The counterfeits of happiness

Australia’s first European murderer was also a mass murderer who also holds the highest tally of murders in the country’s history. He is virtually unknown to most Australians, and remarkably, for all his evil he only ever killed one person, an infant. Yet, this this evil man who forced others to perform his dastardly deeds makes the infamous outlaw, Ned Kelly,  quite angelic in comparison .

When the day of justice finally arrived, he was hanged on a makeshift gallows with these ‘others’ on the first structure ever to be built by Europeans in Australia. He directed more than 110 murders and indirectly was responsible for another 100 or so deaths. The story of the shipwreck of the Batavia in 1629 and the rebellion of Jeronimus Cornelisz on the Houtman Abrolhos Islands (left: scene of the rebellion, Beacon Island) off the coast of Geraldton in Western Australiais one of the darkest chapters in Australian history, eclipsed only by the extermination of as many as 30,000 Indigenous Australians but the early settlers.

Batavia_PorticoSo where is the link to happiness? When the Batavia set sail from Amsterdam with 341 souls on board she epitomised the power and wealth of the mighty Dutch East India Company (VOC). It carried one-sixth of the wealth of the Dutch colonial initiative in all manner of treasure and coin as well as troops and weapons which collectively would have provided an enormous boost to the power and luxurious life-style of the Dutch in SE-Asia. The ship itself was the C17th equivalent of the Queen Mary 2. Deep within the hold were the stones of a beautifully crafted portico which was to adorn the fortified entrance to the city of Batavia (now Jakarta) in Java. When the sip foundered on Morning Reef these stones remained with the wreck for nearly 350 years until they were eventually salvaged in the 1970’s. (Pictured in the Geraldton Museum)

In ways the Batavia story was supposed to be a journey of happiness. The majestic VOC flagship was built to bring wealth and prosperity to the Dutch colonies. It was laden with the best that a life of luxury could offer from exquisite works of art to the finest cuisine. The trade in rare and exotic spices of the Orient was flourishing and the Dutch were riding a wave of unprecedented prosperity as a result of its newfound trade and dominance of the seas. But there was one serious flaw in the whole business. It was built on the wrong foundation. The great colonising countries of Europe were motivated by greed and fueled by brutal cruelty and disregard of the value of human life. The idea that prosperity and happiness is obtainable at the expense of the happiness of someone else is probably the greatest and most repeated counterfeits of happiness. History tells its own story – there are no winners in war and bloodshed. The legacy is fear, distrust, grief and enduring unhappiness and wretchedness.

Most would agree that while power and wealth may bring prosperity as well as many other benefits, they never seriously claim to promote happiness.  The counterfeits of happiness, however, are subtly different. A counterfeit is a look-alike which promises what it cannot deliver. For example, if you were to watch the ads on commercial television for an hour you could almost believe that all those beautiful happy, successful and smiling people have reached that elevated state because of what they eat, or the car they drive, or the brand of makeup they use, even the toothpaste that whitens their smiling teeth and the toilet paper that loves their bottoms. Most of us are not convinced. We know that the promises and the expectations of the adverts do not correlate with the reality of life and that happiness is not a commodity which can bought or sold. This branding of happiness is the most shoddy of counterfeits and is largely directed at young viewers who are the most impressionable.

There are a couple of more appealing and convincing counterfeits which are more sophisticated and harder to pick. Both are perfectly legitimate pursuits and have their rightful place in life. Just realise that they are not the path to happiness. Both make appealing promises and both deliver the goods, but the goods are not ‘happiness’

Head happiness

I have just finished reading an article that proposes twenty things that we must do in order to be happy. I was challenged by the opening line which stated, “You have to do hard things to be happy in life. The things no one else is doing.” While it was a typical motivational article which underscored many of the hard things we need to do in order to be successful it missed the point in what it promised. Happiness is not an action or a sequence of actions or the result of activity. In this age of quick fixes it would be wonderful if we could follow a formula knowing that at the conclusion we would reach the goal of happiness. But that is not the nature of happiness.  Even the most meticulous execution of the twenty points would not guarantee happiness. You may feel good at the end of the exercise, but the article has still missed the point. It cannot deliver on the promise for the simple reason that happiness is not something you do and it is not something you feel. It is certainly not something you can promise. It is a consequence of something you are. Happiness is not a quantifiable commodity and it is not achieved at a head level.

The same could be said for many a religious quest for meaning and truth. The agonising hours of soul-searching, confession of sin, repentance, prayers and self-denial are every bit as much a  counterfeit formula for the same reason – happiness is not to be found in doing.

Hedonism happiness

The other very appealing counterfeit is that happiness is essentially about feeling good. It would be easy to adopt a self-righteous ‘wet blanket’ mentality and draw up a long list of no-no’s which would result in taking all  the fun out of life – you know, the old Puritan line of “if it feels good it is sinful.” Hedonism is often targeted as suspect with its self-centred formula for the feel-good life. But we should not be too quick to relegate it to the sin-bin. Its philosophy of maximising pleasure while minimising pain makes a lot of sense in many ways, especially if we temper it with a ‘do no harm’ clause.

Hedonism is great if you can get it to work and is fabulous while it lasts, but it is limited by the dynamic human state. We get old or sick. Life has a way of changing the whole game, and when there is nothing to take its place the pain will begin to outweigh the pleasure. Hedonism promises pleasure, but it needs to be constantly topped up. Also on the minus side, it draws its energy from the state of discontent with the addict always needing the next fix to maintain the feeling of of the high – and discontent is the total opposite of the contentment of happiness. The clue to the counterfeit is again found in the promise of “feel good and you will be happy”. It offers good feelings, but they are not what constitutes happiness.

Again, there is a religious hedonism which offers ecstatic, heavenly or transcendental experiences of joy and other-worldliness which leave the devotee with a remarkable feeling of euphoria and sense of well-being and a conviction that they have been personally touched and blessed by something or someone greater. The problem with this experience is the let-down. One cannot sustain the pressure of the high indefinitely and cannot avoid the inevitable flatness that comes as they return from the clouds to a dreary earth. It promises a great experience, but the experience is not happiness.

At the risk of sounding repetitive, we seem to be continually sidetracked by the semantics of a word which is used too loosely. Fun, pleasure, thrill, ecstasy, excitement, euphoria and the like, are perfectly legitimate feelings which we can all enjoy. It’s just that they are transient and lack the authenticity of that deep inner contentment which is the real substance of enduring happiness. We need to see them for what they are and not place unrealistic expectations on them to be anything other than enjoyable passing experiences. There is a certain irony that is possible to have fun and still not be happy, and you can miss out on the all the fun and still be happy. Work that out!

Okay! So happiness is not a commodity. It is not something you do. It is not a feeling. It is a state of being and a state of mind . . What exactly is it? That is what this blog will consider from many angles as it unfolds over the ensuing months. Rest assured though, happiness is real even though it may be difficult to define. This journey of understanding will take us into the same space as that ultimate of all experiences– love. It will be interesting.

A stand of trees at dusk in a ploughed field in the Mallee district between Renmark and Mildura, NSW Australia