Whatever we do, we’ll run into happiness and sadness, good luck and misfortune (often not far apart). You need both to make things meaningful, and the bad to remind you to properly appreciate the good. Ideally, the balance will be far on the plus side, but a life without unhappiness would be distinctly odd. Without illumination to allow the better times to be understood for what they are: better than the average, and much more than the dark moments, experience would lose its shape, and its influence upon people’s character.
This balance is what keeps us going, but when thrown onto a larger canvas of human experience, the equilibrium can become distorted and perverse. The mechanism of continual adjustment to our environments is one of the key drivers that has seen humanity spread from a corner of East Africa to covering all but the least habitable regions of the world with marks of our existence.
Adjustment to our emotional environment, or in the psychological jargon ‘the hedonic treadmill’ has arguably become one of the most greedy and lamentable aspects of the human condition. It is why investment bankers, high-level corporate managers, consultants, CEOs and executives have to be offered more and more money as they move up the chain of success, clawing others from its acrid surface as they climb. It’s why oligarchs compete for the biggest yacht, the largest island and the best sports team, all at the cost of those who haven’t got the money to keep themselves and their children alive.
If you share real sadness with others, they’ll often reply to to think of those who are worse off, and although I’ve often struggled to see the wider context, this is getting more and more important for those in a society affluent enough to have spare money to make all those tricky decisions about. One of the best things we can do to combat this is build relationships of care with others, and expand the circles of concern.
Adam Smith wrote in his ‘Theory of Moral Sentiments’ about a man (not a person, though it was published 1749) being more affected by the loss of his little finger than the loss of thousands of lives in a natural disaster on the other side of the world. This fundamental aspect of our character is not easy to change, and I wouldn’t suggest that we should spend all our time mourning the deaths of unknown thousands, but the practice of focussing outside ourselves and our own current experience for happiness can make a real difference to mental health and what we take from the world in order to maintain it.