The Happiness Monsters

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2023-08-19 13:00:00-04:00 No comments

One of the tougher, less appetizing corollaries of "Everything you are looking for is within you" is "You can't make other people happy". Meaning whatever happiness other people have, it's going to be something they discover and nourish themselves. You can provide the conditions for their happiness, but you can't strong-arm happiness on people. Nor can you do that with wisdom, or grace, or a great many other things we would love to know could be bestowed on others the way we could slather icing on a cake.

I think if we really understood this insight on a societal level, we would spend far less time trying to frog-march our fellow man into the promised land. Most of that stuff just consists of making them miserable for the sake of one justification or another anyway, and at that point becomes indistinguishable from garden-variety cruelty. Karl Popper entertained the idea that a democratic and open society has no business trying to make people happy, but is very much in the business of preventing unneeded misery. The two are not interchangeable, and I think they are too easily conflated because of the dumb ways we make morality plays out of managing social costs. (Drug problems are better handled as public health issues, not criminal matters.)

On a more focused note, and maybe a less gloomy one, I think about this sort of thing all the time as it pertains to the writing I do. Too many of the ideas we have about creative work revolving around reaching the broadest possible audience as a moral good. The more popular something is, the more completely it must reflect something about us, and therefore the more vigorously we must strive to produce works that resonate so.

Roger Ebert mentioned something akin to this once: "Look at a movie that a lot of people love, and you will find something profound, no matter how silly the film may seem. The real subjects of Wayne's World are innocence and friendship. That's what you get for your seven dollars." He was right, I think, but he was describing a nice side effect, and not a goal. The only things that resonate at that scale are things pushed at that scale, and most of us do not have the money for that. 

I do think we should be in the business of trying to write resonant things, and I think one of the best ways to do that is to personalize the work with only the things we could put into it: our worldviews, our hard-won wisdom, our sense of what life is. Not everyone will want that or agree with it. Some will, and they will take what you have to heart. But you will not have made them happy. You will have given them a chance to be happy that only you could give them and which only they could take for themselves.

Tags: Zen creativity