They Stole Your Happiness

There’s a movie that came out in 2005 called Revolver, starring Jason Statham (with hair!) in which Jake Green (Statham) has been thrown into prison in solitary confinement. His cell is sandwiched in between a chess master on one side and an expert con-artist on the other. Dangerous combination, chess and cons. Between the two of them , they had figured out the simple rules to any game or con. The rules are as follows:

  • You only get smarter by playing a smarter opponent.
  • The more sophisticated the game, the more sophisticated the opponent.
  • Those are the only two numbered rules. Then there’s explanation:
    • If the opponent is very good, he will place his victim inside an environment he can control.  The bigger the environment, the easier it is to control. He’ll toss the dog a bone…find their weakness, give ’em just a little of what they think they want.  So the opponent simply distracts their victim by getting them consumed with their own consumption.
    • The bigger the trick and older the trick, the easier it is to pull. Based on two principles–they think it cant be that old, and they think it can’t be that big for so many people to have fallen for it. Eventually, when the opponent is challenged or questioned… it means the victims investment, and thus his intelligence, is questioned.  No one can accept that. Not even to themselves.
    • You will always find a good opponent in the very last place you would ever look.

I won’t spoil the movie for you (and I don’t agree with it completely), as it’s quite good and gets you to think, but it sprung to mind recently when I was reading a book which mentions that everyone has their idea about what the good life is. The author mentions that not only do we do things which we feel will bring us closer to achieving the good life, but things are also done to us based on what others think the good life is. On the one hand, this is fairly obvious, right? We all know that consumerism is all about buying things, and that’s why there are advertisements all over the place. On the other hand, this is a far more insidious trap than we might think. At the time of writing, we’re mid-way through January and the “normal” has set back in. A few months ago social media was blowing up every few weeks about how terrible 2016 was, and declarations about how 2017 was going to be better, and how people were going to “choose happiness and peace” in the new year. 2016 was pretty much universally acknowledged as a terrible year and I find it bizarre how much people accept that idea as true without stopping to think about it. Why was 2016 a terrible year? Did we have a consensus about 2015? On a personal level, certainly some people had bad years, but I don’t see any reason to think that collectively everyone had a bad year. How could that be statistically possible? There was definitely a lot more conversations about race due to different violent things happening, whether that’s the killing of cops or the killing of black people by cops etc. Unfortunately, that’s not really what seemed to propel the general idea of it being a bad year (though it certainly contributed). The two things which seemed to make everyone think 2016 was a bad year were the election cycle and celebrity deaths.

This was the backdrop upon which people were interpreting their circumstances. Essentially, it was a culture-wide confirmation bias. We were constantly being told, via news and “social influencers” (see- youtubers etc.) that 2016 was “taking” people, and that the election was the worst thing that could possibly happen. How many celebrities promised, emphatically, to move out of the country if Trump won? How many of those celebrities are still here? I would call their statements hyperbole, except that in an era of exaggeration, it’s hard to tell what that word means. There’s a lot that could be talked about there, but the point here is that we were effected by something not of our own choosing. Every little thing that went wrong in our personal lives was amped up by the backdrop of the culture such that we felt the snowball effect of an entire year being bad. What was the response, as we got closer to the year ending? Unbridled optimism.

There’s always at least a bit of optimism going into a new year, and that’s not necessarily wrong. I’m all for making changes to better yourself in one way or another. This time it seemed to be amplified though, in a way that was rather strange in my opinion. For example, instead of the usual “new year new me” variations that people tend to shoot for, it was more forceful. It was if people felt the need to try and swing the pendulum back the other way to make sure that 2017 got off on the right foot. Memes were flying about how they had pre-decided that 2017 would be amazing (not just better or good) or that 2017 would (not might or should) be the year of unity, or how they were going to choose happiness and peace in the new year. I’d like to take a moment and do a quick experiment with you. I would like you, right now, to choose to be happy. If you’re already happy, I would like you to choose to be sad. What about anger, can you choose to be mad? Of course not. Perhaps you smiled really big and tried to laugh, or tried to cry, or scrunched up your face and bared your teeth, but those were all acting like what you think the emotion looks like, not actually feeling those emotions. Now I’m sure that most people are merely saying/posting those things as a way to represent that they’re going to try and have a more positive outlook on things in the coming year, and that’s not a bad thing, but it did make me wonder why there was such forceful optimism this go-round. It’s as if ammunition was being stockpiled in the wake of a war, and just in case things might not go as planned at the start of round 2.

