Monday, March 2, 2009

The Conquest of Happiness, Chapter 12

Chapter 12 (pages 137-144), “Affection”

Being beloved promotes the zest for life, whereas the feeling of being unloved destroys it. Those who feel unloved might try to win the love of others through extraordinary kindness or generosity, though this tactic is likely to fail: “human nature is so constructed that it gives affection most readily to those who seem least to demand it [p. 137].” Alternatively, those who perceive themselves to be unloved might take revenge upon the world, perhaps through violence, or perhaps, like Jonathan Swift, through a biting satire. The most common response to feeling unloved, however, is to fall into quiet despair, punctuated by bouts of ill feeling towards others. “As a rule, the lives of such people become extremely self-centered and the absence of affection gives them a sense of insecurity from which they instinctively seek to escape by allowing habit to dominate their lives utterly and completely [p. 138].” They seek to stay on their tried and true paths to avoid encountering a hostile world.

A sense of security leads to happiness, unless the feeling of invulnerability induces foolish risk-taking. Even in risky endeavors, like crossing over a chasm on a dodgy bridge, the feeling of security can lower the risk – a similar proposition applies to many types of activities. This useful self-confidence grows out of receiving sufficient, appropriate affection: receiving, not giving, though the symmetric type of affection is the standard case. Admiration works as well as affection in generating zest: public performers who receive admiration keep up their spirits. But for those who cannot call upon the admiration of a large, diffuse crowd, more concentrated affection is required. Children take the affection of their parents for granted -- affection that is essential for their happiness, as it is their guarantee against disaster. Children who lack parental affection do not meet the world with the same optimistic curiosity, and they become gloomy introverts at a young age, later turning to some unsound philosophy or theology to provide an inadequate alternative. The stochastic world does not fit into the deterministic boxes provided by these creeds. Children who receive affection do not have to create an artificial world for the safety they cannot find in the real one.

The appropriate type of affection that produces inquisitive, happy children cannot itself be too focused on safety above new experience. It might be satisfying to a parent to have a child who only feels secure in the vicinity of the parent, but this dependence will have deleterious long-term effects for the child. Adults with such an upbringing seek refuge from reality in their romantic connections, looking for the same unconditional admiration and protection from harsh truths.

We should try to minimize the extent to which our affection for others reflects fears for misfortunes that might befall them. We might use such apprehensions to cloak our own possessiveness. Some men prefer timid women, whom they can control via the provision of protection.

The ability to inspire sexual feelings in someone else is extremely important to the happiness of adults; sexual love provides joy directly, and by sustaining a zest for life, also indirectly aids happiness. Women tend to love men for their characters, while men are more moved by looks. Characters, however, can be unlovable thanks to their deformation from childhood. We probably know better how to foster good looks than good characters.

It is one thing to be beloved; but what about the affection that we have for others? The better type of affection emanates from a person who is confident and secure; the lesser type comes from a need for security. Both types generally are present simultaneously, and both are helpful. Nevertheless, the version of affection that reflects insecurity is far inferior, both because it is a product of fear and because it promotes self-centeredness. “In the best kind of affection a man hopes for a new happiness rather than for escape from an old unhappiness [p. 142].”

Mutual affection can be mutually invigorating. But the benefits of affection also can be wholly one-sided, where one person’s affection comes at the expense of the other person’s vitality. A person who uses his partner to promote his own good, but does not think of how to generate mutual benefits, misses out on one of life’s joys; his ego is his prison.

People are conditioned, through social and private sanction, to be excessively cautious in their bestowal of affection. The result is too little affection in the world, and too much unhappiness. Those who exceed the norm in their bestowal of physical affection are not necessarily better off, however; sex can be undertaken without breaking down the walls of self. “[T]he only sex relations that have real value are those in which there is no reticence and in which the whole personality of both becomes merged in a new collective personality [p. 144].”

No comments: