from The Psychology of Liberty
by Wes Bertrand © 2000, copylefted 2007

The Pursuit Of Happiness

Emotions are intertwined in our mental fabric. They can sometimes be difficult to distinguish from thoughts. In fact, on one end of their spectrum, emotions are thoughts (in the form of evaluations)—usually extremely fast ones that are not explicit and clear. More noticeable evaluations generally take center stage in consciousness. Still, every emotion also shows some sign to us—however fleeting, obscure, or slight—in the physical form of a feeling. Even when we are engaged in intense problem solving, a certain feeling state is present. An aspect of one’s mind is always thinking and assessing behind one’s conscious mental activities.

Our ever-present emotional world can be viewed on a continuum. At one end are positive emotions that signify joy, elation, and so forth. Towards the middle are emotions that tell us of general normalcy, that nothing is troubling us. At the other end of the continuum are negative emotions that signify bad or aversive states, that something is wrong, disturbing, or threatening.

Much of life can be filled with emotions in the middle of the continuum. We may feel well, but nothing is really exciting or disturbing us. This could be called emotional comfort or stability. Depending on the type of values a person maintains or pursues, and the significance he or she ascribes to them, a person may be more excitable or have a higher degree of energy. How he or she assesses various situations is an important factor in moods and personality in general.

At most times in our life, we experience a whole range of emotional responses. Of course, most of us favor feelings that reflect happiness. Rarely do we want to experience negative emotions for extended periods. Prolonged feelings of anger and depression, for example, certainly have their own payoffs; they can aid in avoiding the responsibility to resolve conflicts and live optimally. However, feelings such as pain, sadness, and disappointment are normal responses to particular life experiences. They are necessary parts of the healing process as well. At the very least, though, a healthy person strives for emotional comfort. He or she will try to behave and think in ways that will bring this about and make it last.

Those who have their most basic needs met usually want to be happy. Surveys done in poor, undeveloped countries indicate that most people there do not ponder the idea of happiness. As in primitive societies, their lives have been relegated to week-to-week, month-to-month subsistence. Endurance, instead of happiness, is the condition of these hundreds of millions of people around the world.

Apparently, only within the last few hundred years have people (mostly in developed countries) considered it possible for joy to be their natural state. Most are now aware of the popular phrase coined by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence, “...the pursuit of happiness.”

Of course, the meaning of happiness can indeed vary among individuals. Some may call extended or momentary feelings of comfort happiness. In their desires to be happy, many individuals may settle for contentment. They become complacent with their given circumstances and consider happiness to mean being mildly satisfied. Absent the knowledge of what happiness requires, a person can even pretend that he or she has everything needed and wanted—at least until a significant other or event upsets him or her. Ultimately, comfort, contentment, and complacency may be a foundation for happiness, but they are not happiness.

In our everyday experiences we may have lasting and fulfilling episodes of joy. In fact the more of these delightful times we have, the closer we are to happiness; pleasure becomes the overriding emotion coloring our behavior. One could say that bliss becomes our state of consciousness. Yet, a relatively complete condition of happiness is definitely tied to enlightenment. We have to examine the full context of our life, values, and emotions. Periods of joy are only one judge of enlightenment. Such feelings can be the consequences of an enlightened state, but not the causes of it (which of course are many). One cause of enlightenment resides in the proper subconscious and conscious evaluations of what is good and bad for us. Another cause entails the active use of our mind to remedy contradictions.

Happiness must adequately describe what a life can, should, and ought to be for a person. This implies being free from needless psychological conflicts, free from unnecessary uncertainties and insecurities. Happiness entails the achievement of values such as self-esteem, which involves the development of self and an appreciation of reality. As we achieve more of these values, our state of happiness may expand or be intensified. For example, gaining the value of romantic love broadens the context of happiness; we are able to fulfill more aspects and possibilities of ourselves.

We tend to develop psychological structures that can stay with us. The way in which the conscious mind relates to the subconscious (and vice versa) is a large part of one’s personality. The subconscious is a complex mixture of memories, images, experiences, conclusions, inferences, evaluations, and so forth. And much of this mixture is tied directly to one’s emotional world.

If we are unsatisfied with our psychology—for instance, due to undesirable behavior and unwanted feelings—then we can decide to examine it. We can choose to alter mistaken premises shaped either recently or early on. Unfortunately, the majority of the human race rarely gives their inner world this much attention. Additionally, perhaps billions of people face existential conditions that are not conducive to in depth self-examination.

Only through rational thought can we understand anything extrospectively or introspectively. And our feelings often indicate where we should begin this thinking process. Such a process reveals to us that feelings should be treated neither as objects of guilt, shame, and torment nor as things of minor importance. Rather, they should be treated and approached in a respectful fashion.

