In Defense of the Over-Complicated Life
These days, I find myself complicating my life. I turn simple unconscious decisions into dialectics. I greet commonplace questions with tangled answers; or worse — more questions.
As I become further accustomed to the norms of academic life, my prior indoctrinations seem to fade away, leaving blank spaces where cultural certainties used to be. My typical white-Canadian-liberal values of nationalism, multiculturalism, and tolerance slowly morph into question marks; into placeholders for the dominant ideology. Every situation seems to need a post-modern analysis, and every analysis seems to require an analysis of its own. It has gotten to the point where I cannot even work-out without psychoanalytically unpacking my immortality-seeking behaviour, questioning the existential need of performing such an act.
So, why do I insist on complicating my life?
Perhaps I’d be better off heeding the guidance of the great philosopher Bobby McFerrin: “Don’t worry, be happy”.
I am undoubtedly self-inflicting a phase of Cartesian skepticism; living by the mantra “I think, therefore I complicate”. I would very much like to blame cynical sphere of academia for my ruminative affliction, but it is at most a catalyst for such extra-cultural thinking. I have become intensely drawn to Truth. Not subjective cultural truths; not the unchallenged ideological verities. The Truth which fascinates me is that investigative Truth with a capital T; the Enlightenment brand that allowed Galileo to doubt the hegemonic “matter-of-facts” distributed by the Church. I have been approaching this Truth-oriented philosophy for a few years now, delving into the workings of psychology and sociology, though mostly as a hobby. However, this philosophy was dishonest at its core because Truth was not my ultimate goal — instead, it was secondary to my search for happiness.
There’s the rub. I had been on a road-trip to Happiness, driving a van called Truth. The problem with this is that happiness obfuscates Truth, and in seeking the goal of happiness, I neglected to fuel my van and ended up stranded. To discard this awful metaphor, I will explain how happiness and Truth antagonize each other, and why my predilection for Truth causes me to complicate my life. But to briefly answer my earlier question: I insist on complicating my life because it is the only way to find Truth.
Confucius is attributed with saying that “Life is simple, but we insist on making it complicated”. Whether or not this is a Westernized version of the legendary Chinese philosopher’s work, the push for “simplicity” encapsulated by this quote is unmistakably echoed within contemporary Western life. Life, in fact, is not simple. Being alive is such a morbidly complex ordeal that we create ambiguous gods to streamline our existence; gods found not only in religion but in nationalism, economics, and even science. However, in separating ourselves from these ready-made gods, we complicate life; we see through the hollow simplicities that so often facilitate our equanimity. Distancing ourselves from the cultural lies we systematically repeat would allow us to live more truthful lives, but by no means would it enable us to be happier.
Here is a direct problem that faces those who subscribe to the dominant ideology in the West. The current ideology conflates happiness with Truth, or more accurately, prescribes Truth as a means to achieve happiness. Once you find Truth, then you will be happy. Of course, this is psychologically impossible. Any glance into a mental health treatment centre will tell you otherwise; schizophrenics come so close to the Truth of their (human) condition that they must create their own delusions and live inwardly. Even depressives fail at reproducing the agreed-upon performances of society, and so they refuse to live and surround themselves with guilt — the only remnant of the symbolic self they have left. Kierkegaard knew this in 1849; Becker reaffirmed it in 1973.
In other words, to be happy is to be unaware of Truth. Inversely, to know Truth is to understand the horrifying nature of reality, of a perplexing existence. Before I proceed any further, I would like to acknowledge the “holier-than-thou” character that I may exude in my prioritization of Truth with a capital T; after all, who am I to belittle the efforts of others to lead happy lives? What experiences do I have that enables me to claim an understanding of Truth? The answers are, respectively, no one and none. However, as someone who has become sociologically-minded, it is difficult to fall into automatic behaviours and discourses without questioning why I am doing so, as I discussed earlier. Though I am somewhere between a hedonist and a schizophrenic in terms of my happiness and understanding of Truth, I certainly have fallen into the “truth leads to happiness” trap. All of my goals and pursuits in academic research have surely been based on this ideology. Even when conscious of the control ideology has on my cognitive functions, ideology seems to persist, though perhaps in a slightly tinted way.
Even during the search for Truth, happiness slides into my mind, granting me the obliviousness, the simplicity, that is so necessary for my well-being. However, there is a catch: happiness does not make genuine promises.
To understand why happiness is so problematic, we must know what makes people truly happy. It is not the fulfilment of desire as is commonly believed, but the promise that desire brings. We think getting what we want will make us happy; but when we do get what we want, we adjust to our new reality and move on to our next desire. What makes humans far happier is almost getting what we want, as Slavoj Zizek points out in a 2019 lecture. Having all our wishes fulfilled without failure, as is commonly experienced in the privileged Western world, allows us to habituate to consistent gratification. This is why multi-millionaires and billionaires in North America can live miserable lives, and alternatively, why people in modest financial positions can be entirely satisfied. In the latter case, the economic situation is sufficient enough to provide for basic needs and perhaps occasional luxuries, but the situation is precarious enough to not provide for these needs or luxuries. Thus, in order to appreciate these objects, it is necessary to (sometimes) be unable to attain them. Otherwise, the steady stream of objects becomes the norm, and no longer warrants appreciation.
