Essays | Happiness, and Our Follies

Sisyphus takes us back to school – Nigeria and Her Excesses – Marcus Crassus drinks a cup of molten gold – The Mathematical Approximation of Sisyphus’s Dilemma – Epicurus, Orgasm, and his friends.

Happiness is expensive.

If you don’t believe me, a quick call to a local psychologist will do, your eighty-something year old grandmother (they are very, very wise), or perhaps, if you are not impatient – an honest and deep introspection.

But if you have a few minutes to spare, I will start with a philosophical trip to Ephyra – we need to visit Sisyphus, he remains very valuable to us.

Sisyphus was the first king of Ephyra (Corinth), and the son of King Aeolus of Thessaly. He had so many hobbies, but a popular one is the act of killing almost anything, including humans. And he also had a knack for all the nastiest trickeries you could think of, that time wouldn’t permit me to go through here.

Predictably, he finally stepped on some huge toes, this time, it was the gods (Zeus).

He tried to play a trick on Zeus, but got busted, so he was given an assignment – to roll a big rock up a long steep hill.

Just at the instant he was about to reach the top of the hill with the rock, Zeus showed Sisyphus he was the mother of trickery – he engaged in some complicated enchantments that caused the rock to roll away from Sisyphus, it fell, then he goes down to pick it up, just as he is about to reach the top again, it fell, ultimately consigning Sisyphus to a brutal, eternal punishment. So much for an assignment.

As I type these words, Sisyphus is still battling with the rock, hopefully he will be fine.

Nigeria and Her Excesses

I grew up in Nigeria, and one has to say that Nigeria is not the best place to grow up in certain aspects – definitely not in terms of formal education.

The thing is – and this is just one out of plenty – power supply is crappy, even on college campuses, you wouldn’t get electricity to, say, read your lecture notes at night. And the problem is, I was a bit intense, which meant that I had to read with crap loads of candles – the only viable alternative (at the time for many people) to the government’s epileptic power supply.

And I have to say this – the number of candles I bought in college would be enough to build a Polish Gothic castle, only and only if bricks were made of paraffin.

So, an epidemic happiness-goal then was, “if I could live in a world where light doesn’t blink, that would be awesome, and I would be happier.”

To put it directly, I was wrong.

I later got a scholarship to study in the United States. After the honeymoon I asked myself this question:

“Are you happier as a result of the uninterrupted power supply in the US?”

My answer was a resounding no.

This is the Sisyphean dilemma – the rock literally rolled back to the bottom of the cliff.

Marcus Crassus drinks a cup of molten gold.

You need not a spy to decipher what your neighbor thinks will make him happy, his actions already do. Unfortunately, such goals could drive us crazy.

It is at this point that I will present Marcus Licinius Crassus.

Crassus, one of the wealthiest humans in Roman history, was into so many things – real estate, slave trades, politics (military), et cetera.

He was a co-consul and was among the first triumvirate of Rome, together with Julius Caesar and Pompey the great – fifty-something years before the birth of Jesus Christ.

He accrued a lot of wealth from shrewd speculative real estates, by purchasing burnt or collapsed houses (fire outbreaks are a norm in ancient Rome) and slaves with great architectural acumen, so the latter can work on the former. Leaving Crassus smiling to the Bank of Rome.

But that wouldn’t do. He wanted more;

He stacked up his net worth through General Sulla’s proscription of 82 BC. Proscriptio is a death sentence or banishment from the state proscribed on enemies of the state. And when these enemies were banished or killed, their properties were auctioned at embarrassingly low prices. Crassus, who happened to be Sulla’s buddy, was able to slot in names of people who owned property he had coveted into the proscription lists. They got killed or banished, he got the properties.

Easy does it.

He used this tactic to annex huge chunks of land in Rome. I even learnt he had a net worth of $2 Trillion in today’s currency, but I wouldn’t put my money on that.

His property’s worth is estimated to be somewhere around 200 million sesterces. To put this in context, with this wealth, Crassus will be totally capable to fend for close to 400,000 poor Roman families in a year; or make close to 500 men rich enough to run for political office in ancient Rome.1

But these things don’t do, he wanted more money, more power (note that ancient Rome was a full-blown plutocracy); and hence more happiness, forgetting that the last one never lasted long.

Unfortunately, this one last quest lead to his death at the battle of Carrhae in 53BC, perhaps at the height of his greed, when he invaded the Parthian Kingdom, largely because of the amount of wealth buried there.

After being captured, his head was severed, and molten gold was poured into his mouth to signify his insatiable thirst for wealth.2

And, friends, what a symbolic death!

Crassus was most likely oblivious of the hedonic treadmill (more on this in a minute), even though he experienced it.

And he could have probably fared better by listening to the philosophers of his days, the stoics, who believed that happiness doesn’t come from one’s circumstances rather from the cultivation of reason. Acting out that which is virtuous is all you need for happiness, they claimed.

Sounds far fetch to me. But, anyways, the hedonic treadmill will be our next bus stop.

Mathematical Approximation of Sisyphus’s Dilemma.

Now that we have mapped out the idea, let’s put some calculus on it, to bring the idea to life.

