A million little steps to unhappiness

Tonight I watched an episode of a reality tv show.  It’s been a while and it reminded me of the time, more than ten years ago, when I saw an add on television in Boston, with the tagline “Chrysler is love”.  At the time I laughed out loud.  What?  Seriously?  Chrysler is love?  Love?  Of all the ephemeral, indefinable, philosophical concepts you could pick to describe a car as it drove on winding roads to comforting music: Love.

I figured that Americans must have been acclimatised to that kind of hyperbole over the years so that nobody blinked an eye at the absurdity and I thought you wouldn’t get away with that in Australia.  Australians are just too pragmatic.  Too direct.  Chrysler is not love, it is a car manufacturer.

But watching reality tv after over a year of remote living (with no tv) I realised anyone can become acclimatised to anything.  It is one of the dangers of human brain plasticity.  If you brainwash someone gradually enough you can seamlessly manipulate them into doing and believing anything at all.  Just ask any effective abuser.

On this episode there was a segment where the ubiquitous host asked the ubiquitous participants, a homogenous group of young white non-professional males and females, how much sleep they had had in the past 48 hours.  Two hours, two and a half, one… then one young man held up his hand, his forefinger and thumb forming a circle.  The camera caught a close-up.  Zero.  The group gasped.  Respect.

In prime time tv land every thirty seconds is a precious commodity and nothing is left in without good reason.  What could the reason have been for this bizarre back-patting?  To show how hard-core the participants are, how hard the show drives them, to increase the drama… yes, yes, yes…

But… if you step back and look at all the messages we get from media and society and hold them up against things that we know increase our contentment you find over and over again that they clash.  Not just a little, not just ocassionally, but constantly and completely.

This is a very simple example.  Sleep is good for us.  Lack of sleep is incredibly damaging to us.  And here we are glorifying a lack of sleep that would have meant the participants’ brains were functioning so far below par that had they achieved the same result through drinking they would have been way, way too drunk to drive. And they were operating power tools and rennovating houses that people will pay a lot of money to buy, and to fix when the drunken workmanship begins to deteriorate.

It’s a good example because it is so obvious.  But we as a society systematically glorify and encourage behaviours that will, systematically and predictably, make us unhappy and unhealthy.  And the brilliance of it is we’re so used to it that it feels like ingratitude to even question it.  It feels dangerous and subversive to so much as consider not subjecting ourselves or our families to that conditioning.

Why can’t we idolise photoshopped human-like products instead of real people?  What’s so wrong with being bombarded with slogans like “Shopping.  Feels good”  and “…takes the waiting out of wanting” and “Don’t you just love being in control” and “The definition of luxury: Yours“.

Why can’t we enjoy all those shows that pick more or less normal human beings off the street, pit them against each other and screw them up before spitting them back out into not-famous land to put themselves back together any way they can?  The Romans did it, why can’t we?

Well we can, and we are.  We just can’t be happy at the same time.  We can’t teach ourselves, from day one, to be never-satisfied, ever-consuming malcontents and then grow up to become fulfilled and content adults.