The cause of unhappiness

After some thinking, I have found the cause of unhappiness. It is nuclear weapons. The economics and psychology behind my finding is simple. The reason for your not figuring it out is also related to the reason why we are unhappy.

People have long noted that money does not make us happy. This is true, and should have been obvious to anyone who has conceptual understanding of the human mind. The human mind has a finite capacity for happiness. Just because you possess more material wealth than your parents, you are no happier than they, because, after all, you inherited your mind and consequently the capacity for happiness from them. Besides, it is well-known that your mind obtains satisfaction by comparing itself with what it had yesterday, and what others have today, not with what your parents had a generation ago. This fact combined with the laws of diminishing margin return and diminishing marginal utility are adequate to explain why we are unhappy. The law of diminishing marginal return ensures that our economic growth slows down as our economy grows, and the law of diminishing marginal utility means that every percentage point of growth gives me less additional happiness than the last one gave me.

I have not expounded anything new so far. Many philosophers, psychologists and economists have figured this out. But having discovered this, they then make the mistake of assuming that money does not matter. That is nonsense. We are happy when we are getting rich, not when we are rich. I am happy now that I have a house with a bedroom window that opens out to greenery, but that is only because I spent my childhood in a Maharashtra Housing Board house that opened out to other people’s windows. The problem is that my son will grow up used to such relative affluence. That will not make him happy and so he will join a religious cult in search of happiness. What can be done to avoid such an eventuality?

One idea that I thought of is to slow down economic growth to a crawl, so that people can savour every moment of it. Unfortunately, this is unworkable. People will get bored of slow growth and soon rebel. Besides, this will only postpone the problem, not solve it.

I had gotten thus far in my ruminations and was getting no further, when enlightenment struck me in the checkout counter of Shop Rite here in New Jersey, where I am currently located. The medium for the enlightenment was the cover of the latest edition of “Cosmopolitan”, which promised that the reader would find inside “8 sex positions we have never told you before about!”

It occurred to me that this was impossible, given the laws of Physics. Cosmopolitan has been introducing supposedly new sex positions in every one of its issues. The human body’s skeletal structure puts certain limits on how many degrees of freedom it has. Assuming sex between two people, it is easy to calculate the upper limit on how many sex positions there can be. It is reasonably certain that the there have been more issues of the Cosmopolitan than this theoretical upper limit. The Cosmopolitan, I reflected, has fallen victim to the same malaise that afflicts society as it tries to squeeze out the last vestiges of interest from readers who are saturated with information.

I concluded that in today’s society, life was difficult for moderately intelligent people. In the past, they’d read books by more intelligent people and interpret them for others. But now with easy access to information, everyone has access to information, interpretations of information, interpretations of interpretations of information, ad nauseum. So the moderately intelligent economist, not finding a job explaining basic economics to people, is often engaged in the supremely pointless task of discovering “Islamic banking”, which is basically an exercise in finding new words for interest, or “Socialism with a market face” which is basically an exercise in finding new words for profit-making, etc.”

The same crisis affects the moderately talented novelist who has to find an aspect of the human condition unexplored before, the moderately talented artiste who has to find a dance routine not danced before and the moderately talented comedian who has to find a joke not made before.

The culprit in all these cases, I mused as I paid for my groceries (and completely forgot to pick up a case of orange juice, thereby losing 2 dollars – 90 rupees!) was society’s ready access to information. If society could periodically lose its store of knowledge, then it would make life better for a large number of people as they rediscovered essential philosophical truths, invented the same sex positions once again and explored the same aspects of the human condition once again.

I then realised that I had the key to human happiness, viz periodic destruction.

The long period of relative peace that we are enjoying now is unnatural. If society were periodically destroyed by war, pestilence and famine, then the period between those disasters would be spent in rebuilding society. The daily struggle for existence would make people aware of the value of acquiring and building wealth. Having watched the death of their brothers, men would realise the importance of family and would be closer to their fellow men. They could afford the joys of a large family, in fact they’d need to have large families because when the next wave of destruction comes, most of their children would be killed and only a few would remain to carry on the family name. Great art could be written, because it is only in times of suffering that meaningful art is written. Great discoveries would be remade and great sex can be had, but then I repeat myself.

