Happy Mortal

This life, well-lived.

Human Shaped Culture

Don't worry.... Perhaps the best question to ask on a blog called “Happy Mortal” is: are we happy? Problem is, if we ask a questiont that nebulous and generic similar questions follow. Can we live happy lives? Is happiness a worthwhile measure of a day? a week? a lifetime?

One of the first things I learned in my intro to phil class freshman year of college is that happiness cannot function as a guide for the formation of an ethical theory. After all, if everyone got what they wanted there certainly wouldn’t be enough left for me! At least that’s a crass way of generalizing the supposed dangers of a schematic as fickle and subjective as happiness. However, this critique of happiness has grown tired. Ethics always boils down to happiness, most theories simply sublimate it.

This begs the question. Why are we so afraid of happiness? Of course, at first glance that seems like a ridiculous question. Our entire culture is one big satisfaction orgy. But that doesn’t change the fact that happiness scares the be-jezus out of good capitalists. Satisfaction should not be confused with happiness, especially not the perpetual (dis)satisfaction of misappropriated desire that is the satisfaction of American capitalism. In our culture satisfaction functions as both a fetish and a salve. On the one hand it is that little magic charm that empowers you to go through with the disgusting act that you wouldn’t be able to complete otherwise. On the other, it serves as a recovery from the dissonance of a fetish driven lifestyle. outlet smileys

Capitalism (as a sociological phenomenon) is founded on the faux axiom that there is a fundamental lack in human being that cannot be solved through living, only through accessorizing. That’s why we trade our time for capital. That’s why we trade our capital for products. That’s why products are always recycled for new products. We have become convinced that our existential lack is not only innate, but that it can only be addressed through prosthetic.

I can’t help but wonder if we’ve got the story wrong. What if we’re not mis-shapen? What if our culture is? How does that change the way we address our dissatisfaction?

To put it into a metaphor: are we happier if we live in a human shaped culture as opposed to a culture fashioned around capital? Let’s take it a step further and put it into a literal metaphor: are we happier creatures if we’re living in a human shaped house? I’ll be coming back to this question in future posts because it deserves a bit more unpacking.

After years of working through some of these questions I’ve come to some unpopular conclusions. First, it’s worth talking about what a human being is. I know that some of you will want to say, “But there is no the-human-being.” And you’re right, but that doesn’t mean that there is no the-human-being.

Second, it’s worth taking what we discover about the shape of a human being, chucking parts of our culture that don’t fit the model, and building a culture around what we are. Our current iteration of culture is founded on our supposed lack, hence the accessorizing.

Finally, if we’re honest with ourselves, something as seemingly inconstant as happiness can function as a guide. If we follow it, it can trace the lines of dissonance between the-human-being and the misshapen culture we’ve constructed for ourselves.

To put it ever so simply, we follow our bliss to a new blueprint. So, that leaves several questions that I’ll put to you.

1. what does following look like? how do you do it?

2. what sorts of dissonance do you uncover when you try to live a human shaped life?

3. what edges of the blueprints have you stumbled across?


  1. Something that makes me happy is being a grammar nazi. So let me point out that you used “begs the question” when you meant “raises the question.”

    As long as we’re discussing questions, I love your question of whether “happy” is a worthwhile measure. Perhaps the declaration of independence can be our guide. While other rights are guaranteed, happiness is not, merely the pursuit of it. And it’s a slippery bugger.

    So here are my answers to your questions three:
    1. Following looks like pursuit. Of crazed and crafty prey.
    2. Second half of the question hurts my brain. No other alternative shapes present themselves to me. In general, I like the dissonances, especially when they resolve.
    3. Edges are the interesting parts. Edges of photos and paintings tell you what the photographer or artist decided to include and to leave out. The end of the song or of an album is what the musician wanted to leave in your ear as you go about your day. The edges of the bell curve are where the geniuses and freaks hang out. My kind of people. But I don’t like to fall off the edge. And living on the edge is tricky.

  2. I could use a grammar nazi. That sentence was begging for correction.

    Interesting that you mention the pursuit of happiness. That that is guaranteed doesn’t mean that happiness guides our culture. Just the pursuit of it. As long as that pursuit keeps us busy the wheels of capitalism keep on churning out profit. I get that this reading of pursuit is a 20th century reading. Franklin and Adams certainly weren’t thinking of Hoover’s “gospel of consumption” when they called the pursuit of happiness a right. But in our current iteration of Americana the pursuit of happiness seems to be more akin to the satisfaction fetish than happiness as an ethical guide.

  3. I am not ignoring this post. I am thinking about it so that I can come up with a response that doesn’t end in deadlock 😉