Mental Constructions of Joy
“Time flies like the wind; fruit flies like bananas” -Groucho Marx
Swinburne’s “The Triumph of Time” focuses upon mental constructions and the way they influence our ability to feel joy. In this case time is presented as such a construct: “Hours that rejoice and regret for a span,/ Born with a man’s breath, mortal as he”. So are love and loss: “Though joy be done with and grief be vain”. The concepts of love, loss, and time are all mental paradigms that humanity has been wrestling with long before the Victorian era. The phrases ubi sunt and sic transit gloria mundi both speak to the amount of time that we have spent considering the evanescent nature of these mental convictions. These are motifs that come up repeatedly in literature: time is indelible. Loss is indelible. Joy is fleeting. So, what is the lesson that humanity needs to learn to come to terms with these themes?
I believe the answer lies in another topic emphasized in Swinburne’s poem: the theme of happiness being subverted by choice. Swinburne refers to this as “The dream foregone and the deed forborne”. To analyze this I would like to draw on a TED talk titled “The surprising science of happiness” by Dan Gilbert. In this talk Gilbert explains that the prefrontal cortex is an experience simulator. The prefrontal cortex has been shown to have numerous connections with parts of the brain that control dopamine and serotonin. It is also responsible for complex social behaviour, personality expression and most importantly decision making and orientation of long term goals. We have genetically adapted to possess foresight, which helps us plan our lives by intuiting the results of our actions. Furthermore, this area of our brain is linked to the chemical compositions that induce contentment. This adaptation is essential to social cooperation and individual decision making. However, this necessary adaptation can subvert happiness. To help understand this, Gilbert draws a distinction between synthetic happiness and natural happiness.
Natural happiness: this is what happens when we get what we wanted — when the outcome of an action aligns with the planning done by our prefrontal cortex in a manner that pleases us.
Example: The girl I’ve been obsessing about has noticed me and we are in love.
Synthetic happiness: this is what we make when do not get what we wanted. When the outcome of an action does not meet the expectations of our prefrontal cortex. This is the way in which we react to an unexpected outcome.
Example: The girl I’ve been obsessing about will never notice me, but I have cake.
It is important to note that there have been studies that prove both the existence and genuineness of synthetic happiness. Both types of pleasure are mental constructs but we prioritize natural happiness both culturally and personally.
The scary part: Both of these types of happiness can have the same effect on your psyche (if you allow them to).
So back to the poem: natural happiness for the speaker in the poem would occur if the person he is pursuing would reciprocate his feelings. Synthetic happiness for the speaker does not exist because he is so concerned with obtaining natural happiness. We are capable of feeling joy in a multitude of scenarios and combinations of events. The problem is that we are both hardwired and socially conditioned to lose the mental ability of finding contentment in our current circumstances (or embracing synthetic happiness).
What’s even scarier: if given two options, one will always seem lesser when chosen.
Gilbert points to a study done at Harvard to illustrate this point. Gilbert and his team created a black and white photography course and allowed students to take pictures of things they found interesting around campus. The students were then shown how to develop the pictures. They were instructed to enlarge two of the twelve photographs they had taken. Once they had the two enlarged glossy images in their hands they were told they would be allowed to take one home. Half of the students could change their minds within four days of making this decision. The other half was told the decision would be immediate and final. The results were profound. Those that had no choice, that had to live with their decision, grew to love their pictures. Those that had a choice became increasingly unhappy with the picture they chose. They waffled, they pontificated, they grew restless, felt remorse and eventually grew to dislike the picture they had chosen. They subverted their own pleasure simply because they were presented with a choice. It turns out that it is a scientific fact that we are psychologically better off not to have options as far as joy is concerned. Freedom to choose is the enemy of synthetic happiness.
Back to the poem again: for the speaker, happiness is subverted by choice and choice is subverted by time. The poem places emphasis on the idea that time forces us to make difficult decisions. The speaker has been culturally hardwired to never be happy again because he chose the wrong option. He is stuck in the position of trying to validate his choice in his own mind and it is not working. The possibility of attaining natural happiness has subverted his ability to synthesize happiness. He bemoans this fact with: “Had the chance been with us that has not been” and “I lose what I long for, save what I can,/ My love, my love, and no love for me”. While the poem does have moments of profound understanding of the evanescent nature of happiness these are subverted by the speaker bemoaning his current state. A state that does not allow him to find enjoyment outside of the acquisition of his personal goals. The poem even alludes to the fact that the speaker should be able to rise above their mental constructs: “Is it worth a tear, is it worth an hour,/ To think of things that are well outworn?” This references the fact that the world keeps moving. It is the speaker personally that cannot move on. At its heart, this poem is about relationships between individuals and their mental constructs.