Have you ever read the story of Candide? Published by Voltaire in 1759, the satire spins the tale of an optimistic young man who embarks on his life’s journey believing his teacher’s philosophy that everything in life happens for the best. His faith gradually erodes as he and his companions endure an endless wave of horrendous catastrophes until he finally decides that he can no longer rationalize the tenets of his learning with the realities of life.
Today, when we’re steadily besieged with social media messages to think positive, we can still find some truth in the tale of Candide. Not to say that there isn’t a lot of merit in positive thinking. We should definitely try to find joy in the small things, be grateful for what we have and share our positivity with others whenever possible. To be stoic in the face of adversity is no small achievement.
The reality is, though, our negative emotions are important. They are the very things that kept the human race alert and alive in earlier times. Fear, doubt, discontent, anger, shame and sorrow are authentic emotions and we shouldn’t be striving to suppress them for fear of compromising our own happiness or that of others.
How often have you seen one of those memes that says, “I don’t want much. I just want to be happy.”
Being happy isn’t “much”? What nonsense. Being happy is huge. Enormous. Happiness is a wonderful emotion. Of course we’d love to have it all the time, but is chronic happiness a realistic goal?
Psychology tells us that our brains process positive and negative emotions differently. Positive emotions inspire us toward a goal, negative ones inspire avoidance. In order to experience overall life satisfaction, positive emotions like contentment, joy, love, pride and accomplishment need to outweigh the negative feelings which motivate us to protect ourselves. The theory goes that we need a lot of positive vibes to overcome the stronger impact of negative emotions. Some accounts even suggest that a 5:1 ratio of positive to negative is a break-even.
Well, that makes sense. Aristotle used the term “eudemonia” to signify the contented state of being healthy and happy. Other readings indicate that “flourishing and prosperous” may be a better translation. Either way, yes please. We want that. We’re not greedy, you understand. We don’t want it ALL THE TIME, just most of the time, so our sum total of positivity puts us comfortably on the “satisfied” rather than the “miserable” scale.
Putting aside the fact that “eudemonia” rather sounds like a disease, how do we achieve it? Science tells us that genetics play a huge part in our happiness quotient. We are by nature either optimists or pessimists, and that raw material is responsible for 50% of our emotional state. Within that basic infrastructure, we are all subject to varying degrees of what is called “trait neuroticism”. Those with high TN are more sensitive to stress, experience it more often and more intensely, and take longer to recover than their low TN counterparts.
What all that means is that we’re not on a level playing field. Some of us have a significant head start when it comes to chasing that bluebird of happiness.
The remaining 50% of our emotional state is divided between 10% circumstances and 40% attitude. Circumstances are only 10%? How can that be? The theory is that, being the resilient creatures we are, we adapt to our circumstances over time so they don’t have the huge impact on our happiness that we might expect. This is clearly untrue in the case of extreme circumstances, severe illness or bankruptcy for example, but let’s concede that it might be in range when it comes to the day-to-day stuff. We are, therefore, left holding the bag for 40% of our own happiness and eudemonia.
Let’s revisit Aristotle for a moment. Eudemonia is “healthy and happy” or “flourishing and prosperous”. Is Healthy an attitude? Flourishing? Prosperous? Nope. Those are in the 10% circumstances category. Aristotle lived a long time ago in a different world, but he was all about goals. He offered that the purpose of human life is to achieve the end goal, and the end goal is living a good life. One does that by acquiring all the things one needs to flourish and prosper, namely physical, intellectual and moral. One needs luck to do that, and health. In Aristotle’s world, one also needed to be a male of a certain social class to live a good life. Women, children, persons of low standing, servants and slaves were property and therefore unable to acquire the necessary virtues.
So, throwing all these wise words from scientists and psychologists and philosophers into a blender, let’s give it a whirl. This is what they’re telling us.
It all comes down to that 40% attitude. Attitude doesn’t just mean the way you respond to what happens. It doesn't mean always accepting what befalls you with grace, nor stopping to breathe and smell the roses. It means having a goal and working towards it. It means nourishing your physical body, your mind and your soul. While you’re doing that, you need to find joy in all that wonderful nourishment, because you need enough of it to outweigh the negative feelings that you also need to have.
Those ancestral human feelings deserve respect. They teach and strengthen you, and they might lead you further down the road to the good life. If, from time to time, you feel the need to wallow in negative emotion, then you should by all means do it. Take a break from being strong, be real and be human, and then come back stronger. Just don’t stay down too long.
What, you may ask, became of Candide? He and a tribe of friends withdrew from society and moved to the country, turning away from the “all is for the best” philosophy of the time. They cultivated gardens and busied themselves with work to build a community. They were happy.