Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Shakespeare, happiness, and other dangerous things

Dissolution. 30"x24". Oil on canvas. 2013
I've just read Daniel Gilbert's "Stumbling on happiness": based on Brain Pickings' recommendation, I believed it might be a good gift for a friend, but (luckily) decided to check it out myself first. And I am glad I did -- because I didn't like it at all, and I am sure the friend in question wouldn't have liked it either.  

I am not going into whys and wherefores of my dislike here (I am not out to write a review, after all), but there are a couple of (partly interrelated) thoughts it helped to crystallize in my mind, which I want to record for myself, and share with you. 

First, although the book is, presumably, about the newest psychological findings, each chapter is preceded by an epigraph taken from Shakespeare, which pretty much sums up the most essential of these findings. Did he have some sort of time machine to travel to our times and consult with modern psychologists? I don't think so. Nor would it be enough to say that he was somehow "ahead of his time" in understanding human condition. Instead, he created the framework which still defines our understanding of it, the very concepts used to pose research questions and, to a large extent, determine the answers (both for those who have read Shakespeare, and for those who have "inherited" this framework second-hand, via other linguistic channels). That is the reason his work remains relevant, and that is one of two major reasons for my own "Sonnets in colour" project.  

The other thought is more general. Have you noticed that there are lots and lots of scientific findings (and their popular interpretations) which, ultimately, suggest that human beings shouldn't trust themselves? One shouldn't trust their body: if it tells you what it wants to eat, you should go and find dietary recommendations about which nutrients it really needs; you shouldn't trust it if it tells you it's healthy: you cannot know you are healthy unless you undergo regular check-ups and more and more invasive "tests"; nor, as a matter of fact, should you trust it if it tells you you are ill, unless your doctor confirms that this is, indeed, the case. Otherwise, "it's all in your head". 

This leads us to "the head", of course, which you shouldn't trust either; because your brain is engaged in permanent successful attempts to deceive you, to create the illusion that what you see is really there, that what you remember really happened, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera; and, last but not least, that you have a conscious control of your own actions.  

Daniel Gilbert's book goes further in this direction than anything I have read so far: you cannot even trust yourself to decide what will make you happy; nor even what did make you happy in the past, because all your memories are inaccurate at best or downright erroneous at worst. Which means you can learn neither from practice nor from experts; your only way out is to ask someone else whether the thing you are contemplating makes them happy. And if you happen to think people are too different for this to work, it's just another of your innumerable mistakes: overestimating your own uniqueness.

Don't get me wrong: I don't question the underlying findings; at least not all of them (some of them are really controversial and often barely substantiated, so it would be strange to accept them unchallenged, especially insofar as your own life is concerned). That's not the point: the question is rather what we do once we accept that the human mind is not an ideal machine for discovering the final truth about reality, and that the brain is a very adept illusionist (which, of course, Shakespeare knew very well). The idea of relying on someone else doesn't really look promising: not only because they are also human, but also because it would be incredibly boring.

My feelings tell me that this ever increasing alienation from oneself, the growing mistrust within oneself, cannot form the path to any sort of happiness; rather, it's a sure road to despair and depression. But then again, feelings cannot be trusted, can they? 




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