Friday, April 3, 2009



In a satire yesterday, I criticized the human fixation on earthly success. Although satires generally do not “argue,” they proceed on certain “argument-like” premises. Satire works best when there is a visible tension between the text and a principle that everyone knows; the text need not mention it. My main premise yesterday was that human beings really seek “good feelings” in life, but rarely achieve them. We are sensory creatures. We feel good emotions and bad emotions. Our life ebbs and flows over events, which in turn generate good, bad or neutral emotions. We get older every day. Eventually, we die. When that happens, our bodies no longer have the capacity to experience anything. When the body is dead, the senses are dead, too. At some level, human beings know this. That is why they live their lives in order to experience as many “good emotions” as possible before their senses shut down and they die.

Nonetheless, many people forget that they really seek to “feel good emotions” in life. Instead, as my satire pointed out, they pursue the means to feel good emotions rather than the emotions themselves. The dead man in my satire laughed at his living counterparts for “chasing bronzed women” and lusting after high salaries. In other words, he criticized people for wasting their days following a “traditional life program” imposed from without. For most people, the “life program” requires “getting a good job,” “getting a good salary” and “living comfortably” by “having nice things.” In essence, all these things are merely a means to experiencing “good emotions.” When we get a lot of money, for instance, we feel inwardly good. Yet the fact that we got a lot of money one day does not change the fact that we will die in the future. It merely assures us that we will experience good feelings longer during our time here. Similarly, when we achieve romantic success with a person we find attractive, we “feel good;” and it is better to feel good for one more day in our lives than bad or neutral. Still, many people fixate on the means to “good feelings” rather than the feelings themselves. That is why people obsess about money, career, family, spouses and “success.” They forget that all these things merely provide an opportunity for “good emotions” or “happiness.” Rather, they believe that the things themselves are the goals, rather than the means. This leads to disappointment, bitterness and a sense of “failure” when they do not achieve their intended goals.

But what does it mean to “feel good?” Thankfully I made the discovery relatively early in life that it is better to feel generally good every day than to pursue impossible goals that will only marginally make me feel better. After all, there is competition to achieve “popular goals,” such as obtaining high-dollar jobs and other commercial success. Competition implies that others want the same things as you, and they are prepared to fight you for them. Fighting does not make you feel good. In fact, it can make you feel terrible. It causes physical and emotional injury. Worse, if you lose the fight, you “fail” to achieve your goal, and that leads to even more negative emotions. And every day you spend feeling bad is another day you lose on your ultimate journey toward “sensory shutdown.”

We are sensory creatures. To feel good, we must stimulate our senses and trigger chemical reactions in our brains. In essence, “feeling good” means to “feel pleasure.” This does not necessarily mean sexual pleasure or bacchanalian euphoria. Rather, it means that we experience a “full” or “satisfied” sensation. I often make interesting discoveries about ideas by investigating language. The English word “pleasure” does not really reveal much about humans’ quest for good feelings. “Pleasure” is a bland, unremarkable word. It simply means that an individual personally finds something appealing. I suppose it could shed some light on “good feelings” to the extent that “feeling good” is essentially a subjective enterprise. But this does not go far enough for me. What is it about “pleasure” and “feeling good” that implies “fullness” or “satisfaction?”

“Satisfaction” lends better insights on this point. “Satisfaction” derives from the Latin “satis,” meaning “enough.” That reveals a more compelling linguistic complex. When we feel good, in other words, we have “enough” of something. Going further, “enough” is a core, old English word. It derives from the German “genug.” As all so often happens in my etymological investigations, our German ancestry provides more revealing insights into the conceptual complexes embedded in English words. In German, the word for “pleasure” is “die Vergnügung,” which in turn relates to “genug.” That means that “pleasure,” or “feeling good” depends upon “getting enough.” Another German word for “pleasure” or “satisfaction” is “die Genugtuung.” Literally, this means “Doing Enough.” This concept, too, shows that experiencing “good feelings” means that a person individually gets “enough” of something. Typically this has a sexual connotation, but sex alone does not truly express the concept. We can satisfy ourselves with anything, not just sex. We feel “satisfaction” when we eat enough, dance enough, talk enough, earn enough, laugh enough, work enough, love enough, think enough and drink enough. We do not feel “satisfaction” if we fail to eat enough, dance enough, talk enough, earn enough, laugh enough, work enough, love enough, think enough and drink enough. Generally, we say a person is “happy” when he is “satisfied with life.” Etymologically, that means he has “had enough” to make him feel more positive emotions than negative ones in life.

But very few people claim to be happy. In fact, most people complain about their lives. They are not getting “enough” of what they want. They are not “satisfying” their individual desires. Why is this true? I venture that people are unhappy because they confuse the means to happiness with happiness itself. Rather than focusing on their individual desire to experience “enough,” they constantly remind themselves that they are not doing “enough” to reach an external goal. They are not getting “enough” money, and because they do not have “enough,” they are not “satisfied.” Or perhaps they are not getting “enough” attention from the people they love, so they are not “satisfied” emotionally. Perhaps they did not score “highly enough” on a test, and that prohibits them from reaching an academic goal. Because they are not “satisfied” they are not feeling positive emotions. They feel incomplete, insufficient and unsuccessful. Yet this is exactly what happens when people set external goals for themselves. They put themselves in competition with others, and if they cannot reach the standard, they “fall short,” “fail” and “do not do well enough.” From an etymological perspective, that is a recipe for unhappiness. If we do not feel that we have done “enough,” we will not be happy.

Happiness does not come from without. It comes from within. The English word “pleasure” reminds us that feeling good is an individual concern. True, the external world can create circumstances that affect how we feel. Cf. Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, p. 26 (“…[T]he external world, which may rage against us with overwhelming and merciless forces of destruction.”). But we remain subjective, sensory creatures. Only we can experience our emotions. We are the only ones who can determine whether we experience “enough” good things to feel “happy.” In life, this is an extremely difficult task. After all, we hear so many external messages that attempt to mold how we perceive the world. We are told how to live. We are told that we can make ourselves happy as long as we fulfill criteria X, Y and Z. Yet when embark on our quest to fulfill those criteria, we slowly realize that we are never getting “enough” of what we really want. Fulfilling external criteria necessarily implies that we suppress our subjective desires in order to satisfy the external standard. Happiness can only thrive when we answer our own call, not an external one. To that extent, the “traditional life program” sets us on the wrong foot. When we spend our entire lives seeking to fulfill criteria imposed from without, we neglect what lies within. And if we do not get “enough” to satisfy what lies within, we will not feel good. There will always be something missing. We will always be “incomplete.” We never have “enough.”

Happiness is elusive. In this world, we rarely get a chance to reflect on our own desires. In fact, it can even be difficult to discern our own desires as we sift through the external messages that deluge our senses every day about “achieving success.” Nonetheless, it is worth the effort to separate our own desires from artificial expectations. Why do we seek things? To fulfill an external standard or to satisfy ourselves? Are we really seeking to make ourselves happy, or are we merely engaging in competition to reach an external goal? Are we getting “enough?” That is the question to ask. If we can truly say we have “enough,” we are happy.

But even that can be difficult.

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