t help but draw inferences to society today. When we lose someone close, we’re told to take time away so as to grieve in private. We automatically respond Good any time anyone asks how we are doing. We hide our sadness in fear of being stigmatized. We continually numb our feelings rather than cope with them.

What happens when happiness becomes the only acceptable feeling in society? What happens when all other expressed feelings are shunned, penalized, or invalidated?

Huxley didn’t write a futuristic novel, he wrote an apocryphal account of what was to come of society if we left consumerism, instant gratification, and unchecked wealth run rampant.

Huxley’s dystopia is already here. The question is, what are we going to do about it?

Decentralizing Happiness

“There was a thing called Heaven; but all the same they used to drink enormous quantities of alcohol.” — Brave New World

The mysterious duo behind Daft Punk announced — in an aptly named YouTube video, Epilogue — their retirement from music after 28 years together.

Even if you’re not into electronic house music, there’s a small chance you haven’t heard a sampling of their work. (One More Time is a Wilson Family Dance Party favorite.)

With their secret identities, cool robot helmets, and good music, Daft Punk is one of my happy makers. What’s a happy maker? Well, it’s something that makes you happy.

For most of us, a happy maker might be a simple guilty pleasure like eating chocolate or listening to Jack Johnson. For others, it might be something more dangerous like sky diving or listening to Jack Johnson.

In other words, happy makers are the small simple joys of life. (I wrote an entire book about them.)

Now, why are happy makers so important? Well, happy makers are our own. They’re unique. They’re a walk in a park, a visit with the grandchildren, a good book, or a Jack Johnson album. For the most part, they are decentralized and definitely don’t collect user data.

With technology making life a lot easier for us over the past 150 years, shouldn’t we have more time for our happy makers?

I think we should, but the numbers say the opposite.

Our happiness has become concentrated into glowing little rectangles that beep and ding and make us feel validated. It’s not even true happiness, it’s a diluted hedonic view of happiness.

We crave something deeper but keep turning to our phones. An average American adult spends about 3 and a half hours on their phone every day.

We aren’t relying on life’s simple pleasures for little boosts of bliss, we’re pulling out our phones — on the bus, in the waiting room, in bed — and scrolling for dopamine hits. We know we’re only a few taps and swipes away from a soma-vacation.

Huxley predicted it all.

Modern Life is Missing Complexity

“Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.” — Theodore Rosevelt

Happiness is a good thing. Let’s make that clear. All of us would agree, feeling happy is better than feeling lousy. Happiness is good for our health, productivity, and our relationships. But happiness need not be our only feeling to live a well-rounded life.

Boredom. Wonder. Sadness. Fear. Intrigue. Enjoyment. Anger. Contentment.

These are all valid feelings to feel in one’s lifetime. I have two children and I don’t want to pass on to them a world of manufactured happiness. I want them to understand their feelings and know what to do with them.

I want them to be human.

But how do we start? How does an average modern-day human flex their feeling muscles?

It starts with sprinkling in a little complexity to their daily lives. Think about it, vanilla ice cream is boring (well, most people think it’s boring, I think it’s perfect). But add sprinkles on top and suddenly you’ve got yourself an interesting and delicious treat.

Ice cream sprinkles were invented in 1913. They’re one of the many human improvements of the past 150 years for our species. We cured polio (along with most infectious diseases that have plagued mankind for millennia). We went to the moon. We installed indoor plumbing (finally).

Airplanes, dishwashers, the internet, even zippers, compared to the previous 200,000 years of mankind’s existence, the past 150 years have been quite the step up. But are we happier?

Let me draw your attention to the following graphic:


image by author

This graph represents the frequency of “happiness” and “happy” found in books published in English (it’s a pretty nifty tool if you want to check it out). Ignoring the more recent spike, why do we see a drop in happy and happiness usage over the past 150 years of progress?

I have a hunch.

I recently watched a video called The Psychology and Neuroscience of Happiness by The Royal Institution. Around the 12:19 minute mark, Morten Kringelbach (what a name) uses music to show how complexity plays a role in our enjoyment of music.

To summarize, a basic song with just four beats — boom, boom, boom, bam — repeated over and over again is boring. If you add a little complexity — boom, boom, boom, bam; boom, boom, bang, bam — it makes the song a bit more enjoyable.

However, too much complexity — boom, whizz, splunk, ahh-choo — and it’s not even music anymore, it’s noise. There’s a relationship between complexity and pleasure because complexity interrupts our mental “templates” or expectations.

When something unexpected — but not too unexpected — happens to us, we derive a sense of joy from it. It’s how comedy works and why impromptu Chick-fil-A runs feel more fun.

Getting back to my hunch.

Life is getting easier because we are removing the complexities that made it interesting for thousands of years.

Seinfeld isn’t is a show about nothing. It’s a show that celebrates the communal struggles of modern life (well, the 1990s version). Most of Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer’s conundrums are no longer conundrums today. The daily annoyances discussed in their booth at Monk’s are now solved today with a tap and swipe.

We’ve cut too deep, we’re removing every inconvenience that used to make life interesting. Life is becoming too predictable, too routine, and too redundant.

Without daily annoyances to occupy our time, happiness has our full attention.

Bringing It All Together

“We used to build civilizations. Now we build shopping malls.” — Bill Bryson

Let’s bring this home. Technology is removing complexity from our lives. Technology is also creating an emotional vacuum, one where happiness and only happiness is the preferred state of being. By feeding us a guaranteed endless drip of distraction and dopamine we become more and more entrenched in our technology usage, and the cycle continues to repeat itself.

Our phones have become surrogates for the things that once brought about a deep sense of joy and meaning in our lives: community, family, work, and friendships. We are no longer relying on our happy-makers.

Am I proposing we backtrack technology to return to the “good ol’ days?” Not exactly. What I am proposing, however, is that we become more aware of our dependency on our phones and technology, understand our dependency, and look for ways to add complexity back into our lives.

Everyone likes to use 1984 as the quintessential dystopian society when I believe we’ve already reached Brave New World levels. How much longer until it’s nothing but soma, genetically engineered humans, and orgies, lots of orgies.

It’s a leap, I know. But we’re getting closer if we don’t do something about it.

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Stay-at-home dad. 9-to-5 escapee. Aldi aficionado.

Baltimore, MD

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