And here is something you could tattoo on your chest, just for fun.

Dhϴ= Ch– Eh

Differential Happiness = Current Happiness – Expected Happiness.

(A mathematical approximation of Sisyphus’s dilemma)

Where expected happiness (Eh) is the happiness expected from achieving a specific goal; current happiness (Ch) is the judgement of wellbeing (happiness) at a specific moment; and differential happiness (Dhϴ) is the difference between Eand Ch, to keep track of expectations.

Kapish? Okay, let’s move on.

Let’s say you hit your jackpot today, a goal you had brutally longed for, like, brutally.

Dhϴ will equal 0. Current happiness will equal the expected happiness. That is, Sisyphus’s rock is on top of the cliff, gladly.

However, the moment you begin to settle into your new status Cwill decrease. Believe me, it will decrease.

And because Eremains constant, (unless if you could go back in time and change your expectation) most people end up with a negative Dhϴ (the rock at the bottom of the cliff).

Hence, the Sisyphean ordeal.

This is called the hedonic treadmill.

But, why is this the case? You might ask.

The uber-Psychologist-Nobel-Laureate Daniel Kahneman solved the puzzle, and he gave the illusion a befitting name – the focusing illusion.3

Here is the thing, our inapt assessment of future happiness (Efrom our lovely equation) is caused by the difference between the act of thinking about attaining a goal or a condition; and living in that actual condition.

In my earlier example, when I had angelic thoughts about uninterrupted electricity supply, I focused on this specific life condition ignoring everything else. As such, exaggerating its importance.

However, the mismatch comes along: I soon found out that it is impossible to think of uninterrupted power supply, especially when I had tons of experiments to complete, papers to write, seminars and classes to attend, and the list goes on – attention is pivotal here.

At this junction, we can comfortably map out two (interchangeable) rules that we can work with:

“Nothing in life is as important as you think it is, while you are thinking about it.”4

and/or

It will make you happy, if you think about it for a considerable time in your day.

Unfortunately, no one thinks of a car all day long, unless it’s broken.

I will let you chew on that for a bit; in the meantime, let’s dig up some history (of philosophy).

Epicurus, Orgasm, and his friends

It is almost impossible to write about happiness extensively and not mention some names. One of those names is Epicurus; and I won’t finish this essay without the mention of his works.

Born in Samos, died in Athens, he was one of the greatest philosophers of the Hellenic periods (the period between the death of Alexander the great and the emergence of the Roman empire).

He champions several philosophies, amongst them are, 1) atomic materialism, the idea that matter contains an indivisible component called atom, following through Democritus footsteps, a very, very old idea. We are talking circa 300 BC here; 2) An epistemology grounded in empiricism, what you see is what you get (WYSIWYG), that kind of thing, to put it colloquially.

However, here, we will focus on his hedonistic ethics.

Here was what Epicurus thinks: “pleasure is the beginning and the goal of a happy life”.5

However, there were misconceptions, greaaaaaaat misconceptions.

You see, when Epicurus got grants to start his ‘school of happiness’ called Garden, in Athens, with his friends Hermarchus, Idomeneus the merchant, Leontus, Themista, the mathematician Polyaenus, Metrodorus, and Leontion. The goal was to figure out what is the source of this happiness thing, what exactly?

But it didn’t take long before rumor started to spread. Rumors of puking sessions performed exclusively by gluttons who couldn’t figure out exactly when to stop eating; sexing sessions performed, by, well, professional epicurean porn stars, all in the name of pleasure seeking.

A philosopher named Diotimus the Stoic went the extra length. He forged and published lewd documents supposedly written by Epicurus while high on sex (and food) to prove some of these points, he was later sentenced to death by Zeno the Epicurean.6

Note that the misconceptions of the Epicureans are carried on, thousands of years afterwards, up till today.

I typed the word epicurean in google, and here is what I have got, “a person devoted to sensual enjoyment, especially that derived from fine food and drink.” with synonyms like sensualist, sybarite, and pleasure seeker.

So, if all those were rumors, what was the Garden all about?

It was akin to a social experiment to answer the happiness question with the following hypotheses: it is not money that makes us happy, we are happy when we live communally with friends, when we live simply, when we engage in meaningful contemplation and self-reflection, and avoid the stiff competition associated with the city life.

The experiment was a success. It worked out, largely.

Friendship ranked, perhaps, highest.

Here, Cicero quotes Epicurus:

“Of all the things which wisdom has contrived which contribute to a blessed life, none is more important, more fruitful, than friendship.”7

In case you are having problems settling in with these results (which most people get intuitively, by the way), we can fast forward some 2,300 years and see what progress we have made.

Modern Psychologists have effectively replicated Epicurus’s results, where they showed that the best predictors of our happiness are contacts with friends and relatives, and physical pain.8

And what about money?

Let me be clear, poverty makes most people miserable. Research has showed that severe poverty does exacerbate reports of experienced misfortune in other areas of life. In other words, lack of money makes the fire burn hotter, it makes the blade pierce deeper.9

However, the billions wouldn’t make you any happier. Psychologists had ‘discovered’ that money doesn’t count towards happiness beyond $75,000 per annum if you live in an expensive neighborhood. (Some other studies cite lesser figures.)10

And how do we make sense of these observations? I will say, focusing illusion and the hedonic treadmill – the former is the mechanism that drives the latter.

