Monday, August 03, 2009

How Language Can Befuddle Us

New York Times cartoonist Tim Kreider laments the difficulties of "finding happiness" in a recent post on his NYT Averted Vision - Happy Days Blog

While I understand the complaint, I don't relate with the evaluation. Language has befuddled us by allowing us to make "happiness" a NOUN, as if a thing, as if "it" "exists" and can be "found". And because we feel happy doing many different, disparate things, the noun "happiness" becomes muddy and complicated--do we "find" "happiness" when we love (another process that we have mistakenly made into a noun) "or" when we work? Does that mean love=work? If we sometimes feel sad when we love someone, have we "lost" "happiness"? What if we see a beautiful painting in an ugly place? Have we "found" "happiness" or "sadness"? How confusing!

Imagine if our language only allowed verbs and adverbs. Then we might "read happily" or "interact happily" or "work happily" but we could not fool ourselves into "seeking" "happiness"--no noun, no thing, just process.

As a thing, "happiness" seems to fill up the whole room and push every"thing" else aside when you "find" it, while its "lack" seems to leaves an unfillable hole. But do you imagine or hope to ever "find" "hunger"? No--you feel a sensation, hungry, at some times and not at others, regardless of what else you happen to be doing.

As a sensation, feeling happy resembles feeling hungry, or relaxed, or sleepy, or focused--all ongoing states that do not exclude other potentially contradictory sensations. In that light, we can start to see that we can feel happy right alongside feeling sad, or frustrated, or fulfilled, or accomplished, or lonely, etc. It's only a nasty trick of language that makes us think we can "find" it, rather than just feeling it here and now, or then and there, or not.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Either-Or Strikes Again

In a report headlined "Is Parenting A Joy Or A Trial?", Science Daily describes an article that appeared in The Psychologist. The article described the results of a study concerning the relative emotional effect of having children. The study found almost no correlation between having children and being happy.

I find two different levels of either-or problem here.

Of course, one level concerns the Science Daily headline: "Is Parenting a Joy or a Trial?" My first answer, both from my experience as a parent and from my GS training: Yes. "Parenting" encompasses a life-time of experience, and to attempt to sum anything like that up into one of two gross categories amounts to gross foolishness, in my view. Most parents can recount a whole panoply of moments, from horrible to fabulous to excruciating to heart-rending to ecstatic, as a result of living with kids. And most non-parents have a similar array of experiences, resulting from different kinds of experiences but similarly emotional.

Of course the study did not reduce their subject to quite to simplistic terms. From the quotes from the researcher, it appears that the study looked at broader, averaging type indicators of "life happiness", and concluded that having children does not necessarily make people happier than those who have not had children.

On the other hand, in a neat bit of "blind sight", the researcher discounts the belief that children make you happy as "focussing illusion"--the idea that you focus on one aspect while overlooking others. Focussing illusions leave us open to disillusionment when "real life" presents those overlooked details in a way we can't avoid. The researcher suggests that we imagine parenthood as wonderful and then become disillusioned by the reality of it.

But it seems to me that some people might very well focus on the negative future possibilities and then become pleasantly surprised by the reality. After all, we know that having kids will cost money and time, but we may no idea how great it can make us feel to see them graduate from college or buy their first house.

As usual, it seems that the either-or approach fails to accurately represent the full spectrum quality of life experience.