Friday, May 01, 2020

Too Hot to Handle: Get Happy

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Shocked at the plethora of mental health issues she discovered among her students while eating with them daily, Yale University professor Laurie Santos developed a popular new course about the nature of happiness which Yale now offers free online.

Tom: Santos says it’s not bigger houses or better spouses that make human beings happy. It’s little things like “making a social connection, or taking time for gratitude, or taking time to be in the present moment”. What do you think, IC: might she be on to something there?

Thankfulness and Happiness

Immanuel Can: In a general way, perhaps. Apparently the course teaches what she calls “skills”, like meditation, and “savoring” as well. But if she has found some way to teach gratitude that might be a good start.

My question would be, “Well, to whom should we be grateful?” After all, Yale and other such institutions are in the habit of teaching that human beings appeared on this planet by sheer accident, through a process of spontaneous life-generation plus evolution. That doesn’t leave us anybody to be the object of any gratitude, does it?

Tom: I ran into this in an Ottawa newspaper a few years back. The writer of a column was praising the idea of being thankful as a way of benefiting the human psyche, but of course from a totally secular perspective. The objective was to feel “well” by doing something that seems to make the body feel better. Of course nobody stopped to ask why it is that humans feel better when they are grateful, or speculated that it might be part of the basic design.

And yet apparently grateful people are indeed happier people. Funny, that.


IC: I think … and hold on for something I’m pretty sure I know is true … that our society has a huge problem accepting the “givenness” of anything. We’re manic possibility-worshipers, wanting to ask not “what have I got,” but “what could I have/do/be?” We give no attention at all to the “givens” of life, and so cannot imagine how to be thankful for what we are, or what we already have been made to be.

Tom: I think that’s true.

IC: There’s no more graphic illustration of this than that people today do not even accept things like age, gender or even species as “givens”, but rather look at them as things that have to be fought against and remade, through the perverse process of choice-against-reality. The man who wants to be a woman, the older person who lives to convince everyone she’s young, and the human that claims he’s a cat are of a piece — all deranged and tormented by the delusion that they can defy the given; and hence, that what they have been given to be is not a blessing to be thankful for, or even an opportunity to be maximized, but a constraint to be shed, or barring all that, a permanent disability to be resented.

There is no gratitude in that attitude. There is not even the possibility of it.

Neurochemicals vs. an Honest Assessment

Tom: No, and no happiness, the perceived need for which is what is attracting so many people to Ms. Santos’ online course. Now, I don’t doubt that being grateful will make you happier ... briefly, anyway, or that living the present is better than dwelling in either the future or the past, but all these “solutions” to unhappiness seem a little patchwork to me. They involve no major rethinking of one’s worldview, but only little personal tweaks of habitual behavior that are conducive to getting your body to secrete the right chemicals more often, like serotonin. And this is exactly what Santos’s students have learned. Catie Henderson, a course graduate from Atlanta, says, “You have to build habits.” But how is tricking your body into producing a chemical any different than throwing back a few shots ... other than that you don’t have a headache in the morning?

IC: Well, two things that taking a hit of your own endorphins or serotonin won’t get you: firstly, it won’t change your real conditions — it won’t actually make you a morally better or higher achieving human being, even if it makes you feel like it. And secondly, it won’t change your relationship to God: you’ll still be in the same position relative to him as you were before you dosed yourself on your own neurochemicals. Moreover, that could actually really be bad, if your good feelings lull you into a false sense that you’re doing much better than you actually are.

What we really need is an honest assessment of our givens, of the person God has made us to be, and an honest reflection on where we are in relation to God. A course in producing feelings of happiness will not give us either.

Relationships and Illusions of Relationships

Tom: Agreed. One thing course students did come away with that might be a minor positive is a renewed emphasis on connecting with other people in the real world. We are living in such a fragmented, techno-individualistic society that some Gen-Z-ers don’t have the slightest clue how to relate to anyone they are not texting or Skyping. That can’t be all bad, and perhaps it produces more opportunities for Christians to witness.

IC: But social networking is all about controlling your relationships, eliminating both the uncomfortable and unwanted features of embodied contacts, and also about eliminating the body itself. Online relationships are purged of complications, high on imagination and low on facts. So again, the goal they serve is that of getting rid of certain “givens”, certain unwanted truths about ourselves and others, and creating virtual relationships that suit our flattered self-images rather than reflecting truth. We get our endorphin rush, and some illusion of relationship; but again, don’t deal with the realities. “Givens” are messy, hard to control and sometimes painful. That’s one reason that dealing with our givens makes us into better people, in a way that being flattered and catered-to simply cannot.

