Happiness, simplicity, and other worthy pursuits

The other morning, while watching snow gently falling, outlining the lampposts and trees, I felt peace. More than that, I felt happy. Soon after, I found myself asking, “why can’t others find happiness in these simple things?” Of course other people do, but maybe not enough.

Will, my significant other, has said to me, “sometimes I feel like asking people, ‘have you ever turned around to watch the sunrise?’”

It is a question that should be asked of people who resort to violence. Surely there must be some deep unhappiness that leads people to act as they had during the January 6th Capitol riots. We know that the rioters were believers in conspiracy theories, but it can be difficult to understand why people choose to believe such things when they are far more convoluted than the truth. Sure, the truth can be hard to take sometimes, but it is so much simpler.

Simplicity, for me, often equals happiness, but when simple things fail to make others happy, perhaps choosing something more complex seems like the answer to their problems. I speculate, because I am not certain if this is the reason. What I am certain about is that none of the rioters appeared happy in the least, and the one person who some have described as being happy about the whole thing, Donald Trump, has never appeared to be genuinely happy about anything in his very public life.

I have personally known people who behave in a similar fashion. The only time they muster up anything close to a smile is when they are taking a dig at someone else. I feel sorry for such people, and I feel helpless that I cannot teach them how to be happy.

I believe that happiness is only possible when someone has empathy. It may be possible to teach empathy to children, but I’m not sure if the same can be said for adults. Empathy is about more than understanding; it is being able to genuinely share an experience. We need people in our lives to share good times with, but we also need people to share moments of sorrow and hardship with.

Even before the pandemic, we were a people becoming more and more socially isolated. One of the culprits is a channel of communication that describes its motivation as bringing people together: social media. People who understand the business model know that bringing people together is not the true motivation at all; profit is. Use an algorithm to encourage addictive behavior and there you have it: the greatest achievement in the history of marketing.

The past five years have demonstrated the damaging ways that social media has brought people together. It brought people together to hate, form conspiracy theories, act violently, and some have lost their jobs or even their lives because of it. The question remains; can social media bring people together in a way that leads to happiness? Can empathy be achieved in relationships that solely exist online?

I believe it can be, but tech companies must reprioritize. When a person sets up an account on a social media platform, that person is making themselves a commodity that will get bought and sold in cyberspace. Upload a picture of yourself in a Hawaiian shirt, and you and your friends will start seeing advertisements for other Hawaiian shirts. Maybe you never buy a shirt, but if just one of your friends, or one of their friends, clicks through to look at the Hawaiian shirts for sale, a profit has been generated. No sale is needed.

So here you are, a person with a friend of a friend who clicked through to look at a Hawaiian shirt. After doing so, this friend of a friend then received a referral to join a group called Boogaloo Boyz. They joined out of morbid curiosity. Now you receive a referral to join the Boogaloo Boyz because someone you know has joined. You find out the group is not for you, but some of your friends have since joined because hey, you have a good head on your shoulders and you joined. Maybe one of your friends had one bad experience with a Black person, so something in the Boogaloo Boyz messaging resonates. And that is how social media can enable someone to become an extremist.

In some way, people on social media know themselves to be a commodity. Many use their social media accounts to make their lives appear better than they are, if not ideal, all while spurring more frustration from others. As a species, we learn through making comparisons and generalizations. All things being equal, just why does Kristina have a better life than me?

Stock brokerage firms and travel agencies have even made reference to this in their television advertisements. Unfortunately, this idea that everyone is happier than you has lead many on a quest to find someone to blame for their unhappiness, and this often opens a gateway into a group of some very unhappy campers.

Can’t get a date? Meet this group of involuntarily celibate people. The interactions that take place likely will not lead to happiness, but they fulfill a need for socialization. Bonds are made, but the initial problem of not being able to get a date is still there. Potential reasons for said problem will be sought, and this leads to blaming a great many others or seeking costly “solutions,” such as plastic surgery, that never solve the problem and only create more problems. Anger builds. More people must be blamed. And none of these paths lead to happiness, but instead lead to indoctrination in a cause fueled by anger and frustration.

This whole time, if that same person had learned to find happiness in watching a sunrise, or became more mindful about the barriers to happiness that he himself was creating, he would have been closer to achieving his goal. But he found something that looked like empathy, a sort of shared experience, and what seemed like understanding, but just why did he start to blame people he never met for why he can’t get a date?

Real empathy never serves as a recruiting tool for extremism, but the more desperate a person becomes for a real connection to another person, the more lies the person seems willing to believe. If a person can make a real connection to the person craving that, they may be able to deprogram that person. Love is the only remedy for hate, and truth is the only remedy for lies. That all sounds blissfully simple. Just remember that simple isn’t always easy.