The Pathos of Things

Oliver Burkeman, “Happiness is a Glass Half Empty,” The Guardian 16 June 2012

In an unremarkable business park outside the city of Ann Arbor, in Michigan, stands a poignant memorial to humanity’s shattered dreams. It doesn’t look like that from the outside, though. Even when you get inside – which members of the public rarely do – it takes a few moments for your eyes to adjust to what you’re seeing. It appears to be a vast and haphazardly organised supermarket; along every aisle, grey metal shelves are crammed with thousands of packages of food and household products. There is something unusually cacophonous about the displays, and soon enough you work out the reason: unlike in a real supermarket, there is only one of each item. And you won’t find many of them in a real supermarket anyway: they are failures, products withdrawn from sale after a few weeks or months, because almost nobody wanted to buy them. In the product-design business, the storehouse — operated by a company called GfK Custom Research North America — has acquired a nickname: the Museum of Failed Products.

This is consumer capitalism’s graveyard — the shadow side to the relentlessly upbeat, success-focused culture of modern marketing. […]

There is a Japanese term, mono no aware, that translates roughly as “the pathos of things”: it captures a kind of bittersweet melancholy at life’s impermanence — that additional beauty imparted to cherry blossoms, say, or human features, as a result of their inevitably fleeting time on Earth.

[…] Behind all of the most popular modern approaches to happiness and success is the simple philosophy of focusing on things going right. But ever since the first philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome, a dissenting perspective has proposed the opposite: that it’s our relentless effort to feel happy, or to achieve certain goals, that is precisely what makes us miserable and sabotages our plans. And that it is our constant quest to eliminate or to ignore the negative — insecurity, uncertainty, failure, sadness — that causes us to feel so insecure, anxious, uncertain or unhappy in the first place.

Yet this conclusion does not have to be depressing. Instead, it points to an alternative approach: a “negative path” to happiness that entails taking a radically different stance towards those things most of us spend our lives trying hard to avoid. This involves learning to enjoy uncertainty, embracing insecurity and becoming familiar with failure. In order to be truly happy, it turns out, we might actually need to be willing to experience more negative emotions — or, at the very least, to stop running quite so hard from them. […]

[Photograph: Kelly K Jones]

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s