A Formula for Happiness?
Trust economists to come up with a formula for happiness. Happiness = Reality – Expectations.
It seems that vital and core truths about ourselves in these times can only represented when they assume the form of a mathematical expression, function or equation. This rage for quantifying everything, for reducing everything to a simple mathematical function, however, perverts and distorts the truth it pretends to disclose by reducing a full-truth into a half-truth. And as Blake, Rumi, Aurobindo and others continually remind, a falsehood, error, or lie is but a half-truth that comes disguised as a full truth, which is the truth, as it were, about Stephen Colbert’s use of the term “truthiness”.
This economists’ formula for happiness appears this morning in a regular Guardian column by Oliver Burkeman entitled “The truth about happiness” (Mr. Burkeman had another article on unhappiness and discontent as the engine of economic “progress”, which is the contemporary economic and social dogma of the Adam Smith variety: “Is unhappiness the mother of invention?“).
While it contains something of a truth that “reality minus expectations equals happiness”, the statement has to be supplemented by another: “reality” means the present, the “Now”. “Expectations” pertain to the future, and are the form of demands we place on the future — that it shall be realised in such and such a way and no other. “Expectations” thus means the realisation of present happiness delayed and postponed until some indeterminate future state when these expectations, demands, or rewards are expected to be finally fulfilled. This postponement of present happiness for the sake of an expected future happiness as a reward or entitlement for current suffering (malaise or dhukka) and hard work is called “the pursuit of happiness”.
Ironically, the erstwhile father of our present economic model and system, Mr. Adam Smith, recognised that present happiness realised was detrimental to economic “progress” and growth. Present fulfillment and contentment had to be dislocated from the present moment through “expectations” of future reward for hard work, present unhappiness and current dissatisfaction. Thus, there is a great incentive for cultivating in the present what Buddhists call “dhukka” or unsatisfactoriness, discontentment, and a sense of lack. This is why we have a multi-billion dollar advertising industry. Happiness and fulfillment postponed and delayed indefinitely had to be induced as a norm as “the pursuit of happiness” and this has been called “necessary illusion”.
The economist John Maynard Keynes, perhaps recognised the delusory nature of this “necessary illusion” when he once quipped, “But this long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead.”
By coincidence, last evening I came across this interview with the Vancouver sage Eckhart Tolle, who is noted for his book The Power of Now. I suspect that much of the antipathy some express towards Tolle’s message is owing to his exposing the “necessary illusion” that happiness as something to be realised in the future as a reward for enduring present suffering, guilt, lack, hardship and unhappiness is delusory. Still, there is something of the economists’ formula of “reality – expectations = happiness” in his talk (as well as quite a few issues we’ve raised here in The Chrysalis). The YouTube video is lengthy (over two hours) but worth your while, I think,
Once you come to appreciate Tolle’s message, you will understand why some might perceive it as so “subversive”, for it challenges one of the core illusions of modernity — the “necessary illusion” that future happiness and the pursuit of happiness — can only be reallised through continual economic progress and growth, and that this is the very meaning and purpose of this growth and “progress”. Eckhart Tolle versus Adam Smith, as it were. Much of our contemporary civilisation — the Modern Era — has been organised around this core illusion, which is why we are facing so many crises today. But this illusion also lies at the core of that false self that I’ve taken to calling “the foreign installation” and the “occupied” consciousness.
I will offer some comments on Tolle’s talk later, as it contains some valuable insights that might be overlooked. I will conclude by saying, however, that the economists’ formula that Happiness = Reality – Expectations is only the statement of a truth already known to Adam Smith centuries ago, but a truth that had to be omitted or even suppressed in order to create conditions for something called “progress” which is, ironically enough, the realisation of a future happiness or “greatest good for the greatest number”, but which others, like Tolle, Blake, Rumi, etc, insist is already and immediately accessible to all here and now.