Happy illusions guiding us home


graphic by Tyler Herron

Isn’t there is a certain enchantment that sometimes comes over us when we pass a lovely house? The sunny windows, the neat lawn, those tidy bricks and that happy bench by the front door: we drink them in with a glance. The people who live in such a place, we find ourselves (almost involuntarily) thinking, must be as happy as the smiling face of the house. Before we know it, we find ourselves (almost unconsciously) bemoaning our own incomplete happiness in contrast to the perfect happiness that must dwell right behind those walls. Those lucky residents, whose happiness seems to have settled so easily and gracefully upon them, are free to come and go from their haven whenever they please, while our own happiness remains as inaccessible to us as a stranger’s house that we can never enter.

This remains the case even though the briefest reflection tells us that no lives are as peaceful and happy as the image that the faà§ade presents. We know, rationally, that everybody has his or her share of hardship and unhappiness and that a lovely house has never protected anybody from the classic power trio of Aging, Sickness, and Death. So why are we seduced, at least for a second, over and over again by the illusion? Are we simply credulous gulls, another born every minute, who live by illusion rather than reason?

What about the appearances that people present to the world? We usually try to project a cheerful image of ourselves to others. We spend a lot of time in front of mirrors, scrutinizing ourselves, touching up vulnerable spots. We dress for success and smile winningly at passersby. We post pictures showing just how cheerful our lives are. When people ask how we are doing, we say “well” or “good,” without thinking. And people more or less play along with our illusion, looking as cheerful as we all generally do.

What about our response to images in advertisements? These lovely appearances, of course, offer us a share of the happy picture for the low retail price of $29.99. And we find ourselves seduced by them again and again, at least for a moment, even though we know, after a bit of reflection, that the weary cycle of getting and spending has never yet brought lasting happiness. We’ll get a little thrill when that Amazon package arrives, but soon enough, we know, it will be added, like a shiny link, to the long chain of tinsel products that have failed to satisfy. We’ll probably blame it on the product whose fascination for us has washed off, but why do we hate the dull player when we know that the game itself is so boring?

Jacques Lacan thought that we play an unhappy game with our own images. He says that although we recognize in the mirror a whole and self-contained person, we never feel as whole and self-contained as the reflection appears. This strange disjunction, he thought, is the beginning of alienation and the start of a lifelong search for that elusive thing that will finally make us feel as complete as the mirror image that confronts and reproaches us. Money, sex, the precious object, the final goal achieved, or the words that we’ve been longing to hear: which of these will give back to us the wholeness that the image promised but never delivered? Others appear so effortlessly self-identical with their images, so why does it elude us still?

If our credulity in the happy image causes us so much unhappiness, let’s ask another question: Is there any good that can come from our ready, if momentary, susceptibility to the happy illusion? Is illusion ever more illuminating than reason?

Ernst Bloch thought that our tendency to believe in the false idyll was not entirely negative. In fact, this philosopher found a streak of hope in it, valuing in it our very capacity to hope and our tendency and readiness to see what he called the “tout va bien” (everything goes well) in things. It is not simply that we succumb easily to illusion, but also that our instinct is often toward with the sunny view, toward a hope for the best “” a significant impulse.

I propose that we look at images of the false idyll this way: if there is a disappointing difference between our happy images and the reality they obscure, then let’s think about what it would take, not to destroy all of our illusions under the reason’s cold eye, but rather to remake the world in the image that is (only as yet) mere appearance. Perhaps even better than losing our illusions is, as Guns N’ Roses once proposed, to use your illusion. In other words, there is much truth to be found in false advertising.

When we discover that the happy image deceives, rather than to reproach ourselves for succumbing to it again, we might ask ourselves these practical questions: What changes would be required for the world to be as cheerful as the faà§ade presented to the street by the lovely house? How would the world have to change for people to be as happy as the image that they project to the social world? How could our one-click checkout world be reorganized so that images of the idyll would be as true as advertised? And what would it take for us to feel as whole as the image that the mirror gives back to us? Looked at this way, in the very symptoms of our unhappiness (those presently false images of happiness with which we are so well stocked), there are guiding visions for a vastly different and better world. We are lucky to have reason, surely, but even luckier to have so many illusions.