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Exploring the Necessity of a Community in the Pursuit of Happiness
Why do we create legislation that restricts our freedom and behaviors? Why are some people so eager for urbanization that they even gentrify rural areas? What is it about living in a condensed urban community that it leads to the establishment of the many social norms that people follow now? Jonathan Haidt argues in The Happiness Hypothesis that humans are inherently ultrasocial species and thus develop an instinctive association between happiness and human connections, denoting the irreplaceable worth of a community. Chuck Palahniuk, on the other hand, presents an opposite outlook on happiness in the short story “Zombie” where people have instant access to happiness through disconnecting themselves from their community and purposefully attaining unconsciousness with a defibrillator. Based on the distinct perspectives presented in “Zombie” and The Happiness Hypothesis, it is clear that the limit a community can place on happiness varies depending on the different layers of communities being discussed. As the layer of community expands and dilutes from the scale of a family to an entire society, the urge to uphold a certain social responsibility diminishes and concurrently the necessity of a community in the pursuit of happiness.
Before confronting the central question of whether a community is a prerequisite of the pursuit of happiness, it is essential to clarify what a community is. To simplify matters, the criteria that define a community will be based on the environment depicted in “Zombie” and the concepts introduced in The Happiness Hypothesis. Haidt frames people’s social life on a scale of three axes with the X-axis representing the closeness between a specific individual and his or her surroundings and the other two symbolizing hierarchy and divinity respectively (Haidt 184). When answering the question of the nature of a community in happiness, the X-axis, or the closeness axis, would serve as the basis of the definition of a community, meaning that a community has to include multiple people and human connections. Based on these two criteria, there are three layers of community located differently on the closeness axis in “Zombie”. From the protagonist Trevor’s perspective, his family is the first layer of community positioned closest to the origin, followed by his school and lastly the general society.
According to Haidt, humans’ ultrasocial nature propels the formation of an altruistic society where people treasure key relationships and abide by community norms to seek collective elevation and happiness. Ultrasociality denotes the phenomenon of “living in large cooperative societies in which hundreds or thousands of individuals reap the benefits of an extensive division of labor” (Haidt 47). The same social structure is prevalent among bees and ants, all serving the central idea of maximizing resources and enhancing the chance of survival. To some extent, the ultrasocial nature of humans is a product of the incessant evolutionary cycle and the instinctive desire to survive not only as an individual, but also as a collective since “the only way to ‘win’ at the game of evolution is to leave surviving copies of your genes” (Haidt 47). To perpetuate this social structure, people gradually cultivate the idea of kin altruism where members of a community selflessly contribute, assist, and support other constituents of the same community. Such a social system breeds the idea of upholding a certain civil duty because any act of “selfishness [can] become genetic suicide” (Haidt 48). This sense of altruism places constraints on people’s decisions as an impulsive personal move might endanger the larger collective. These constraints then evolve into universal community norms that everyone abides by, forging a positive cycle that continuously reinforces the altruistic social structure and provides people a sense of belonging, security, and stability. Although ultrasociality and kin altruism might appear to be only beneficial for survival’s sake, the sense of community people establish can easily lead to collective elevation where “people find themselves overflowing with love” that “has no specific object” but “of all humankind” (Haidt 199). Therefore, what this ultrasocial nature of humankind actually brings is a reliable structure or formula that not only guarantees survival and life quality, but also elicits joy, positive emotions, and lastly happiness.
