On Choosing Happiness

Provided by Anthony Garner from https://zenothestoic.com/


I believe on any number of counts, including personal experience, that we have the power to choose to be happy but that the road is not altogether straightforward.

Our philosopher friends would tell us that happiness is a “quale” – one of a number of different “qualia” which we humans can experience. Qualia are subjective conscious experiences and other examples include emotions such as sadness or anger, or the taste of wine, the redness of an evening sky, the joy in music.

A quale is “what it subjectively feels like to”….feel sad or happy, or even to be a bat. Or to stare at beauty or ugliness and feel something about it. It is simply the way things seem to us. The nature and even the existence of qualia is a hotly debated topic and Wikipedia has a fair selection of current views on the matter.

Need this debate worry a seeker of happiness? Not if you are one of the lucky few who by nature get up in the morning with a smile on their face and warm instantly to the day.

To those of us not so favoured in our disposition, it would augur well to think a little on the subject of happiness and to ponder what it might be and where it might come from.

I have said elsewhere that much has been written on consciousness, but little empirically proved. In relation to qualia it is fair to say that nothing has been proved as to how or why they arise.

Progress has indeed been made on what philosophers of mind like to call the “easy” problem of consciousness. The behavioural aspects. Neuroscientists and their learned brethren have made much progress in mapping the neural correlates of our actions and experiences – we are learning to see which parts of the brain light up when we raise our hand, see a bright light, or have an orgasm.

We most of us readily accept that these are all physical attributes of our make up. That part of us, our brain, which enables us to drive a car, speak, or go to work belongs very much to the physical realm. While we have a very long way to go before answering the “easy” questions of consciousness, few would doubt that the answers will come from physics and its derivative disciplines.

The “hard” question of consciousness (a term coined by philosopher David Chalmers) is the problem of explaining why and how sentient organisms have qualia or phenomenal experiences. How and why such experiences arise from the simple atoms we are made of.

As Chalmers put it:

It is undeniable that some organisms are subjects of experience. But the question of how it is that these systems are subjects of experience is perplexing. Why is it that when our cognitive systems engage in visual and auditory information-processing, we have visual or auditory experience: the quality of deep blue, the sensation of middle C? How can we explain why there is something it is like to entertain a mental image, or to experience an emotion? It is widely agreed that experience arises from a physical basis, but we have no good explanation of why and how it so arises. Why should physical processing give rise to a rich inner life at all? It seems objectively unreasonable that it should, and yet it does.

My own preference is to believe that this aspect of consciousness, just “is”. That phenomenal experience is a fundamental aspect of nature in the same way as electromagnetism or gravity.

Phenomenal experience is what you get when matter is arranged a certain way. Where it comes from or why we may never know. It is irreducible – you can’t look into it and expect to find anything deeper. In the same way we may have to accept that electromagnetism just “is” or that matter may be made up of infinitely small strings of vibrating energy.

Where does all that leave you as a seeker of happiness? It leaves you in the position of needing to explore what factors, internal and external, physical and mental, will produce in you this subjective experience we call happiness.

Happiness is a pleasant or joyful emotion we subjectively feel within us. We take pleasure in our lives, in our work, in our families and all those around us. We are positive, we are hopeful and often as a result, kind and loving.

What external, physical factors may help to bring about such a state? Taking care of our material wellbeing first and foremost, although the ascetic may take a different view. Looking after our health, eating and drinking properly, finding warmth, shelter and medicine when we need it. Exercising, being engaged, active in the world.

Some of us will have different external needs to others. I may crave peace, silence and nature, others the excitement of the urban sprawl and the company of fellow humans. But whatever it is, this is the easiest part of happiness – you can mostly fix it.

The internal, mental elements are something else and here it is not yet clear where you can choose and when your material constitution chooses for you.

Here there is overlap between our own volition and introspection and the way our brain is wired, but both can be fixed. And my certainty is that the mechanics of so fixing our physical machinery will become ever more sophisticated and effective – thanks of course to science.

Even if happiness is irreducible – even if like its fellow qualia it’s instantiation in base matter remains a mystery, we will become ever more able to induce that state.

