KE part 7 (evaluating connection-based happiness)

So now I come to the peak of my “Five Cs” of happiness: connection. I should probably start out with a couple of qualifications here. First of all, as I’ve said already, there are many philosophers and psychologists in the field who are dogmatically convinced that confidence is the true peak of happiness and self-worth, and I’m not going to try to conclusively disprove their theory on the matter. It’s not the sort of thing that can be scientifically proven one way or the other. Both are important, and I recognize that happiness can come in many forms for many people. Secondly, just because I consider connection to be the most important source of happiness does not mean that as long as you have that, nothing else matters. All of these sources remain important and need to be balanced with each other, right down to the comparison business I started out with. I have some ideas about the limits of connection as source of human happiness but that is an essay unto itself.

All that being said, and my personal experiences aside, there is one powerful theoretical justification for putting connection at the top of my sources of happiness list: all the others are limited to the scope of a person’s natural lifespan. It’s highly unlikely that I have more life ahead of me than I do behind me at this point, and no one who is old enough to read this will be alive 100 years from now. So that brings me to one inescapable conclusion matter how well you live it, life is just too damn short. The limits of what happens within my own skin are just too tight. We have a certain need to feel that we are part of something that goes further than that. The author of Ecclesiastes (3:11) put it this way: “[God] has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done.” Even Aristotle recognized that in order to count as truly happy and successful in life, a man has to leave some sort of successful heritage. To do that, he has to connect with something beyond himself.

And then beyond that there is my subjective evaluation of things that have made me happy and common traits I’ve noticed among the happier people I have known. People who feel cared about, part of a group of “significant others,” in touch with something greater than themselves and in general “loved” tend to be far happier than even the most powerful and self-confident of all loners out there.

Looking at what I wrote to my son on this subject years ago, I now see some things that are very dated about this text, but it’s worth sharing anyway:

This form of happiness can begin with the most trivial of things. At its most basic level, I can experience the happiness of connection through such simple things as a bicycle ride; as I stand up on the pedals and start pumping my legs to get up a hill, I start to feel like my old Raleigh ten-speed just becomes an extension of my arms and legs, moving according to my will as a part of my very being. The great gun-slingers of the American Wild West said the same thing of their revolvers; they just felt as though they became part of their hands. For the skilled jockey or cowboy on horseback, or for a shepherd working with a well-trained sheep dog, the same principle goes a step deeper; instead of a machine, a living, breathing organism with a mind of its own effectively becomes part of that person’s “self.” There is a special thrill as these two operate entirely as one. But it is only when two people somehow have the experience of effectively becoming part of each other that this satisfaction reaches a plateau where it deserves to be called love.

Since I wrote that the Raleigh has long since been stolen and I am no longer in very good cycling condition, and since it is entirely fair to say that my relationship with my dog has been one of the major factors in preserving what is left of my mental health, I might be a bit more inclined to recognize the proper use of the L-word as relating to “lower species” as well, but other than that I still stand by this quote. It does, however, make it necessary to consider more carefully the ways these connections are formed and how they become meaningful to us.

To start with, I would deny that love is merely the emotional component of a complex set of self-defense and self-promotion reflexes which, on Freud’s authority, are seen as related to the sex drive. Besides reacting to the offensiveness of the implied reductionist claim that all of my interpersonal connections are nothing more than instinctive hormonal reactions, I would point out that we can see the difference between love and sexual preoccupation by studying psychopaths. These particularly sick individuals lack the capacity to experience any form of love, but not sex. A psychopath can experience sexual satisfaction just as well as the next guy; he just can’t experience any sense of closeness with his partner in the process. A certain sort of love should be part of sex, and at its best sex is an expression of a very profound sort of love, but love is far more than that and comes in many more forms than that.

It should also be noted that love is one of the areas of human experience where human language is at its most inadequate. Poets of all different languages, styles and cultures have been trying to capture the experience of love for at least as long as we have had written languages, some doing better at it than others but none of them succeeding entirely. The nature of the problem here was captured as well I have seen anywhere by the recently deceased Finnish poet Tommy Taberman, whom I jokingly refer to has being a distant relative of mine by way of marriage (long story). Taberman got a bit of a rise out of critics by describing a sunrise as being “the color of an orgasm.” Now what color would that be? Obviously the experience of an orgasm cannot be captured in a particular shade of color (though if it could it would probably be something warm and dazzling like the most intense sunrise you’ve ever witnessed), and just as obviously the experience of love cannot be captured in a particular verbal expression. However you say it, there will always be more to it than that.

