If form is content, and style is meaning — and these things are indivisible — then that fancy shirt you want to buy really is an intrinsic part of your life, your happiness, and anxiety. It’s indivisible from your mind-set. And so is our attitude to simplicity and complexity.
A core element of comedy involves a ‘switch’ of some kind; mistaken identity, a sudden special power that comes and goes, a change in fortune. People seem to have the knack of looking for simplicity, while in fact making their lives ever more complicated. An undesirable switch takes place.
How we perceive meaning and happiness largely depends on how simple or complicated we define things. The larger our framework of references, the continual comparisons and ‘performance checking’, the greater the anxiety. The need to explain things to ourselves is completely natural, and human, as is the desire to look good to other people — but there comes a time when you can be happy, or you can be right. We get to switch between one or the other.
What is happiness? The ancient Greeks had a word Ataraxia, which translated into English means a feeling of tranquillity — freedom from anxiety. This equates quite well with the ‘peace of mind’ that so many people are looking for in the modern world. But how do people achieve Ataraxia?
The philosopher Pyrrho asserted that truth is basically unknowable. The way to happiness is by suspending belief and judgement. This mind-set was picked up by the artist Marcel Duchamp, who believed in cultivating a certain degree of indifference. His notion of ‘indifference’ was an intellectual stance, and he achieved that by handing over key artistic decisions to random chance. When his The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (also known as The Large Glass) was damaged, while being transported, resulting in the glass pane fracturing, instead of reacting with anger he declared that this was the final act that had completed the artwork.
Epicurus saw personal happiness as revolving around the avoidance of unverifiable (and thus pointless) opinions about life after death and politics, while studiously avoiding angry and argumentative people, and, instead, seeking out affectionate and trusting people who are virtuous.
Ataraxia — peace of mind — is a state of mind, a way of thinking. It’s being able to see beyond the immediate and misleading hype. Accepting that a certain lack of control exists in the world. As the Water Man in the film Seraphim Falls says:
Go as you wish. That which is yours will always return to you. That which you take will always be taken from you.