The Cost of Real Change

Tom: This whole business of learning new secular habits lacks any element of sacrifice or cost, and I suspect it rarely results in permanent, transformative change. The Christian who makes changes to his way of living is doing it out of reverence for God and with the help of the Holy Spirit. So he gives things up that he used to love, or he starts doing things he would never have naturally done in his old life. He does this not because making those changes sounds like fun, particularly, but because he knows God requires it of him. In obeying God, he often finds marvelous benefits from obedience that he never knew were coming. But getting the benefits is never the reason for making the changes. It’s all gravy.

The secular teacher, on the other hand, offers an array of potential lifestyle changes more like a buffet, from which you can pick the new helpful habits you like and ignore those you don’t. So you pick the ones you would probably have gravitated to anyway, except you hadn’t thought of them. And if they turn out to be costly or unpleasant, you can simply lay them aside and come back to try something else on. There’s nothing morally imperative about any of them. They are just convenient add-ons to make your current life-program a little more satisfying to you.

Two Kinds of Meditation

IC: That’s a good point. Take meditation, which is one of the practices most recommended in so-called wellness programs, and which reappears in the Yale course. What folks need to know right away is that there are two types: Eastern meditation, which focuses on eliminating all objects from the mind, and biblical meditation, which focuses on God and his word. I doubt that’s a difference the Yale course recognizes, and I’ll bet it opts for the first instead of the second. But the first is utterly worthless for the improvement of the human soul; and how can one become full of gratitude if one is merely “emptying the mind” and thus meditating on nothingness? Again, there are no “givens” there: it’s as if there were no givens, again, and in fact, as if God had never spoken.

Tom: Indeed. Reflecting on timeless truth couldn’t be more different from simply clearing your head of distractions. The object of biblical meditation is communion with the Source of truth, and therefore an increasingly more accurate grasp of who God is and how one is supposed to walk before him; a correct understanding of meaning and purpose; and entry into a sure hope based on the promises God has given to his children. How can an empty head compete with that? It’s almost like sweeping a house and putting it in order for the benefit of seven evil spirits looking for a new piece of real estate.

IC: Heh. Quite so.

Happiness and “Hap”

A fundamental problem with seeking happiness is that it depends on “hap”, which is the Old English word for “chance” or “luck”. It also is governed by what “happens” to somebody. Thus to be “happy” is to regard oneself as fortunate, and of “having good circumstances”. But how do you arrange chance? How do you guarantee circumstances?

A second problem is that happiness is a by-product — it’s something that happens to one when other things are being achieved, or when other things are in good order. It’s a sort of icing-on-the-cake, not something one can have without any substance beneath it. Chasing happiness for its own sake turns out to be like grabbing smoke. So in order to help someone become happy in more than a deluded, superficial way, one has to produce more than endorphins: one has to direct the person to sort their lives into the priorities and activities that are so worthwhile that serving them becomes a source of durable happiness. And how, from a secular, choice-prioritizing perspective, can you direct someone as to how they ought to live? Our secular world does not allow anybody to tell another person what they must do … far less that their happiness will be maximized when they take on things like meaningful responsibilities, significant challenges, moral obligations and honest relationships.

Tom: Very true.

Goals and By-Products

The things in my Christian life that have brought me the greatest happiness over the years are all things that initially didn’t sit all that well with me. Confessing sin is not fun, but the mental and emotional benefits of having a clean slate cannot be overstated. Giving seemed counter-intuitive and slowed down my ability to pay back debt, but participating in the work of God is immensely and unexpectedly rewarding. Studying the Bible looked like a bit of a chore. Best thing I ever learned to force myself to do. Public speaking is something I hated in school and still struggle with today, but I still have people tell me they appreciate the things the Lord has taught them through me. Hard to believe, really.

Getting together in a big room with a bunch of people is not my cup of tea either. Reaching out to people I didn’t know and the putting myself out to do things for them? Ugh.

And yet the things that seemed the least appealing and most onerous about following Christ turn out to have significant upsides I had never really considered. The friends I made when I was first learning to live as a believer are among the most important and precious people in my life today. I didn’t go looking for them, and I wouldn’t have chosen them. The happiness I derive from knowing them and relating to them is, as you say, a by-product of following Christ. I would not have known how to pursue that kind of happiness. I didn’t find it. It found me.

IC: If the Yale course has any firm basis, it will start with two realizations: firstly, that most of us do not know what will make us happy. Many of us think we do, but if we did, we’d have a whole lot of happier people, wouldn’t we? In fact, ordinary onlookers can often see that we have fooled ourselves that we know what we’re doing. We just don’t. Secondly, that most supposed roads to happiness just don’t work. The runaway enrolment for the course tells you everything you need to know about that, because presumably, these all these enrolees have not been trying to make themselves miserable thus far. Something’s definitely not clicking.

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