Are we even meant to be happy?

A question after the death of Chris Cornell.

Yesterday, someone I hold very dear took his own life.

By all accounts, he had everything going for him; he had a successful career, loving family, the respect of his peers. Yet, without warning and when everything seemed to be going right, he decided to die.

His passing broke my heart.

Now, this is not a unique story.

In fact, in this particular case, I’m referring to a famous musician who wrote the soundtrack to my own angst-ridden and often depressed youth. So, there are literally millions of people who are currently experiencing exactly what I’m going through.

The story is not even unique to my own experience.

I have been witness to several suicides and suicide attempts throughout my life.

Each of those broke my heart, too. And if I’m totally honest, I’ll admit that the thought of topping myself has, on a dark occasion, popped into my head. Thankfully, that’s where the thoughts ended.

But for many — and it would seem men in particular — the thoughts turn into actions, and the action result in someone doing what is the most counter-intuitive, unnatural thing a living, breathing creature can do to itself.

Even a casual glance at statistic on the subject will tell you that men are vastly overrepresented in the global suicide numbers. And those numbers, whichever way you approach them are appalling. And they’re getting worse; according to suicide.org, global suicide rates have increased 60% in the past 45 years.

Ok, before I completely lose you in the gloom, I’ll get to the point of this post.

It’s a question that has occurred to me more than once — are we even meant to be happy?

As a scholar of evolutionary biology, I ask the question in the Darwinian survival sense.

Most of us, and I can confidently attest on behalf of the friends and family I’ve lost, can feel happiness.

It’s that elusive and transient sensation that everything is ok, or at least going to be ok. But what real purpose does this emotion serve?

Put differently, if we never knew happiness in the first place, would we care when things go bad?

More to the point, if we were incapable of happiness, would we better equipped to deal with the inevitable difficulties life throws at us? I think the answer is yes — and the trend I mentioned before seems to lend my answer some credibility.

We live at a time when comfort and relative luxury is easy to attain, even for the less economically fortunate.

Across the world, people have access to better shelter, food, safety and freedom than at any other time in our species’ history. Which is not to say everyone is well-off. To the contrary, the gap between the haves and the have nots is greater than ever. But if suicide trends are anything to go by, being prosperous is bad for your survival. In countries where life is tough, suicide rates are proportionately low. And where life is good it’s relatively high. You can check the stats for yourself.

The modern world offers ever-increasing comfort levels, exciting distractions and easy gratifications. I think we’ve acclimatised to these luxuries. And once you’re used to something, it takes something better to make you feel good. Just think how quickly the iPhone went from miraculous to ‘Meh’ and you’ll get a sense of what I mean.

Now throw in the relentless false portrayals in the media of people who seem to have perfect or at least happy lives. At this point, to be happy we’re left chasing ever-more elusive highs trying to emulate a state of being that probably doesn’t exist.

Which brings me back to the loss of a musical hero of mine, Chris Cornell.

When a person with so much talent, adoration, wealth… (add the luxury that you believe will make you happy here) succumbs to his depression, perhaps it hints at the idea that chasing happiness may not be a good use of your energies after all.

Happiness by definition is fleeting. It’s derived out of happenstance. I’m starting to think that finding meaning and purpose in this life is what really matters. And that learning to live with pain, being ok with discomfort and loss and embracing the fact that the world is sometimes (often) a shitty place, is a far better strategy for survival than trying to be happy — whatever that means.

Don’t get me wrong: I want to be happy.

But on a day like today, when I am anything but, I’m going to engage with the grief.

And I can do that in the powerful, painful and as it turns out, prophetic music he left behind.

After all, that’s what makes me feel most alive.


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