Despite Haidt’s strong hold on the tie between a community and happiness, Palahniuk illustrates a disparate world where people can seemingly only attain happiness when the community or the consciousness of being in connection with others is eliminated from one’s life. In the short story, many teenagers, ranging from school genius Griffin Wilson to cheerleaders and junior prom kings, choose to use a defibrillator to fry their brains, losing memory or consciousness of their surroundings and constantly lost in a sense of bliss (Palahniuk). The initiator of this defibrillator wave, Griffin, utilizes this machine out of the desire to escape from “a big lifetime of” absurdity and to be “not constantly jerked this way and that by flaming instant messages” (Palahniuk 1). Being the boy who feels “miserable unless he w[ins] every chess tournament,” Griffin views happiness as a rare feeling that demands extensive effort and accomplishment while lobotomy is a gateway to a permanent state of pleasure where the mundane routines no longer trouble him (Palahniuk 1). Indeed, after having his brain fried, Griffin receives praise from teachers for doing something as simple as “using the toilet” (Palahniuk 1). Similarly, people who have jumped “over the edge of that cliff” of consciousness all commit actions incomprehensible in others’ minds, such as walking “with no pants on” or sniffing their own excreta (Palahniuk 2). All of these “zombies” seem to experience happiness as all the problems that can cause anxiety in regular lives lose significance and this lack of consciousness leads to “no worries [and] no regrets” (Palahniuk 3). Yet, unlike Haidt’s illustration of an ultrasocial structure, it seems like the “zombies” can only attain their happiness through extracting themselves from their former communities because only with this precondition can they neglect the judgment, expectations, and standards of others. Just as how Sartre says “hell is other people,” the “zombies” act as they have successfully detached from this living hell (Haidt 134).
Despite this direct collision between two contrasting arguments, Palahniuk himself blurs the focus of his story by utilizing Haidt’s argument of an ultrasocial structure at the end of the story. As more people acquire permanent happiness through a defibrillator, Trevor is also tempted to start a new reality when he is at the airport, about to leave the town with Uncle Henry (Palahniuk 3). Interestingly, however, a peculiar sensation dominates him, pushes him to waver about this decision, and fills him with a sense of guilt that Uncle Henry “deserves better than this” (Palahniuk 3). This feeling of shame is a direct reflection of the burden that ultrasociality places on one’s shoulders- this sentiment of having to fulfill a responsibility to Uncle Henry because of the filial bond between the two. Soon, Uncle Henry demonstrates the same kind of kin altruism as he “grabs [his] arm” and says “‘if you hurt yourself, Trevor, you hurt me’” (Palahniuk 4). At this moment, the intimate relationship between the two metamorphoses into a type of intangible pressure that restricts Trevor’s freedom of choice. Later on, more people begin to grab Uncle Henry’s arms and the slowly expanding crowd develops into “chains and branches” that are “all connected together,” all passing the same line-- “‘if you hurt yourself, you hurt me’” (Palahniuk 4). This voluntary gathering again reveals how deeply rooted this altruistic and ultrasocial structure is in people’s minds and that their subconscious instinct informs them the potential harm of freely allowing everyone to use the defibrillator- a society with unconscious people incapable of performing duties. Altruism leads to such friendly acts, which in turn strengthen the ultrasocial structure, further perpetuating this positive cycle.
How is all of this related to happiness, however? After witnessing the reassurance and security that hundreds of people provide, Trevor is touched and his former despair starts to falter (Palahniuk 4). To some extent, it almost seems like insisting on pressing the button is equal to betraying the effort of all of these people. Rather than being stuck in a state of fear and internal conflict, because of the reciprocal nature of humans, the question shifts from whether Griffin should fry his brain to how he should respond to others’ action. Although “this certainly isn’t the happy ending [Trevor] had in mind,” what follows this dramatic scene is a sense of happiness and hope that “this is not such a bad place to start” a new life (Palahniuk 5).
