Recently, I spoke to a teen involved with a successful (and growing) YouTube channel. They described themselves as “not creative”. They then continued to provide evidence of the very trait they claimed was so sorely absent.
The idea that creativity is something some are blessed with and some are not has riled me for a while. Since at least early 2017, actually, when I wrote about the base state of humanity, saying:
“Creativity isn’t something we have to attain because we already have it. In fact, what all these ideas and strategies and techniques really do isn’t increase our creativity, they merely unlock what is already latent. They help to give us permission to be creative. It’s as if by submitting ourselves to morning routines and daily rituals we somehow lower the barriers which fence in our capacity for creation.”
My mind hasn’t changed. “Creative” is something each one of us already are, not something that we must perpetually strive to be. But even more recently, a new habit caused me to wonder about base states once more. But not “creative”. The base state of “happy”. The new habit provoking wonder is a daily metta practice, guided using Tasshin Fogleman’s audio recordings.
During these sessions, I’ve noticed a consistent regression to a happy state, a sense of contentment combined with an enhanced aliveness of attention and experience. What I’m wondering is this: is “happy”, like “creative”, a base state for humanity?
I doubt it’ll surprise you to learn that I suspect it is. But what may surprise you—and what has surprised me—is how consequential the shift from seeing “happy” as a peak state to seeing “happy” as a base state is. One of the phrases I use during metta practice hints at the impact. “May I/they live with ease.” Seeing “happy” as a base state, weirdly, makes life easier to live.
Now, “happy” being the base state, the default, for humanity doesn’t alter the fact that there’s a large proportion of people living outside of that state. “Happy” being the base state for humanity is not a rhetorical device designed to deflect from the presence and salience of other, numerous non-happy states. But the paradigm shift involved, unlike other, lower leverage interventions, does simplify the human problem of happiness profoundly.
Think about a body of water. To move the water uphill will require some clever, intensive engineering and/or an exertion of labour. To move the water downhill still might require some clever engineering and/or an exertion of labour. But it’ll require less, and it’ll only require it once. Water wants to flow down, not up.
If the base state of humanity is “happy”, not “unhappy”, then we don’t need to build and maintain structures, processes and interactions that enable us to ascend to the peak state of “happiness”. We instead need to identify and remove the structures, processes and interactions preventing us from descending back down to our base state. The latter is much easier than the former.
Another lens. In any realm of endeavour, there are outliers. The journey to become an outlier is fraught with risk and uncertainty. But regressing to the mean of performance is easy, natural, somewhat inevitable. If “happy” is the base state for humanity then the problem shifts. It is not a question of contorting our selves, our relationships, our activities, our very lives, to attain an outlier state of “happy”. It is a puzzle concerning a return to an innate, normal, pedestrian mode of being.
Interestingly, the paradigm shift from happy-equals-peak-state to happy-equals-base-state opens up a lot of questions.
One question involves the inherent variability between people’s “happy” base state, of which there is obviously some. Every human is creative. But some are more creative than others. Similarly, even though every human is happy by default there can still be people with greater and lesser levels of base state happiness.
Another question revolves around the possibility of permanent alterations to base states caused by events like trauma, or even systemic and structural issues, such as social alienation or a physical disability. Are permanent base state alterations possible? Are they irreversible?
The final question that comes to mind threatens to invoke another paradigm shift in and of itself: is “happy” even a state that can be occupied? Is it even a state? My recent readings of Rob Burbea’s work—centred on the inherent emptiness of existence—lead me to believe that “happy” is an illusion. But that is a paradigm shift, an encompassing belief, that requires more work to integrate into my worldview.
For now, I’m operating under the assumption that “happy” is our base state. And, whew, it makes existing much easier.