I came down the stairs at home not long ago to hear our youngest daughter whining. This is not, to say the least, an unusual experience. Since the day she was born, our youngest has been more inclined to whine and cry than her older sister ever was. On this particular day, her complaint was that the only thing that wasn’t boring for her was to play My Little Pony and her older sister “never, ever, ever wants to play My Little Pony.”
My wife was doing her best to respond with a mix of comfort and firmness. We don’t like to see our children cry and we don’t want them to grow up to be bored, whiny people who fall apart when others won’t comply. The kerfuffle was settled by the simple suggestion that she play My Little Pony alone, which after expressing all her residual melancholy, our girl accepted.
Experiences like these are familiar to anyone who’s raised a child. They are everyday stuff. Given how frequently parents must calm, discipline and instruct a child about how to be happy, it is amazing that the general culture believes happiness and contentment are natural states of existence for human beings.
They are not.
Let me say this again bluntly:
Happiness and Contentment are NOT the default states for human beings.
The default states for human beings are self-centered anger, sadness, and anxiety.
Think again about raising children. No one instructs a child about how to get mad about not getting her way. No one trains a child to form habits that will lead to a life of anxious pouting. No, the job of parents is to train a child to adopt the behaviors and perspectives that are most likely to lead to inner and outer peace. If peaceful, contented happiness came naturally to us, this wouldn’t be unnecessary.
Once again, our culture obscures what ought to be obvious. Most people in the modern West operate on the assumption that the human being in his natural state is a beam of radiant joy, greeting each new day with eager excitement.
Media reinforce this. Everybody on those floor polish commercials smiles so broadly when they’re smearing that stuff around on the linoleum. The people on all those HGTV shows never suffer seriously. They all smile, even when the house is falling down around them. Everything, the media tell us constantly, should be fine so long as there is plenty of money to buy, buy, buy.
We’re led to believe that happiness should be our normal state by an even deeper force. The whole of the modern outlook rests on the notion of human beings’ inherent goodness. The assumption that human beings, freed from the corrupting influence of social expectations, are naturally peaceful and happy permeates all our social institutions, including the education establishment.
As is the case with most modern ideas, the real-world result of this one is increased misery. People who find themselves depressed, anxious, and angry adults wonder what’s wrong with them. Having imbibed the belief that their normal state should be calm joy, when emotional realities arise that don’t fit that belief, people see themselves as broken, abnormal, and feel even worse.
The assumption that happiness is the natural state is clear in the way we talk about depression. People speak as if depression is a variation from the norm, something novel a few must endure. The truth is that something like depression is the natural state of human beings when we fail to make serious efforts to control our emotional state, when we haven’t been trained to be happy.
Depression is automatic. Happiness is an achievement. Being happy requires making serious efforts to control our thoughts and actions. To be happy, we must submit ourselves to discipline. We must be trained in how to think and behave. We must be reigned-in from the excesses of emotion and narcissism and oriented outward toward our goals and the well-being of others.
The product of this training is a set of habits we call character. The cultivation of character offers us an escape from our natural misery. As we pursue greater character, we are lifted above the petty squalls of passing emotion and placed upon more solid ground where we can be, if not always happy, stable enough to attend to our duties which, in the end, always satisfies.
If you need some help developing your character, this book can help.
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