But that still leaves an open question of what we are really talking about when we speak of love in sincere, non-lustful terms. Christian devotional writing on the topic has spent a lot of time and ink going over the three basic Greek words for love used in the New Testament, but in my opinion that doesn’t really answer the question; in some ways it may just muddy the waters. Not that I consider myself to be wiser or more verbally skilled than the inspired writers of scripture or their army of commentators, but perhaps if I toss out my own ad hoc set of categories for types of love—or interpersonal connections in general––it might at least inspire some fresh thinking on the subject. I’ll show you what I’ve got then and await a variety of different critical responses. Here are Huisjen’s basic categories for what might be meant by “love”:

1. “Warm Fuzzies”
Borrowed from the name for emotional images used in Ronald Reagan’s re-election campaign, warm fuzzies is a term used to refer to an unthinking, instinctive sense of emotional attraction. This is where someone or something is presented in a way that makes them appear “totally huggable.” Some people, women in particular, live for warm fuzzy experiences, and media experts are all too happy to provide such experience for them as means of manipulating people into consuming whatever product they’re being paid to sell. There are some very basic tricks of that trade that we could discuss, but I’m trying to keep this brief. The point here is that these sorts of feelings are a bit like the rabbit my sons and I had as a pet prior to our spaniel: soft, tender, endearing, mostly harmless and incredibly stupid.

Cynical as my approach here is though, warm fuzzies can have their own legitimate role in helping us find happiness. As long as you’re careful about it and recognize the inherent limits in this kind of relationship, there’s a lot of pleasure to be had in appreciating cuteness and non-sexual cuddliness.

As to the risks of becoming obsessed with “love” strictly in terms of warm fuzzies (at the risk of distastefully speaking ill of the dead) two words: Michael Jackson.

2. Synchronized Function
There is a slightly deeper sort of “love” than warm fuzzies that goes with working smoothly together with someone, sort of like what I spoke of above relating to bicycles and sheep dogs. There’s just this certain bond which comes about when a rock band plays really well together for a long time, feeding off of each other’s energy and creating great art in the process; or when a military unit functions so that every member can literally trust every other member with their lives because of how well they have learned to work together; or even when a restaurant staff is able to function reliably and efficiently under pressure, giving each customer what they want when they want it with pride and finesse, regardless of how swamped they get. In any of these cases it’s entirely appropriate for members of the group to say to each other, “I love you, man!” This sort of love has its limits though, in that it is obviously based on each person’s performance abilities and similar skill levels. It may provide help for a colleague who gets wounded or even stumbles under pressure, but it has no place for weaklings and wannabes. Less able folks also need love, so we can’t leave it at this.

3. Aesthetic Connection
In the film (and theatre play) Shadowlands (based on the life of author C. S. Lewis) there is an important line repeated a few different dialogs: “We read to know that we’re not alone.” I would strongly agree with that assessment, and apply it to many other forms of appreciating human creativity. Literature, like all fine arts at their best, gives us a sense of connection with the experience of the author/artist and other members of the audience; it helps us know we are not alone. Knowing that there are others out there who feel something at least quite similar to what I feel gives me a sense of being part of something important. Sometimes this is a matter of sharing an appreciation for the artist’s awesome talent; turning to the guy next to you and saying, “Damn! How does he do that?!” Other times it is just admiring the elegant simplicity of a particular creative solution to a difficult challenge. Other times it is a matter of recognizing the feelings being expressed as ones you’ve gone through yourself, or that you could easily imagine yourself going through, but you hadn’t quite been able to express them; and through this art you now discover a certain community of those who’ve had the same sort of experiences. Or it could be any combination of these forms of connection through the art. Of course not everyone “gets it,” but that can be part of what makes it special.