Now what does all that have to do with happiness? There for a while (up until 1 or 2 generations ago) it seemed like happiness was pretty straightforward, right? The American Dream of a house, white picket fence, car(s), 2.5 kids, and a dog. We’re tempted to look back and go “how did people actually want something so cheesy?” , “how did they actually sell that same cookie-cutter dream to different people?!?” or maybe even “how did they not see that’s propaganda!”. The overly simplistic answer is that it was the air they breathed. Propaganda is rarely easy to see, since it never takes the same form, and those questioning it are met the same way a fish asking other fish how the water is would be met. Let’s look at it like this: What is happiness? I recently asked this question on social media, and got a number of different forms of the same answer: happiness is a fleeting emotion dependent on circumstances. Fair enough. Given the age of exaggeration, when we want to say “this makes me happy” we instead say “happiness is ___”. While being a needlessly mystical construction, it’s easy enough to understand, but now we’re met with a fairly strange juxtaposition. On the one hand, we know that happiness is something that is temporary, and dependent on circumstances. On the other hand, we’re on a race of desperate struggle to try and attain happiness at almost any cost. It’s strange, but you’ve seen examples of this as well. Friends writing blogs wishing they knew how to be happy, overhearing someone talking about how depression is on the rise, having a friend ecstatic to be dating only to be devastated when they’re single (on repeat), the endless posts on the result of quizzes seeking to tell us who we are (what does your name mean, what is your power quality, etc.). I don’t remember ever being told to strive for happiness, to be honest. My parents wanted the best for me, and they certainly communicated their love for me, and that they wanted me to be happy, but it was never really a goal. Happiness certainly isn’t bad, but if we know it’s dependent on circumstances that are fleeting, why do we try and capture it? Where did this come from?

“The bigger the environment, the easier it is to control. He’ll toss the dog a bone…find their weakness, give ’em just a little of what they think they want. So the opponent simply distracts their victim by getting them consumed with their own consumption.”

In the book I mentioned earlier, he gives a couple examples of this, using the mall as an example. Pardon the extended quotation.

  1. I’m broken, therefore I shop. Given the smiling faces that peer at us from beer commercials and the wealthy people who populate the world of sitcoms, we are sometimes prone to suppose that the culture of consumerism is one of unbridled optimism, looking at the world through rose-colored glasses. But this misses an important element of the mall’s rituals–its own construal of the brokenness of the world, which issues not in confession but in consumption. . . .The point is this: implicit in those visual icons of success, happiness, pleasure, and fulfillment is a stabbing albeit unarticulated recognition that that’s not me. We see these images on a billboard or moving in a sitcom, and an implicit recognition seeps into our adaptive unconscious (though, of course, the point is that we never really articulate this): “Huh,” we think. “Everything seems to work for these people. They seem to enjoy the good life. Their life is not without its drama and struggles, but they seem to be enjoying family and friends who help them overcome adversity. And they sure have nice accessories to go with all that. Maybe at least part of the reason they’re happy has to do with what surrounds them. . . .Do you see how the images of happiness, fulfillment, and pleasure are actually insinuating something? “This isn’t you,” they tell us. “And you know it. So do we.” What is covertly communicated to us is the disconnect and difference between their lives and our own life, which often doesn’t look or feel nearly as chipper or fulfilled as the lives of the people in these images do.
  2. I shop with others. . . .However, what sort of vision of human relationships is implicit in the rituals of the market? While we might participate in the mall’s liturgies in pairs or groups, what model of human interaction is implicit in the Story it’s selling us? It seems to me that, despite being a site of congregation and even a venue for a certain kind of friendship, in fact its practices inculcate an understanding of human interaction that fosters competition rather than community; it inscribes in us habits of objectification rather than other-regarding love. . . .I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched the circle of young women around my daughter and noted the lightning fast up-down assessment, or watched as one of them looks at her shoes and purse while they think no one else is looking. What’s just happened in those habits of unstated judgment and evaluation? Two things, it seems to me. First, we’ve implicitly evaluated others vis-a-vis ourselves and then triangulated this against the ideals we’ve absorbed from the mall’s evangelism. Second, in doing so, we’ve kept a running score in our head: either we’ve congratulated ourselves on having won this or that particular comparison or we’re demoralized to realize that, once again, we don’t measure up. Subtly then, we’ve construed our relationships largely in terms of competition–against one another and against the icons of the ideal that have been painted for us. In the process, we have also objectified others: we have turned them into artifacts for observation and evaluation, things to be looked at–and by playing this game, we’ve also turned ourselves into similar sorts of objects and evaluated ourselves on the basis of our success at being objects worth looking at.

Now forget for a moment what Freud taught you about the subconscious and that objectifying necessarily means sexual objectifying. Lest we think we’re immune from this kind of influence because we don’t frequent malls, realize that we still watch TV and movies and objectifying ourselves and others has become a massive enterprise with social media. In fact, I would argue that upwards of 80% of all social media posts are involved in the same sorts of objectifying comparisons and judgments. While everyone talks about how important it is to not compare ourselves with other people, we sure do want people to recognize how much we know the importance of that. In sharp contrast to all of this competition and objectifying, a friend of mine summarized Augustine’s view which offers a different view of happiness.

Happiness is having what we want, and wanting what we ought.

This shifts the focus from scoring points to a more worthwhile endeavor. It leads to more questions, such as what things should we want? Many people throughout history have attempted to answer that question in various ways, but the Bible has a number of things to say about it.

Here’s a good place to start.

Wake up Mr. Green.



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