If we are physically broken, we must try to fix ourselves – our brain that is. My friend Alfred seems to have made great steps in that direction with the use of psilocybin.

The volitional part requires us to consider choice: are we free to choose? Do we have free will? We must proceed on the basis that we are so free – to concede to determinism is unlikely to ease the mind.

And what mental effort must we make to enter the land of the blessed?

Belief, above all we must cultivate belief. Belief in ourselves. Belief that even if the universe has no meaning or purpose pe se, we can create that for ourselves. Kindness also – we must extend it to ourselves and others. Love, by any other name.

And interest and knowledge and beauty and good things. We must sing and paint and draw and dance – we must pour our thoughts and actions into those things we know creates in us the subjective experience we so desire.

Have I gone too far? Will I be accused by the sceptical physicalist of spouting new age nonsense and airy-fairy bullshit?

Perhaps so, but to such people I would say “this is how I see it”, “this is how I try to achieve happiness and often achieve it”. If for some of my readers I manage to bring a smile of recognition to their face, then I too will feel a measure of happiness and achievement for having done so.

Originally posted on https://zenothestoic.com/2020/01/27/on-choosing-happiness/

Anthony Garner started his career in 1979, as a lawyer in the City of London with Slaughter and May, specializing in commercial and financial work.
In 1984 he moved to what is now UBS and spent some years as an analyst and stockbroker with postings in London, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Singapore and Zurich.
In 1992 he branched out on his own and since that date has been engaged in managing his own investment portfolio.
He blogs his more whimsical thoughts at https://zenothestoic.com/ and some views on investment at https://anthonygarnerinvestments.com/.

11 thoughts on “On Choosing Happiness

  1. Because I sometimes think of myself as a radical materialist, I often find myself considering the idea that happiness is nothing more than a sensation causes when a certain synapse functions properly in the brain or when our “happiness” biochemistry is working well. Maybe some of us have a happiness gene? That’s a definite possibility. That would explain when some folks seem indomitable and are happy despite experiencing all manner of incredibly hardships. Of course, there’s great truth in the notion that I have little control over what befalls me but absolute control over how I responsd to both positive and negative stimuli. Happiness might come more often to those who are especially sensitive and perceptive. (I mean, how can a person be happy if he or she isn’t perceptive enough to take note of really delightful experiences?) Thanks for the post, Anthony!

  2. This was a fabulous read, thank you. I especially like “The volitional part requires us to consider choice: are we free to choose? Do we have free will? We must proceed on the basis that we are so free – to concede to determinism is unlikely to ease the mind.” I firmly believe in my personal power to Choose Happy and I know that looking in the mirror and making that choice has saved me from crawling back into bed more than once.

  3. Thank you all for your comments, I much appreciate it. While I write quite often to try and explain the world to myself (with varying degrees of success) it is a huge bonus to find that I have touched upon meaning in others.

  4. …hmm. It’s unlikely the concept of qualia holds any usefulness. It falls rapidly into another (one which Chalmers, i’m afraid, simply fell into at least until a few years ago – haven’t read or listened of late,) infinite regression. (What who is doing the processesing? At what level of integration, inference, meaning, represented time, etc.) Which could of course be a correct description, but… likely is not, more so given alternatives. but. all systems look to remain, complex ones (living) to belong. Physioloigically, ypou can distinquish between joy and pleasure. joy, or happiness, includes both inference and confirmation of that ‘to belong and remain,’ whereas pleasure is nearly always connected to an affect.

  5. Tonno
    Consciousnesses is one of those many subjects which seems to bring out the very worst in human nature. I have always been interested in the subject but have recently become weary of the scorn and vitriol the philosophers and neuro-scientists pour on opposing theories. Chalmers seems one of the more polite contributors to the debate. I think we are still very much at the stage when we simply do not know, even if we have begun to trace some of the neural correlates of the experiences of the mind.

    No doubt in a few hundred years we will find ourselves further forward! In the interim we can shrug our shoulders and admit ignorance.

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