With the juxtaposition of two distinct outlooks on happiness, it is clear that Palahniuk himself also grapples with the question of authentic happiness, attempting to differentiate between immediate hedonism or pleasure and genuine happiness. Many people have wondered about the probability of developing a pill that can regulate the level of happiness people perceive and thus reach a state of permanent happiness. Haidt indirectly responds to this idea with a reference to the story of Ecclesiates from the Old Testament, demonstrating how even after accumulating riches, he still deems it “vanity and a chasing after wind” (Haidt 82). With this story as a basis, Haidt postulates the progress principle, explaining how “when success seems increasingly probable and some final event confirms what you already had begun to expect, the feeling is more one of relief” than happiness (Haidt 83). Rather than the final product, the idea of advancing towards a bright future is what elicits satisfaction. If we apply this principle to the two different groups of people in “Zombie,” the “zombies” including Griffin Wilson and the normal people including Trevor, it is blatant how the defibrillator has divested people of the ability to recognize the “‘pre-goal attainment positive effect’” (Haidt 83). When the lobotomy procedure naturally eliminates the once formidable competitors and Trevor is “a shoo-in to be valedictorian,” he does not encounter the same happiness that Griffin does when he wipes “spit off his chin with his sleeve” (Palahniuk 3, 1). Knowing that it is the defibrillator that has eliminated all the competition, Trevor is unable to undergo a challenging process and experience the sense of accomplishment when his dedication eventually pays off. Unlike Trevor, who still remains conscious and dwells on the necessity of toil in achieving success, Griffin is deprived of his sense of perception and is in a constant state of happiness, “always giggling” (Palahniuk 1).
Apart from the progress principle, one other important constituent of the pursuit of happiness is the adaptation principle, indicating humans’ natural ability to adapt to a state and recalibrate to have new goals for happiness (Haidt 86). Haidt proposes the analogy of a “hedonic treadmill,” explicating how everyone has a “natural and usual state of tranquility” that he or she returns to once the rush of excitement from a new achievement fades (Haidt 86). Supposedly, applying this logic, simply using a defibrillator to dissociate oneself from the community is not sufficient to sustain long-term happiness because people’s adaptive ability can undoubtedly trigger new cravings. Similar to how the progress principle fails to concern the mentality of the “zombies,” the adaptation principle is also inadequate to fit the special state of the “zombies” as their sentiment of ecstasy does not wither (Palahniuk).
The core reason behind the inapplicability of the progress principle and the adaptation principle to the “zombies” is that by severing the ties with their former communities, the community norms concomitantly lose effect, fostering anomie. Anomie signifies the lack of rules and absolute freedom that allows people to do anything (Haidt 175). Both the progress principle and adaptation principle rest on the fact that people have an inner ego to strive for a better life to further preserve this ultrasocial and altruistic society that induces benefits for both the individuals and the general public. Without community norms such as this strong attachment to ultrasociality and altruism, there is no incentive for the “zombies” to implement social duties, which then “leads to an increase in amoral and antisocial behavior,” such as walking around with no pants on and acting like an uneducated baby (Haidt 175; Palahniuk 2). The bliss that the “zombies” possess is based on the exploitation of their own irresponsibility and the inconvenience cast on other people. Comparing to the repentance that Trevor undergoes when facing the reassurance of his uncle and many other strangers, the “zombies” show little concern to their surroundings and indulge in their personal worlds, corroborating how a crucial and determinant factor that differentiates hedonism from authentic happiness is social responsibility.
As the level of intimacy between a particular community and the individual decreases, external factors such as collective and synchronized activities are often necessary to “awaken” people’s inner, hidden altruistic nature to fulfill a certain social responsibility and eventually lead them to achieve the byproduct of implementing such civil duties- happiness. Palahniuk presents three communities located differently on the closeness axis. The community closest to Trevor is his own family. The level of intimacy between a person and a certain community is proportional to the time needed for members of that community to do an altruistic act towards that individual when stuck in a predicament. A stronger bond represents more willingness to help this other person, even when the circumstances require sacrifices. Indeed, as seen in “Zombie,” when Trevor exits the toilet and stands in the middle of the airport with a defibrillator in his hands, Uncle Henry appears “from out of nowhere,” “grabs [his] arm,” and tells him “‘if you hurt yourself, Trevor, you hurt me’” (Palahniuk 4). Uncle Henry’s speedy reaction to this scene reveals his underlying subconscious altruism towards Trevor, someone very close to him. It is because of this pre-existent forceful connection that no other push factors are necessary to drive Uncle Henry to that state and that act. On the contrary, students hold a more apathetic view towards their fellow classmates who have willingly abandoned their consciousness. Despite witnessing once intelligent people degrading into childlike fools, Trevor has maintained a neutral stance throughout the story, not intervening others’ decisions once (Palahniuk). The connection formed among students is significantly weaker than the bonds formed by blood among family and there are no external factors that can mobilize Trevor’s care for the community.
