Robin Williams and the mysteries of happiness

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Has any public figure of our generation embodied the glorious raw elements of happiness and exuberant joy more than the great, much beloved, and now so deeply mourned Robin Williams?

Happily married, a lifetime of exceptional, unparalleled achievement behind. Beloved by his innumerable friends as well as by the American and international public, a happily admired and the devoted father of three grown children. By all accounts the most good-hearted and generous of men: All that and add an Oscar too. And now gone, a victim of depression at 63.

Robin Williams in Good Morning Vietnam. (Screenshot)
Robin Williams in Good Morning Vietnam. (Screenshot)

With biting irony, a few hours before the news of his death broke on August 11, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published an equation, no less, revealing at last the secret t key to happiness.

To be precise, the equation reads: “Happiness = Baseline average mood + what you can settle for + what you’ll get on average if you gamble + the difference between that and what you actually get,” according to a report in Washington’s Express tabloid newspaper, also on August 11.

Would that have helped poor Robin Williams? Of course not. It really boils down to a lot less than you’d learn from your average Hallmark card.

Thank you, National Academy of Sciences. You have made a lot of people truly happy to know their tax dollars are being spent on such valuable research.

Watch a single one of Robin Williams’ classic movies and it will give you more than a lifetime of meditation on the NAS’s fatuous “equation.”

Instead of wasting time on this flatulent nonsense, far better to order up a copy of “The Politics of Happiness,” by Professor Derek Bok, which was published in 2010.

Bok was for two decades president of Harvard, and he at least really is as brilliant and wise as all Harvard alumni’s imagine that they are.

Reading Bok’s book would surely not have saved Robin Williams’ life. The cursed afflictions of alcoholism, drug addiction and deep depression are not so easily banished. But Bok, to his lasting credit, recognized the central role that freedom from financial fear and from crippling mental illness play generated misery and self-destruction. Even more remarkably in this age of worshipping the elimination of all forms of government, he argued that the supply of happiness should be as much a government goal as the provision of health care.

Bok’s Politics of Happiness is a far cry from the cheerful aphorisms that feed popular delusions of positive thinking. He based his conclusions on a massive quantity of serious statistical and sociological research on the subject of happiness in prosperous and poor societies. His conclusions are simple – but they fully accord with our own experience and simple common sense.

First, no one can truly be happy, obviously, if they are in terror of their lives or worried about where their next meal will come from lack the money to keep the roof over their heads. Deep worry over the future financial insecurity of his family added to Robin Williams; ultimately fatal burdens.

Bok also discovered that in societies where the basic necessities of economic and
physical security have been satisfied, happiness is surprisingly prevalent, even ubiquitous. Despite everything you will read in Forbes or the Wall Street Journal, happiness is not dependent on further economic growth. Almost none of us have ever had the wealth that Robin Williams enjoyed at the height of his fame and powers. Yet most of it vanished, and proved to be a curse in the end.

Bok found that happiness levels rise dramatically as societies climb out of poverty and physical misery to sustainable levels and then to modest prosperity. But beyond that point, rises in per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP), even when widely distributed, did surprisingly little to raise people’s perception of their own happiness. Was Robin Williams happier in his last years than he had been when struggling to make it in his early days?

Indeed, Bok cautions, if economic progress is seen as too rapid, too disorienting and too threatening to established economic conditions and ways of life, it may have a profound negative effect. No wonder, then the ultra-prosperous Eisenhower years produced all those horror movies and The Twilight Zone, and the peaceful, prosperous Clinton era was also the time of The X-Files. And let us remember all those heavy, downer, weighty roles Robin Williams insisted on playing for many years too.

Once the basic living needs and physical security of most people are satisfied, Bok concluded they face three main causes of unhappiness. They are, quite simply, chronic pain, mental illness
and sleep deprivation.

These findings are, when you think about them, extremely radical. Don’t we need religious faith, transcendent purposes in life? Religious cults? Apparently not, if you don’t suffer from any of these three chronic conditions.

But it makes sense, when one thinks about it, that enduring chronic pain is devastating to happiness, no matter what the spiritual resources or personal faith of the individual are. Cancer has the frightful capability to torment anyone. Mental illness is even worse because it destroys the capacity for spiritual courage and resilience. Who was a greater fountain of joy and laughter than Robin Williams? Whatever one’s faith and spiritual resources, it is impossible to consider any victims of cholera, typhus or yellow fever as happy in their suffering.

Sufferers from mental illness cannot possibly be regarded as happy, however impressive or admirable their belief systems. Yet American and Western national health systems, Bok points out, are surprisingly weak when it comes to identifying and treating mental illness.

Robin Williams made us laugh and now he is making us cry. (Screenshot from Patch Adams)
Robin Williams made us laugh and now he is making us cry. (Screenshot from Patch Adams)

Doctors and medical professionals in the United States also, are given almost no adequate training on the subject of dealing with sleep disorders. Multiple millions of sufferers from serious sleep deprivation regularly go untreated. This too causes enormous human suffering. So Bok very sensibly suggested a major reassessment of health policy to target sleep disorders and mental illness.

Bok is no pie-in-the-sky utopian dreamer. He does not aim, as Immanuel Kant did, to create a global system to perfect human nature or unfailingly guarantee human happiness. He does not share the insanity of Karl Marx that he has found the perfect blueprint for human society.

Instead, in the great American pragmatic and positivist traditions of Ben Franklin and John Dewey, he identifies major prevalent problems and afflictions that have been hiding openly in plain sight and then he recommends straightforward, practical and achievable policies to treat them.

Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence that all men (the definition was later informally expanded to include women) were entitled to the right to pursue happiness. Wisely, he did not offer any guarantee that they would actually find it. If there was any public figure or entertainer who appeared to have found the secret to happiness, or made so many other people happy, surely it as Robin Williams. But depression, like cancer is no respecter of wealth, or virtue or fame.

A few years ago I met an eminent landscape painter from Kazakhstan who had to paint his requisite canvases with his feet and with the brush also held in his mouth. He was born without any arms or hands, the victim before he was born of Soviet atmospheric nuclear tests in his country and their radioactive fallout. Yet he told me he thought his life was much easier than those of people who lost their limbs later in life in accidents or from illness. He had grown up finding it natural to use his mouth and toes to operate pens, paintbrushes and other tools.

Let us remember and revere Robin Williams more than ever. He carried backbreaking physical and psychological burdens for so much of his life, and yet succeeded in transforming them into transcendent arts and joy that lit up the lives of hundreds of millions. Few have down more. The tragic manner of his death makes his extraordinary achievements all the more remarkable, all the more miraculous. Find peace and relief at last, dear friend.