Why are we so unhappy? Hardly a metaphysical question one might object, as the list of what is materially wrong with ourselves and the world is practically endless. But that begs closer inspection when we realize that unhappiness is found throughout the bell curve: overdose and suicide are not exclusively associated with “the least of these.” Clearly, wealth and power do not buy happiness, nor does access to all of the world’s vices quench our desires. How can that be?
I invite materialists to use every argument at their disposal to explain this phenomenon. But it does not follow that a finite, material being with access to infinite material sustenance or distractions could still be unfulfilled, depressed, and unhappy. Ockham's razor and the law of non-contradiction demand the simplest explanation available for why this shoe does not fit. And the theory that man’s capacity for happiness goes beyond the material realm has decent legs.
Furthermore, the human desire for fulfillment has no top or bottom: you can be an absolute brute, and still never partake in enough cruelty, vice, or evil to satisfy, or you can fly with the angels, and still never feel that you’ve had or done enough good. And finally, to that latter point, it is verifiable that the happiest people on earth obtain their fulfillment while fasting from earthly wealth or imbibing in the intangibles - familial bonds being the strongest example.
So, man has the capacity for happiness, this capacity is insatiable, and this capacity is not restricted to the material realm, even when it is inverted into the most wicked cruelty. We now come again to the question “why are we so unhappy?” and the answer becomes rather obvious: given the evidence above, how could we not be unhappy if what is offered to us by our world is by definition finite material fulfillment masquerading as enough for our infinite desire?
Now we must ask: “am I willing to consider an alternative conception of myself and society?” While such a question might seem intuitive or even naive and innocuous, it cannot be overstated how dangerous any real treatment of such inquiry is to our current way of life. As it stands, our modern lives are governed in their totality by the belief that we are material beings in a material world that need to only rework our (economic) relationships until we reach paradise.
But what if that isn’t just not true but utterly false? Well, that would undermine everything from the stock market to your sock drawer. It would undermine the left, the right, as well as the lukewarm centre. It would destroy almost every conception or practice that we currently hold or enact because this belief system is the backdrop to everything. Indeed, we already live in what is truly meant by “totalitarianism” - the very means of thinking a different thought are eclipsed.
That sounds conspiratorial. But the fact is many of the famous names that even the most illiterate recall have been discussing this for centuries - praising it in fact! The historical process that led to our malaise of modernity has been described here before. But for our purposes now it suffices to return to the questions already stated - why are we so unhappy, could I reimagine the self and society - and conclude with a prompt: what, if anything, can we do about our situation?
It is tempting here to preach from my own bias and religious tradition. What I will suggest instead is that you genuinely take the time to contemplate this undeniable aspect of your nature, the capacity and desire for fulfillment, joy, and happiness. I would encourage you to be honest with yourself about what has truly brought you happiness, and how you have sought fulfillment by the wrong methods, often causing suffering to yourself and others. Writing it out really helps.
After this examination of conscience, sincerely apologize and forgive - in person if you can, in spirit if you cannot. At the end of it all, resolve to know and act differently. The basis for that is the immateriality of true happiness. That is where our souls “move and have their being.”
Nathan Giede is a Prince George writer.