Let’s turn our attention to another typical desire: the dream job. Desiring this job makes us feel good. We know deep inside that we are competent, unique, intelligent enough for this job. All we have to do is apply, and our lives are sure to change. “Once I get this job, I’ll be happy”, we tell ourselves. But the job itself will hardly bring us happiness; any workplace is crawling with stressors. There’s the urban professional boss who acts like your best friend; the chatty co-worker who’s always eating salad; the company software that needs an update every three seconds; the traffic-laden commute; the petty cubicle dramas; etc. In desiring the dream job, we can idealize the workplace and ourselves, painting ourselves in the most flattering of lights and assuring us of what we already “know”. Getting the job would destroy this fantasy, and perhaps force us to reshape our self-perceptions. However, almost getting the job would allow us to maintain our illusion in self-perception, knowing that we did well but “it just wasn’t the right time/company for me” or “this is an opportunity to find an even better job”. The latter is an exercise of framing and is indicative of a more contemporary ideological approach to happiness that increasingly influences our thinking: positive psychology.
The empire of positive psychology can be observed in any self-help bookstore, and increasingly permeates our ideology. Behind the movement toward eudaimonia (or “the good life”) is Martin Seligman, who made it his mission in 1998 to move the discipline of psychology toward wellness and fulfillment as the head of the American Psychological Association. Largely a continuation of the earlier humanist work of the mid 20th century, positive psychology has undergone countless meta-analyses and seems to yield quite impressive results. While happiness is at the forefront of this movement, and this may seem to be a good thing, the success of positive psychology can be attributed to its correlation with positive illusion. High positivity has been found to limit one’s ability to self-reflect, grow psychologically, and is correlated with maintaining discriminatory beliefs, such as racism. On the other hand, negativity has been found to foster groundedness, and to defend against depression.
Positive psychology can most likely take the blame for such recent social phenomena as the minimalist materialism of Marie Kondo, the ambiguous goal of “living one’s best life”, the integration of wellness practices into the workplace/educational sphere, and other forces toward wellness that emphasizes individual agency in mental health. This reframing of mental health which idolizes happiness indicates a broader shift in Western consciousness today; we are constantly protecting ourselves from psychological and social peril, from discomfort to trauma. We see this in trigger warnings, land acknowledgements (which seem to protect white guilt more than urging us to engage with privilege), and even curated news feeds a la Facebook. (I am not suggesting any of these practices are wrong; however, we should acknowledge why they have come into being and address each underlying issue accordingly). Perhaps these practices may conserve our happiness, but they distance us from reality, from Truth.
In fact, as I was researching self-help articles by various bloggers, I came across a couple of worrying commonalities. First, every single article was a listicle (but perhaps I am being overdramatic with my stylistic opinions). And second, many bloggers expressed distaste for the news media; that news should not be consumed because it is too stressful and uncomfortable, and frankly “not worth it”. To isolate oneself from the reality of global affairs, military conflicts, political decisions, etc., leaves one with a dangerous obliviousness, and a delusional happiness.
This pursuit of oblivious happiness has begun to shape Western consciousness and perhaps is embodied most in one particular ideological actor: Western Buddhism. Though having more to do with an eclectic fetishization for Eastern thought than Buddhist principles itself, the emergence of Western Buddhism in everyday life reflects a certain dissatisfaction with the late-capitalist reality. Many people struggle to find meaning in the consumer society, which seeks to commodify even the individual. This leaves the individual as a hollow shell of Instagram externalities, with nothing firm to grasp in the way of identity. Western Buddhism allows the individual to tune out from the superficiality of the consumer system for a while through mindfulness practices, positive affirmations, meditation, etc.. When one has found enough “inner peace”, one can return to the market as an enlightened consumer, with increased productivity and happiness. Of course, Western Buddhism in itself involves consumption (whether it’s mindfulness paraphernalia such as incense or services such as spiritual gurus, wellness groups, etc.).
Both positive psychology and Western Buddhism have seeped into our lifestyles through the mechanism of ideology, granting us the happiness we so desperately desire (however fleeting and neglectful it may be). In fact, both ideological giants offer us the same protection against trauma, hurt feelings, and other uncomfortable situations. Western Buddhism lets us opt out of reality at any moment of stress through mindfulness breaks or simply “me-time”. Positive psychology allows us to ignore the negative by focusing on our own flourishing without attentiveness to our deficits (and those of the larger society). Both movements seem to favour a happily-tinged ignorance, and both are perfectly placed within late-capitalism and neoliberalism, which pin systemic issues onto the individual; thus, social problems become individual responsibilities.
Given this system of neoliberalism which seeks to thrust every facet of life into the free market, including wellness, it is understandable that many people would rather succumb to simplicity. But we should be wary of how these seemingly innocent ideas trickle into our lives, reinforcing the dominant ideology and those who stand to benefit from it. Perhaps living with an eye toward Truth involves more suffering, more complications, without the warm gratifications of market-oriented happiness. However, I would argue that it is a more fulfilling life; a type of life that such ideologies of happiness so often promise. With no disrespect to the multi-talented Bobby McFerrin, perhaps a more philosophically valid song would have instructed us to “worry, don’t be happy”.