Now the perceptive and the moderately intelligent among you might have an obvious question. You might say that while people might be at their happiest in the interval between waves of destruction, would not the periods of destruction be times of great unhappiness? Would a netting out not occur, leaving us no happier than before?

No. That would not be true. Remember that it is much easier to destroy than to build, which is another way of saying that the period of recovery would be inevitably longer than the period of destruction. When the plague comes, or a war happens, people are very unhappy of course, but then they quickly adjust to their new condition, and they reconcile themselves to the long, but immensely fulfilling task of rebuilding from the debris of their previous world.

This then is the recipe to happiness. What prevents us from achieving it? A moment’s thought tells us that the culprit has to be nuclear weapons. While it is clear that economic progress will inevitably cure us of famine and plague, there is no reason why it should have caused an end to wars. Wars are fought with other humans who also have access to the fruits of progress, so in theory we could have fought wars for ever, and wars would have brought famine and plague back with them. These three horsemen would together take us back to the paradise where there was a world waiting to be rebuilt, and a whole ocean of knowledge to be rediscovered.

Unfortunately, one awful invention came about to bring an untimely end to the endless cycle of human happiness and, by causing a pestilential peace, has left us in a state of uneasy unhappiness, and that is the nuclear bomb. I don’t need to tell you how it has made war unthinkable – you know the deal. You will hear the spiel from many “peace activists” who will simultaneously warn us that we shouldn’t fight each other because nuclear weapons have made war too awful to contemplate, and in the next breath call for an abolition of nuclear weapons, without realising that they are in fact contradicting themselves. But I call for the abolition of nuclear weapons for a truly justifiable purpose – the advancement of human happiness by periodic destruction of society.

This then is my contribution to happiness research. Many economists are trying to come up with a measure for happiness, so that they can improve upon the GDP as a measure of how well we are doing. They do not realise that what they are faced with is not a measurement problem, but a conceptual and philosophical problem: What is happiness? I hope that by shedding light on this tricky subject, I have advanced the cause of the human race, and I also hope that the next great wave of destruction will erase this knowledge from our consciousness, to be rediscovered by my happy intellectual descendants.

40 thoughts on “The cause of unhappiness

  1. Great post! Uttrely hilarious. I failed to see anything illogical, but that must have been either your deductive rigour or the fast pace of your article.


  2. Very well constructed argument. No flaws.
    Another way might be removing memory or the sense of recording. You live with what you have and what you see.
    Lack of memory / recording would mean one can eat, drink and sleep where (s)he wants at that point of time. It is almost similar to firefighting all the time that there is no planning, analysis etc. I see things getting complex, beyond control and even regressive beyond that.

  3. I propose using extant nucular technology to create a network of artificial suns that orbit the Earth and banish the night. Only, we fix it so that every 2049 years or so, the suns all align in such a way as to produce an eclipse. Humanity, by now unaccustomed to darkness, will collectively go mad and destroy civilization in a spectacular orgy of arson. The survivors then get to spend the next 2049 years rebuilding civilization (eg: learn to write – develop printing – invent magazines – bring out an issue on 8 new sexual positions), until the whole process starts again.

  4. People callously calling such a serious piece a satire leads me to propose an alternative programme for happiness, one that involves less of death and plague and locusts, and even so to speak, less of nuclear weapons.
    The solution, essentially, is to label all knowledge and wisdom as satire. Then, with the decrease in the body of knowledge and wisdom that shall ensue — dark ages we could call it — would lead to a lack of progress and an increase in suffering.
    All this suffering would impair people’s sense of humor, so that they would not see satire even where there is plenty, in turn people would see the knowledge and wisdom that was erstwhile hidden under a shroud of seeming satire, and then there would a happy progress again.
    Which would in turn increase their sense of satire and humor and the cycle would continue. Without nuclear weapons.

  5. I completely embrace your idea, but disagree with your solution. As several wise American politicians have said, abolition of nuclear weapons is unrealistic and isn’t going to happen. However destruction is essential, and this relative period of peace causing unhappiness must be ended.

    There we should strive towards lopsided possession of nuclear weapons. Remember, do not blame the poor nuclear weapons. They are mere tools. The real villain is the idea of Mutually Assured Destruction(MAD). If possession of nuclear weapons is unequal, then MAD won’t stand and destruction becomes much more likely.