This exemplifies the American speaker, Zig Ziglar’s statement, “Money won’t make you happy, but everyone wants to find out for themselves”.

You see, you can be happy when you get your monthly pay check; see one of your arch enemy’s stumble, say, Clinton supporters when Trump’s lewd tapes got leaked at the run up to the 2016 US presidential elections (schadenfreude); publish research papers in top scientific journals like NatureScience, and Cell.

Unfortunately, all these are not immune to Sisyphus’s ordeal.

(Real) happiness has to be something much, much, deeper, something more immune to the Sisyphus’s ordeal, something accessible but (clearly) tough to get, something unattractive but powerful, something expensive (psychologically).

And Indeed, it is.

For all that has been said, these ideas provide the logic bearing the reason why our relationships are the greatest determinants of our happiness. Because we are in constant relationship with people, it’s impossible for the implications of our relationship to not fill up our emotions. And if it’s a relationship that steeps us in a state of fear, anxiety, jealousy, or hatred.

Then, perhaps it might be time to design a real happiness goal. The Ancients figured this out, as we saw earlier.

His holiness, The Dalai Lama chimes in: “People were made to be loved, and things were made to be used. The reason why the world is in chaos is because things are being loved and people are being used.”

Fair enough.

Conclusione and Some House Keeping

One can’t beat the drum enough:

There is a huge lacuna between what we think will make us happy and what does.

Apart from the fact that individuals don’t do what is best for themselves, it appears that we are constantly structuring our society to permit that which deteriorate our happiness.

One could even argue that a lot of societies today seems to be shattering (or attempting to shatter) every single thing that had been reported to make us happy – healthy communities, expectations, healthy marriages. Et cetera.

Just look around.

As if we haven’t had it enough, some had even claimed that immortality holds the key to ‘true’ happiness. Except that, even a 2-year old knows that aging is not the only cause of death. If the goal were to be achieved, it will be a catastrophe.

Tell me, who would want to die in a plane crash or say through a gun bullet from a deranged stranger if one knows that one could literally live forever. And the poor man who can’t afford the pills will watch the rich man live. Forever? Pure trash. All I see here is fear – crippling, unspeakable fear.11

Are we that helpless? Can’t we do better?

You see, to understand a thing – an idea – is to act it out; I am sorry, but so far, we don’t understand happiness, we think we do, but we don’t.

We just don’t get it.

Let me wrap this up with a very short story.

In 1990, a Canadian, Danny Simpson was sentenced to jail for six years for robbing a bank of $6000. Fair enough. He got what he deserved, one could say. Only that he had done the dirty job using a WW1 vintage Colt .45 valued at up to $100,000.12

In other words, Danny used a $100,000 gun to rob a bank of $6,000. That’s heavy.

Friends, please and please, excuse my Shakespearean English: We doth not knoweth that which we possess.

Thank you for reading

 

References and Notes

[1] Marcus Crassus wealth estimations: Mary Beard. (2015) SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome Pp 319. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation.

[2] Marcus Crassus death: Cassius Dio, Roman History 40, 26.3

[3] Edge Foundation. (2012). This will make you smarter Pp 49 (The Focusing Illusion by Daniel Kahneman) HarperCollins Publishers.

[4] Daniel Kahneman (2011) The Focusing Illusion. Edge.org. Retrieved 20:15, September 1, 2018, from https://www.edge.org/response-detail/11984

[5] Alain de Botton. (2000) The Consolations of Philosophy. Pp 50. Vintage Books, New York

[6] Athenaeus, xiii.611 Retrieved 21:08, September 1, 2018, from http://www.attalus.org/old/athenaeus13d.html#611Here Athenaeus apparently referring to the Diotimus scandal mistook Theotimus for Diotimus.

[7] Brad Inwood and L.P Gerson. (1997) Hellenistic Philosophy: Introductory Readings. Pp 61 Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis/Cambridge

[8] Daniel Kahneman. (2011) Thinking, Fast and Slow Pp 395. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York.

[9] Daniel Kahneman. (2011) Thinking, Fast and Slow Pp 396. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York.

[10] Daniel Kahneman. (2011) Thinking, Fast and Slow Pp 397. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York.

[11] Yuval Noah Harari (2015) Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind Pp 384. HarpersCollins Publishers, New York.

[12] Victoria Times 19thSeptember 1990. Retrieved 22:10, September 1, 2018, from: http://www.c4vct.com/kym/humor/histor.htm

The portrait of Sisyphus is drawn from: Wikipedia contributors. (2018, August 24). Sisyphus. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 18:56, September 1, 2018, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Sisyphus&oldid=856290405

Marcus Crassus biography is largely drawn from Marcus Crassus mentions in:Mary Beard. (2015) SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation.

Epicurus biography is largely drawn from: Alain de Botton. (2000) The Consolations of Philosophy (Consolation for Not Having Enough Money). Vintage Books, New York.

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