Saturday, November 20, 2010

Happiness and Denial and Reality and Death

1. Happiness is the denial of others’ suffering. Denial is the first of the five stages of grief every person goes through after a loss. It is a defense mechanism that works by pushing certain facts that are too painful to face into the unconscious. Usually, denial is elusive because a person would rarely admit that he is refusing to believe in something which is presumably true, such as that his loved one has died, and, in fact, they may even know that something is true, such as that their loved one is dead, but refuse to believe in it, and belief, like understanding, is different from cold knowledge, or facts. Every time I see a happy face it reminds me of all the misery in the world that that face overlooks. Seeing others happy makes me sick, and I feel nothing but contempt for those people. It is a reminder—as well as a cause—of all the ignorance and indifference of others' suffering, including my own. I can see them watch their friends and acquaintances rolling from side to side on the side walk, in agonizing torment, as they pass them by while rationalizing their spineless apathy. It seems people are in denial of all that is wrong with the world. They consciously, and often even craftily and pertinaciously, refuse to face the horror that surrounds them. The suicide rates, the prevalence of illness, poverty, and inequality are just a few of the plethora of issues that cause people their lives, and, probably even more importantly, the quality of their lives (if you can even call it 'life'). Instead of stopping and helping those who can’t help themselves, we make the world helpless for them.

They also serve Who only stand and wait.
--John Milton, "On My Blindness"

2. Happiness is the ignorance of others' suffering. Those who say “appreciate life”, or “life is too short to be unhappy”, or similar normative statements, have never been depressed. For most people, there is always some form of relief from pain; we expect the pain to lift, whether through rest or medication or change in posture or, most often, through the body’s natural capacity for self-healing, and we come to believe that this eventual relief is the reward for our placid endurance of this temporary suffering. However, in depression this faith in liberation, in ultimate salvation, is absent, and so is the capacity for joy and happiness. There is no life after death. However, I know that hell exists, and so does heaven. They exist, however, only on earth, and I experienced them both, literally. The concept of hell must have come to humans from their own severe bouts with depression, and the concept of heaven—from their bouts of bliss, or at least from their days of well-being. For obvious reasons, the Bible’s writers could not have come to us from beyond the grave to tell us about heaven and hell. However, the pain I felt matched the biblical description of hell—a fire tormenting my soul with no end in sight. Yes, this was literal hell and not some metaphorical place deep underground with the devil throwing coal into the fire. That place is where I died a long and horrible death. Similarly, the belief in life after death is a fairy tale. People don’t like to believe in something that makes them feel bad, such as that they are alone or that they don't belong, so they create stories and elaborate justifications—no, rather, rationalizations—that soften the brutality of reality. The conflict between the reality of death and man’s wish for meaning produces cognitive dissonance, and the process of creating such stories is called dissonance reduction. These stories manifest themselves as religious doctrines and superstitions. By believing so, we live in delusion. As the saying goes, “the fool is happy, the doubter is wise”, and most people would choose to be happy fools.

3. We engage in blatant denial everyday, through the manifestation of the self-serving bias, e.g., believing that praying has any effect on the physical world and that we are in control of our environment. Yes, even our belief that we have conscious control over our actions is a delusion:
Cognitive thought is the tip of an enormous iceberg. It is the rule of thumb among cognitive scientists that unconscious thought is 95 percent of all thought – and that may be a serious underestimate. Moreover, the 95 percent below the surface of conscious awareness shapes and structures all conscious thought. If the cognitive unconscious were not there doing this shaping, there could be no conscious thought. (Lakoff 13)
Cognitive neuroscientists conclude that the self-conscious mind constitutes only about 5 percent of our cognitive activity. That means that 95 percent of our decisions, actions, and behaviors are derived from the unobserved processing of the subconscious mind. I can personally attest to this through my experience with depression treatment. Specifically, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which focuses on changing your beliefs by becoming aware of your unconscious, or automatic, thoughts. I hypothesize that depression involves the disruption in the mind’s ability to produce functional automatic thoughts, thereby disrupting one's deep-rooted beliefs about the world. Although it may be comforting, I would never deliberately chose to remain in denial. I always knew that if faced with the choice of being either wise or happy I would always opt for wisdom, for in wisdom there is a kind of salvation. It doesn't matter how uncomfortable the reality is, because—and I don't often quote the bible—“The truth will set you free” John 8:32 (NIV)

4. Reality is difficult to know and to accept. I pride myself with my ability to accept the absurdity, the contradiction, and the tragedy of the reality of life. It takes a lot of courage and understanding to face the reality of death and suffering in the world and to accept that there is no such thing as fairness, or that the world owes nothing to us, or that there is no karma, no god, no ultimate meaning, or that there is no reason behind why things happen. The world is a terrible place that is both impossible and necessary to face. If you face the world as it truly is, with all its unnecessary suffering and injustices, you will wish to be dead, because the horror is too much for any one man to handle. And yet, to face the world is the only way to live a free and happy life. As Bertrand Russell said, “The secret of happiness is to face the fact that the world is horrible, horrible, horrible." This Truth has been beat into me through my battle with depression. The truth being that it is tremendously difficult to see reality for what it is; the reality being that there is no ultimate meaning, no divine plan, and that we are going to die, some of us sooner than others. Moreover, it is arrogant and vain to claim that we can determine why things happen while knowing the gargantuan limitations and fallibility of our reptilian brains. There are no reasons for our lives and events other than those that we assign to them.


Johnson, Mark, and George Lakoff. Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought. New York: Basic Books, 1999. Print.