Defining our own happiness conditions


There is a very popular (and rather stupid) saying in business, “If it doesn’t get measured, it doesn’t get addressed.” Some even replace doesn’t with can’t – as if only a theoretical framework, can produce a result!

I say stupid also, because like a worrisomely high percentage of economic theory, this idea ignores the humane impulse, and assumes instead that everyone is a piece of math, with no moral ideas, or sense of responsibility.

My dad is the coolest (top photo)

We all know that this isn’t so – people aren’t actually like that, we do all sorts of good and considerate things, without ever being expressly ordered to – and yet we toss ideas like this around all the time, as if they are not only sound, but a reasonable basis upon which we can do our planning.

I’d like to put a few different hopeful and enabling ideas together today – most of which I have touched upon before, mostly because I’d like to offer a boost for non-delusional happiness and optimism to all of my friends.  Some good clean reality fuel!

Always measure twice

If psychology shows us anything, it is that ‘framing’ is incredibly important to our motivational energy. I had an unusually clear demonstration of this, years ago. I worked in a service shop with a team of people lead by an excellent manager, who, amongst other things, created the illusion for his overworked, underequipped and always time-pressured staff, that they and their efforts were greatly respected by the entire organization. What a team we were – routinely accomplished the impossible!  Saved a whole lot of shows and recordings from disaster at the last minute.

When that lovely manager (my friend Peter) left us, to find his fortune in California, and we were suddenly faced with the reality of management disdain and pettiness, the level of satisfaction and happiness the job provided, collapsed to almost nothing. The best team of expert and cooperative pros I ever saw, turned grumpy and frustrated all at once – from high-functioning synthesis, straight to petty feifdoms.

To some, ‘Honesty’ as an abstract ideal, might suggest his efforts were wasted all along. But they created real enablement and life satisfaction for many. We worked harder, more skillfully and with more pride, to earn his respect. His was in every way, an honourable, valuable, important and principled effort.

A whole lot things are now expressed on an emotionalist basis, which we can absolutely prove to be ‘honest’ and in at least some sense, ‘true’. But while these are both interesting and valid properties, they are not always the whole story.

I came up with my measure-twice principle a long time ago – as an almost pure intellectual exercise. Part of learning to argue fairly (even when upset), by always presuming the best possible explanation for your opponent (true or not). It’s not only very simple – but also supremely useful and robust.

For everything that we judge to be less than ideal, we must also measure how much more it is than nothing at all. A great deal of modern discussion is a complaint about our distance away from an imagined but never realized Platonic perfection – but despite my great fondness for this mode of thought, we most definitely live in a material plane that is governed by inescapable hard-reality Aristotelian principles.

Platonic thinking is needed for innovation and course-correction – but you cannot start indulging in the contemplation of ideal forms at planting time! Not if you want your culture to last long enough to be able to pass on it’s ideas about ideal forms! Yes, of course – it’s back to the question of dynamic balance once again (don’t I always end up back there, one way or another?)

Illuminated and yet street-worthy

The thing is – we moderns are a highly specialized bunch of people, and (as a friend recently pointed out) this really is a great strength of our culture. The downside to this diversity and narrowing, is that many have such a limited range of experience, that we are prone to easily misjudge the experience of others, in fundamental ways. Misjudge their role and work, also.

Which takes me back to Platonists, trying to screw around with the planting!

I used to hang around with a lot of extremely political people (so much so, that when people self-describe that way now, I am frequently tempted to laugh). You’ve all heard me moan about how much I miss western Marxist/left feminists – a more or less extinct tribe now – but still truly kick-ass in the 80s (peak time and source for some of the greats of feminist culture – like Lessing, Atwood and LeGuin).

Now let me spare you the stress, and share with you the greatest dividend of learning to successfully out-argue frothing Trotskyists (the very distinct source of Christopher Hitchens’ always shockingly-confident and righteous fire). Aside, that is, from learning to never again let anyone win an argument by no other virtue but sheer blustering volume! ;o)

When you jam-out political ideas with a group of people who are furious, intelligent, well-read and obsessed, year after year, you end up exhausting all of the emotionalist extremes, and finding proof of their uselessness and invalidity.

How many times have I heard the impassioned cry, “This government is the worst thing possible.” (Especially, I should note – back when things were far rosier than they are now).