    I think harnessing terrorists is also a great idea to work around MAD. MAD works with nations because each nation has something to lose. Which is why the Cold War remained cold. But the terrorists have nothing to lose. So if they are in possession of nuclear weapons, destruction is assured.

  6. “I then realised that I had the key to human happiness, viz periodic destruction”

    – Concept used and made into a hollywood movie in 2005 “Batman begins”

    (Ra al Ghul’s goal is a world in perfect environmental balance, a goal he will achieve at any cost. He believes that the best way to do so is to eliminate most of humanity.)

    Well written though

  7. If (postIntent == humour) {
    Response = Now I know why you supported the Iraq war;
    } else if (postIntent == serious) {
    Response = You wouldn’t say all this if you were an innocent civilian affected by the Iraq war
    } else {
    Response = null;

  8. Asimovian, as Kunal has pointed out, with the difference that Asimov would talk of civilisational ennui instead of individual unhappiness. Another solution has been proposed in Legion of Superheroes which involves superpowered teenagers rebelling and doing good throughout the galazxy but the logistics of that are a little difficult.

  9. Just wanted to check if you are the same person whom i know from my old company ? Did you work in chennai for abt 2 years ???

  10. Anirudh, I am willing to debate, but such a debate will be unfair to my opponent for the because he will have to attack a belief I do not seriously hold. His beliefs will come under question while mine won’t.

    Vidya, indeed I was in Ramco, Chennai 98-2000. Which Vidya are you?

  11. Vidya from ex-PMG … ! Not bad , could make out from your style of writing that it was you ! How are you ? Give your mail id .

  12. Omg dude.. do you have any idea how boring and pretentious you are?

    “After some thinking, I have found the cause of unhappiness. It is nuclear weapons.”

    No shit.. it’s not nukesl. It’s your writing.

  13. Hmm… nukes could be part of the solution to the problem Ravi’s outlined.

    Rather than a prolonged war/ plague which causes drawn out suffering, how about using neutron bombs… this might be urban legend, but aren’t these bombs supposed to kill everybody while leaving buildings intact?

  14. Do u think that the period of rebuilding will really be happy for those who saw the happier times ….. Also they will not again work for establishing a society which will be destroyed eventually in the same way in the future. there would be no motivation. Instead they will try to build a society that will be free of the things which caused that destruction. That is generally the case and again we will see nuclear weapons and people arguing for their destruction.

    Also if u think all this is because we are reaching saturation, then that is not true. The struggle to come up with something new is always the same whether the society is in its intellectually primitive stages or well advanced.
    only that people too have different intellectual capabilities in different stages.

    I think what u have proposed is either half-fantasy or because of too much of Hobbes (though i doubt it may not b the second).

    I second what Sue says…

  15. So, the terrorists and suicide bombers are spreading happiness in their own sweet little way!

    BTW, in this context, how do you explain nostalgia – where we think about the “good ole times”

  16. Is this how the Indian Cricket Team manages to keep us all happy by spacing out their winning and losing sprees? Brilliant.

  17. I think the profound epiphany that occurred to you in New Jersey also occurred to Osama Bin Laden in the Hindukush and he decided to take up the noble cause of restoring happiness to mankind through waging wars on generally anyone.
    And all this time I misunderstood the man.

  18. Bertrand Russell has said something to the effect that usually when people contemplate/worry about the future of humanity have a bad stomach or something.

  19. We do not judge our happiness on what we had yesterfay but what we know. There is a subtle yet enourmous difference. If all you knew of life was dull rainy days and poverty stricken exsistance and each day saw no improvement on the previous then you find joy in the small things, a conversation, a view taken at a different angle, it is all relative, not to what you have had previously but what you have come to expect. Also, if a person who has see great joy, (whether caused by wealth or close family etc.) is condemmed to a life without the cause of their joy, if they resign themselves to this fact then they can begin to find their joy in a different form, because they do not expect the origional source and so can get past it.

    I hope this makes sense as i am half asleep writing it.

  20. i find this a very “moderate” post. you talk about people wiht moderate intelligence, moderate artistes, moderate comedians and all that

    and finally the biggest problem is that we don’t have a good moderate weapon – one that would cause enough destruction without wiping us all out.

    I wonder if there’s any way in which we can moderate nuclear weapons so that they won’t destroy more than one small african country sized area at a time

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