The general public’s response to Trevor’s decision of using the defibrillator, on the other hand, is an epitome of how external factors can successfully provoke a sense of social responsibility. Initially, when Trevor leaves the toilet with a defibrillator, “most people, instead of saving [him],” “pull out their telephones and start shooting video,” all looking “for the best full-on angle” (Palahniuk 4). In this specific scenario, no external factors are present and thus the public maintains an aloof attitude and simply wishes to record down this dramatic episode. Then, “for no reason, some lady steps up and grabs [his] Uncle Henry’s other arm” and repeats what Uncle Henry has said earlier. After one person reacts, altruism begins to rush over people’s minds and influences more and more people to join in, forming “a slow wave” (Palahniuk 4). As other people’s actions arouse the inner altruistic nature of human beings, a crowd begins to form and everyone is a part of this synchronized action of holding hands and reassuring Trevor. A sense of collective elevation derives from this gathering. All of these people do not necessarily commit such an act out of their love for Trevor specifically but for humankind as a whole. Trevor is merely a reflection of the larger society that is troubled by the defibrillator wave. This experience of elevation further upgrades itself when people start hearing a voice from above, a lady’s voice that sings “the way a bird sings” and “fills everywhere” with her voice, “leaving no room for being scared” and connecting all “ears into one ear” (Palahniuk 5). It is possible that Palahniuk is paralleling this female voice with the divine that pulls people out of the mundane and empowers them to transcend into something greater than themselves. The positive feelings generated from this collective elevation or transcendence then prompt people to help others and slowly, the private happiness that each individual obtains amasses into a collective happiness that can transfer to Trevor himself. Without external factors such as synchronized activities and collective elevation, people most likely would not realize their connections with others and would continue with their indifferent attitude.
Community is an inherent part of the modern definition of happiness because the word happiness is constructed in a circumstance where humans are ultrasocial and are tied in a larger social context. Thus, to some extent, community and social responsibility are two essential distinguishing factors that differentiate true and authentic happiness from hedonism. As the closeness of the community to the specific individual decreases, the magnitude of social responsibility also decreases, leading to a delay in people’s altruistic reactions. However, this does not mean that a larger and more distant community does not have an effect on happiness. Its impact simply needs more external factors to be evoked, such as ultrasociality and reciprocity. Therefore, to some extent, community is necessary for happiness because its definition is bound to humans’ ultrasociality and only the presence of a community allows people to fulfill their social responsibilities and obtain something more meaningful than instant pleasure. Yet, with a society that gradually gravitates toward a more fast-paced, instant, and individualistic lifestyle, how might the constituents of happiness evolve in the future? Will the habit of scrolling through one’s Instagram feed and binge-watching Netflix while being disconnected from the rest of the world alter the backbone of the concept of happiness? It is a question worth thinking about…
 “Hell is other people” is a quote that Haidt takes from Jean-Paul Sartre’s play No Exit.
 This quotation is taken from Jonathan Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis but Haidt originally quoted it from the Old Testament, more specifically from Ecclesiastes 2:11.
 Anomie is an idea that Haidt takes from Emile Durkheim’s book The elementary forms of the religious life.
Haidt, Jonathan. The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. 1st ed.,
Basic Books, 2006.
Palahniuk, Chuck. "Zombie: A New Original Short Story By Chuck Palahniuk".