This is something that simply cannot ever be said honestly, by anyone who has a friend from a country which has or had no effective government. Purest ignorance. A view appropriate only to resentful shut-ins – not the social, or genuinely curious.

How much worse are things than we can imagine? Always much much worse! But the question we far too rarely ask is – how much worse is it, than we are willing to organize, show-up and actually plant for – not just dream (and gripe) about?

This difference is key – because one approach leads us to demand that others (of almost always questionable trustworthiness), are given huge powers to ‘solve’ our problems for us – and the other leads to greater power for us, and solutions powered by our own will (and wisdom).

To heck with just have – I’d rather bake than eat the cake – and while we’re on it, EGG, definitely!  ;o)

Victory conditions

The late 70s and early 80s weren’t just great for political head-cutting, they were also a fantastic time to be a gamer. Each of the video game conventions we know and love was pioneered, step by step, one console at a time, so we players felt almost as if were were participants in an unfolding evolution. Those were also the glory days of imagination-based games – Dungeons and Dragons, in particular. Legions of writers were thus born.

When I first got a computer, if I wanted to play a computer game, I had to write it! (Or at least step-enter someone else’s program, then debug it until it finally ran).

As a crafty fellow, I ended up creating a variety of my own original board and card games – trying to explore the dynamics of systems with a whole lot of complex interesting bits. (The best by far being my Space-Program game, my paper-based combat flight sim for any map in the house, and my rather cynical solitaire card-game, about the fraught nature of UN military operations).

Many of my political chums worked on games, also – and our discussions got no less intense, when we were jamming those ideas, and vigorously play-testing each other’s creations. At a certain point, you have to ask yourself – what are my victory conditions? How will I know, when I’ve finally won? This isn’t just a key question in making a game fun – it’s also crucial to making our own lives fun – but we have to ask it!

One of the clearest signs that consumerism is a big scam, is that there is no victory within it’s confines – not EVER. You simply can’t objectively achieve enough, or good enough – there’s always fancier stuff to buy, that someone else already has.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – a really insightful contribution – points out that only once we’ve had our basic survival needs met, can we begin to pursue deeper forms of satisfaction – those things which don’t so easily show up on those crude scales of ‘measure’ that I opened with. The humane impulses – toward art, kindness, healing, creation and restoration of the good around us. In the broadest sense – culture.

The key trick is to avoid being sidelined into the illusion that the consumerist scale really is our primary measure of value (and yes, I know this is far easier said than done, even for a lifelong dedicated eccentric like myself). Why bother? Because when we take these false ideas seriously, they get too far inside us – and this allows changes on that almost irrelevant scale to threaten our happiness, even when they impact nothing more than our convenience.

Morning, Sam. Morning, Ralph.

What else is there for us to stand on, anyhow?

Hah! Here’s the punch-line, to be sure. We must stand where the planters stand, my friends – as the ones ready to walk the walk, not just dream and complain.

We have to be ready to face the full range of necessaries, not just those parts which most interest us. Like the farmer with crops, we can’t plant our seeds and then go away fishing, hoping for the best. It takes everything that it really takes.

Let’s be honest here – It’s been a very long time since we’ve been building our self-expectation to that level. One of our modern specializations has been as ‘mere’ consumers. But thankfully, this is the only part we have to overcome, to find realistic hope again (always there and waiting, just outside Narcissus’ hall of mirrors).

And no, I’m not saying we have to become crazy ascetics who live in caves, just try to scale the pursuit of stuff into second (or better, third) place, after the people and the general community around us. Which were, lets remember, our source of general status and self-worth for thousands of years (tested and functional).

More strained muscles, broken nails, sore backs and also earned camaraderie.

Only accepting both the Platonic (ideal) frame for big vision, and the Aristotelian (practical) one for our actions, instead of insisting on measuring everything as either a horrible violation of the ideal, or a laughable waste of the crudest practical, can leave us capable of the full range of adult insight and behaviour.

Which is something that both sides of the culture war have been trying their very best to deny us all, for a half a century now, by keeping the discourse artificially separated into two fundamentally non-viable positions. Whichever flavour you choose, voluntary blindness to half of the reality-frame simply cannot yield happiness, only delusion and frustration.

Anyhow – what kind of a fool would throw out either enchantment or sustenance?
We need enchantment to bother – we need sustenance to wake up tomorrow.

Hope is here – in this real, two-folded, dynamic, rich and always mutual awareness.
Reality, community, engagement, purpose. Everything we say we want.

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