4. Romantic/Sexual Union
I’ve already discounted hormonal attraction as a form of love, but sometimes there is something intense that physical lovers experience that goes beyond the sexual. Plato talked about a legend of the gods cruelly splitting souls in half and putting each half in a separate body, so that people spend their lives looking for the other half of their primordial true self––someone they can “become part of” not only physically but, through the physical passion, on a deeper level as well. While on a fundamental level I do not believe in this sort of “soul mate” idea, and while my personal experience in looking for romantic partnership has been mixed at best, I do deeply respect and appreciate the value of the sort of bonding that couples who are “meant for each other” are able to achieve. Of course it doesn’t “just come naturally” for anyone, but when two people are able to build the sort of life together where, after spending more than half of their lives committed to each other, they still get profound satisfaction from being together, those are some of the most enviable people in the world. The institution of marriage may or may not help people build this sort of partnership in any given case, but when this kind of love is established between the partners even a cynical second generation divorcee like me can see marriage as a potentially beautiful thing. But the problem with this sort of love is that “authorities” who claim to have sure-fire ways of making this sort of relationship work––from conservative religious leaders to neo-Jungian relationship therapists––are never as effective at it as they claim to be.

5.  Kinship
In addition to the pair bonding aspect of building happy families there is also the matter of people having a semi-instinctual urge to protect and build solidarity with those they have the most in common with genetically; especially their own children, but also siblings, nephews, nieces, cousins and even more distant relatives. This sort of connection can be very powerful and important regardless of one’s pair bonding success. Especially in the case of parent/child relationships here, this sort of love can easily trump all others. Like romantic relationships, it can very seriously misfire at times, but when it does you can’t divorce yourself in the same way from your parents, or your children, or your siblings, as you can from a spouse. That sort of involuntary certainty in the relationship can actually have a very positive effect at times.

6. Intellectual Stimulation
As a philosopher and a theologian (in the looser senses of both words at least) I’m inclined to believe that there are levels of personal connection that transcend all physical or biological considerations. More important than biological kinship, in other words, is our search for “kindred spirits.” Beyond knowing that each of us is part of a particular family tree, beyond having that “special someone” in your life, and beyond sharing a certain level of emotional experience in relation to the arts, we all need to experience the sense that our basic world views and the foundations for our personal values are more than just our quirky individual ways of looking at things. Finding others who can share those views with you and who can help you refine those views can in fact be one of the most important experiences of love that a person can have. This can be seen as a combination of the aesthetic and the synchronized, cooperative forms of love mentioned above, but it also goes beyond that. It is a matter of my overall world view somehow becoming profoundly connected with someone else’s world view. This need not be a perfect or comprehensive match in order to be a profound source of joy for those fortunate enough to experience it. Perhaps the joy that many think they are getting from personal confidence in their intellectual processes more properly comes from this form of connection with others that they get be way of these intellectual processes. This can also be related to…

7. Spiritual Union
Some may consider this to be a delusional form of connection by way of intellectual stimulation, but I am also prone to believe that there is indeed “something out there” beyond the metaphysical limits of the material realm; something which is the ultimate source of our being and which ultimately defines our purpose in life. As an unabashed member of the Christian tradition, for lack of any better name, I refer to this “something” as “God” when I am speaking English, with rough equivalents in any other language I might try to use. More than connecting with other people, but at the same time as one of the primary focal points for my connection with other people, I wish to have a connection with this ultimate source that I call God. Again, in my experience, people who humbly reach out in search of this ultimate source, and who find satisfaction in building a connection with such a transcendent source of peace and harmony, whatever religious tradition they happen to base this sense of connection on, tend to be some of the happiest and most enviable people in the world. This is why, for example, I believe the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu are able enjoy such a profound sense of connection with each other, regardless of their theological differences. This is a form of love that I strongly hope to include in all of the other loves I feel and express.

There’s still a lot to be said about the relative importance of each of these types of love, and the risks and rewards involved in pursuing them as sources of happiness, but I already have more verbiage here than the average blog reader has the patience for, so I’ll leave it at that. And since this series isn’t really generating a lot of traffic this time around I’ll leave off on this here for now. Here’s hoping then that each of you finds the sorts of connections in life that you need in order to be genuinely happy, and if any of you want to connect with me personally in some of these more important ways, feel free to contact me about the matter.

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Filed under Ethics, Happiness, Love, Parenting, Sexuality, Social identity, Spirituality

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