Yet our emotional world may have become fragmented in childhood. We may have been recipients of practices that neglected our feelings. Since most parents treat their children as they themselves had been treated when young, cycles continue. Branden wrote about the varieties of unfavorable treatment:

For the majority of children, the early years of life contain many frightening and painful experiences. Perhaps a child has parents who never respond to his need to be touched, held and caressed; or who constantly scream at him or at each other; or who deliberately invoke fear and guilt in him as a means of exercising control; or who swing between over-solicitude and callous remoteness; or who subject him to lies and mockery; or who are neglectful and indifferent; or who continually criticize and rebuke him; or who overwhelm him with bewildering and contradictory injunctions; or who present him with expectations and demands that take no cognizance of his knowledge, needs or interests; or who subject him to physical violence; or who consistently discourage his efforts at spontaneity and self-assertiveness.9(p.8)

These influences may be subtle or not so subtle. Either way, they can encourage a child to repress and disown his or her emotional world. Such influences, not surprisingly, can also be noticed in people we encounter in our daily adult life, although the forms may be different. Repressing and disowning major parts of ourselves necessarily affects our behavior, self-assessment, and treatment of others. How we deal with and think about ourselves ultimately influences how we deal with and think about others.

We can, at times, have pretenses of happiness, pretenses of normalcy, and pretenses of genuine self-esteem. These types of rationalizations may help assuage the feeling of having betrayed something—usually one’s deepest sense of self. The self from childhood that initially demanded rationality and sanity to our psychological and physical worlds makes betrayals of this sort known.

As young children, we normally do not have pretenses. The main concern of children is to observe and identify the world. Because they are not interested in hiding their feelings, they are not adept at devising (and defending) rationalizations. Until we develop a sense of our own individuality and self-worth, hardly any questions arise about our self-esteem and happiness.

Whether we like it or not, our capacity for self-delusion, distortion, and evasion is as limitless as our capacity for self-focus, concentration, and awareness. This capacity is a fundamental nature of reason; everything entails choice at this most basic level—to think and reflect, or not. Identification and evaluation are required in every choice and subsequent action.

In addition to the conclusions about self that we eventually form, others may have repeatedly showed and told us that they doubted our effectiveness or worth. Thus, we may have accumulated some rather unpleasant subconscious material; and, it may have never been properly scrutinized. For example, one’s subconscious may express such assessments as, “You’re not good enough,” “Who are you to judge?” “Who are you to expect—and demand—happiness?” and so on. To accept these kinds of evaluations as the “not to be inspected and questioned” areas of self, is to effortlessly settle for a deficient state of being; it is to settle for a lower level of self-esteem. Branden stated the following on this issue:

The tragedy of many people’s lives is that in accepting the verdict that they are not enough, they may spend their years exhausting themselves in pursuit of the Holy Grail of enoughness. If I make a successful marriage, then I will be enough. If I make so many thousand dollars a year, then I will be enough. One more promotion, and I will be enough. One more sexual conquest, one more doubling of my assets, one more person telling me that I am lovable——then I will be enough. But I can never win the battle for enoughness on these terms. The battle was lost on the day I conceded there was anything that needed to be proved. I can free myself from the negative verdict that burdens my existence only by rejecting this very premise.12(p.26)

Self-esteem involves the convictions that one is effective, competent, and naturally possesses self-worth. One can draw many different assessments about oneself in this area as one encounters new ideas, new skills, new challenges, and new people. Yet, the essential point to remember is that one must trust one’s capability and worth in principle.

Especially in childhood, we often look to others for an understanding of the world around us and the world inside us. This is a natural and necessary part of gaining knowledge—and of reassuring ourselves that we are competent to think, judge, and act. The main problem occurs when others do not give us proper answers to some of life’s deepest questions. Instead of admit their lack of knowledge, they give us answers that can harm our sense of reality as well as discourage our self-esteem. Their pretenses are usually not completely noticed by us until later, when we start to notice them in ourselves.

We can all pretend we know things about ourselves and about the people around us, but it will never be coherent knowledge. We can rationalize the behavior of others and ourselves, but it will never be right. We can pretend the idea of self-worth is not an important—in fact a greatly important—issue for us to consider, but doing so will never make the issue go away. We can dismiss subtle feelings, but doing so will never resolve internal conflicts. We can also say that enlightenment is fleeting and can never be fully attained, and that we can only experience small islands of clarity in our life.

Irrespective of the number of enlightened people around us, enlightenment and happiness must begin with each individual turning his or her awareness inward. How one evaluates one’s fundamental competence and worth stems from what one has integrated conceptually. This includes an idea of who one is and what one thinks is possible for oneself—one’s self-concept. Typically, the subconscious did most of the processing. Formulation and evaluation of one’s self-value may come effortlessly. So it may be just as easy to not take over the helm of subconscious activity with conscious thought, choice, and deliberation.

With the subconscious, evolution has given us the ability to run on emotional/cognitive autopilot. We can perform more or less automatized routines with little conscious effort. We can get by, for a time, without making sense of life events and internal signals. Obviously, in regard to being aware of contradictions and resolving them, autopilot is terribly inadequate. As beings of volitional consciousness, how much conscious controlling and monitoring we do is ultimately our own choice, and the consequences are in store for us accordingly.

As a unique species, our task is to broaden our horizons. One of our most vital psychological values is happiness. In fact, it is our highest moral purpose.76 But we must understand the self to attain it.

We need not be stuck on a deficient level of psychological development—and correspondingly a deficient level of political development. This level of development is not something social, genetic, hereditary, or hormonal; rather, it is within our power of free will to change and alter. Further, the decision to alter ourselves does not pertain to the future evolution of our species. It pertains to the here and now, and it is readily reachable.

Individual development has been our primary concern thus far because it lays the foundation for the development of an enlightened society. Individual enlightenment and happiness brings about societal enlightenment. This of course entails new ways of looking at political systems and social relationships.

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