the pursuit of metahappiness

July 18, 2005
Last December I rambled about a happiness hypothetical: if you could have some sort of procedure that was guaranteed to make you happy but dumb, would you do it?

This morning, musing about some of the recent sidebar talk about video games and other distractions, it occurred to me that it's a decent thinking point, but might be better if it was less blunt, more true-to-life. Hypothesis: "True Happiness" requires an alignment of happiness and meta-happiness. You want to be happy in "real time": entertained or just content. You also want to be happy "for the right reasons", happy in ways that seem philosophically or socially acceptable.

Something that works at the base "plain happiness" level but not above that is a "guilty pleasure". I don't think we have as good a label for the opposite, but I think many of us have felt that "I want to like this more that I actually do" feeling...when I was a pre-adolescent I tried to foster an appreciation for classical music and later jazz but in reality I didn't really have a feel for either. It took me years to admit myself I only like either when it's fast, has a lot of percussion and/or "hooks".

I guess there's a choice to be made, assuming we're not lucky enough to have the two levels in perfect alignment but smart enough to be bothered by that: There is a lot of back-and-forth between the two levels. Veg out in front of the TV and you'll enjoy yourself, and it's easy to justify that on the meta- level by the very real need to "just unwind". However, keep at it too long and the gradual decrease in the meta-satisfaction can taint the base level, and you won't be happy. Similarly, cleaning your house can be an absolute grind but the meta-rewards, and the satisfaction goes well beyond just have an orderly probably feel like you've done what you should do.

In practice, for guys in modern times the base happiness level often involves following "adolescent" pursuits like video games or even skirt chasing. The meta-happiness involves "growing up", getting a good career, being a good family man. (In its negative sense, being a "geek" (in the Star Trek-lovin', fat slob never-talk-to-a-girl-without-a-credit-card stereotype) is all about the former without being tempered by the latter, and society is pretty damn harsh on that path.)

For me right now, it seems like I'm more inclined to stake out the former path; do what I like, then figure out the justifications. My key to fostering a sense meta-satisfaction from my pursuits is that they are some times "creative" (or, rather, "creationary") and the idea of "creating" ranks highly on the meta-level. I play video games (not as much as I used to) but I also create games. (Though I've also developed some pretty decent justifications for why gaming interests me so much.) also provides a framework for two other pursuits of mine, musing and browsing, and lets me produce a tangible reward for it, something that other people seem to enjoy as well.

What about being a family man? I don't know. I understand that it can entail a giant sacrifice of most of those "trivial pursuits". I've also been told that having a child the most cosmic thing a guy can do, I guess the meta-satisfaction is so overwhelming that it gushes over into the base levels of happiness. That seems like a giant leap of faith though, and I've never been crazy about irrevocable choices that pursuing that life would entail. On the other hand, I know I've enjoyed working with kids, seeing how their minds work, teaching them and also witnessing the world through fresher eyes.

Philosophically it's almost a dead heat; my tendency towards anxiety and a cheerful nihilism makes it easy to explain not wanting to bring a child into this world. On the other hand there's a fear of long term regret, that some day I'll look at my amusements and accomplishments and ask "was that all worth it?"

Well, let me know what you think. (Interestingly, there are very Google few hits for "meta-happiness" or "meta-satisfaction", either given as one word or two. Is there another word for the concept that I'm not thinking of, or is it relatively uncharted territory?)