A Point of View: Why embracing change is the key to happiness
- 8 September 2013
- From the section Magazine
Human happiness may rely on our ability to conquer a natural fear of upsetting the status quo, says AL Kennedy.
Imagine three identical boxes. Two are empty and one contains your heart's desire, perhaps love, perhaps a nice cup of tea. A kind, if slightly perverse, person says you can pick one box and own its contents. Let's say you select Box A. The person then shows you Box B is empty. So either Box A - your choice, or Box C - a mystery, contains your happiness. Now, you can change your choice to Box C, or stick with Box A. But what gives you the better chance? Should you change or not?
If you're like me, you won't want to change. Even if things aren't wonderful, but are familiar, I would rather stay with what I know. Why meddle with something for which there is a Latin, and therefore authoritative, term: the status quo. I studied dead languages at school - no chance of sudden changes in grammar or vocabulary there. So I'm aware status quo has roots in the longer phrase "in statu quo res erant ante bellum" - the state in which things were before the war. I feel the implication is that without the status quo there will be chaos. There will be war.
But I am quite change-averse. I began to dislike my first boyfriend when he changed the spot where my coffee jar was kept. The new spot wasn't dangerous - it was just different and therefore wrong. Equally, although he proved to be a truly dreadful boyfriend, once I'd got used to him, his dreadfulness became a part of me. His absence - as I eventually discovered - was a charming relief, but it was also a change and therefore troubling.
Some of my hope should come from the possibilities of positive change, but I ignore this. Because things change by growing older, wearing out, because there is death, I spend a good deal of time fearfully ignoring unavoidable changes so I can still get up in the morning.
So I battle inevitable changes, avoid hopeful changes and when I'm not therefore engaged in pointless combat, I'm pretending change doesn't exist, which is even more pointless and can make me cruel. I may assume the homeless man I see in the street was somehow born homeless, that everyone's state is fixed beyond remedy.
New situations, new people, new languages - we can interpret any of these as an unwelcome, if not threatening, change. Which is bad news for how we police crowds, carry out overseas peace-keeping actions, or treat unfamiliar people. Our overreaction to what can feel like chaos may actually produce real chaos. When change finally overwhelms us we can get so scared we forget other humans are human and behave badly. Why not? We're in chaos.
Even if change-avoidance forms a prison, walking outside it can seem appalling. Being without love, or novel interactions, might be awful, but their presence might change us. And when something, or someone we already love is taken, by accident, by bereavement, by changes we can't control - we're not only hurt - their absence changes us. This does nothing to make change attractive.
We may try to control our own superficial alterations - buying the latest iThings, taking risks, not only swimming with sharks, but with sharks we've never met - seeking what's new and then newer. But that's just as rigid a behaviour as my sad clinging to defunct electrical goods, neat solitudes and tales of doom involving shark attacks. Real change will still happen.
And every analysis of what makes lucky and happy people lucky and happy demonstrates they adapt fast and well to new situations and people, and so are defended by complex social circles and acclimatised to change. They offer and request help and are free to embrace what's positive in life's inevitable alterations. They don't try to impose stillness on a universe which is in motion. They know real security involves a degree of exposure.
Sadly, most human authorities play to our fears and offer us stasis. They build us, if you like, shark cages for our time in the ever-changing water - consoling little pens which can't protect us when something huge and horrible arrives and we end up like Richard Dreyfuss in Jaws - all at sea. They offer apparently eternal values - eternity being unchanging and therefore reliable - the brotherhood of men, the wisdom of the free market, the evil of outsiders, the true path to heaven, the rewards of obedience. An incumbent government will warn against "changing horses in midstream" and we may accept a dire status quo because of how much worse the alternative might be.
When we are told something threatens "our way of life" that can feel easily, dreadfully true and encourage us to tolerate all manner of prohibitions, oppressions and compulsions. Populations encouraged to fear change may only pursue it when their situation is already savage, perhaps reassured by some of those eternal values. The more savage the situation, the easier it is to offer equally savage solutions.
As individuals and nations, this can keep us from safety and mercy. If that homeless man on the street could never have been like us then he's beyond helping and we can't gain the humility to know we could also be painfully changed, we needn't try to make the world safer as a project to benefit us all. And when we intervene in other countries, we usually cling to familiar, failed templates. We are as inflexible as possible in worryingly fluid situations and quickly scared people face other scared people in self-perpetuating battles between rigid values. Change resistance produces a nightmare, which change denial means we'll pretend has been eternal.
A relatively unreflective part of my identity once defined the Syrian city of Homs as a holiday destination - I wanted to visit the picturesque ancient quarter. Now it's easy to define Homs as a city that has always been in torment. Its fragile possibilities for positive change disappear. How much easier for a government, for personnel in combat to avoid subtleties, imaginative solutions. Area bombing and civilian casualties - can't we move beyond the old, failed strategies? The best that Homs can hope for shouldn't be to simply slip from one nightmare to another. The international community offering something better, something truly beyond self-interest - that would be a beautiful change.
If we're lucky and our society is relatively stable, our fear of change can still lead us astray. If we get divorced, get married, get ill, if we're in a recession, if we lose our job, if we believe "our way of life" is changing outwith our control, maybe our alarm won't be harnessed by opportunist politicians. Instead, we may simply embrace magical thinking, an old, failed strategy, to wish change away.
During periods of uncertainty what I'll call the mystical industries always prosper. We begin to rely on apparently unchanging good luck charms, access to online tarot readings, hot stock tips. We can end up penning ourselves in expensive cages, while the unavoidable alterations of life - the hurts, the miracles, the gifts, the deaths - will still arise and we'll respond to them wildly or not at all. If we withdraw from reality's true nature - that it changes constantly and so do we - we become lost to ourselves, punished by our troubles and by their ineffective cure.
But what, for example, is the best solution to that three-box problem? Remember we picked Box A of the three. Box B was empty. Now we can stick with A, or change to C. But should we? Yes, we should. Switching from Box A to Box C won't guarantee success, but will massively improve its odds. And yes that is counter-intuitive. Our intuition doesn't like change either, but we can overcome it. Approaching the changing reality of reality with sensible flexibility is the best strategy for happiness. I don't believe it, but it's true. And if I can change my mind, I can change anything else I need to.