I know, you’re thinking that we’ve covered happiness up one side and down another. And we have, BUT, I was finishing the book Sapiens when I discovered that writer Yuval Noah Harari has a chapter on the subject. What he has to say turned out to be quite interesting and I thought it would be worth recording it and adding it to our previous discussions. He poses the question that he says is rarely asked: “Did the wealth humankind accumulated over the last five centuries translate into a new-found contentment?…Have the seventy or so turbulent millennia since the Cognitive Revolution made the world a better place to live?…If not, what was the point of developing agriculture, cities, writing, coinage, empires, science and industry?” It’s a troubling query to consider.
He covers a lot of ground in this chapter and mentions many factors that have been viewed as contributing to the happiness of sapiens. (In this book he identifies humans as belonging to the species sapiens (wise) of the genus Homo (man). Furthermore, he adds that he uses “the term ‘Sapiens’ to denote members of the species Homo sapiens, while reserving the term ‘human’ to refer to all extant members of the genus Homo.” The book depends a lot on scientific data and knowledge for its arguments.)
Among the multiple processes Harari discusses in connection with happiness is the conclusion of some studies that “happiness is not the surplus of pleasant over unpleasant moments. Rather, happiness consists in seeing one’s life in its entirety as meaningful and worthwhile. There is an important cognitive and ethical component to happiness…As Nietzsche put it, if you have a why to live, you can bear almost any how. A meaningful life can be extremely satisfying even in the midst of hardship, whereas a meaningless life is a terrible ordeal no matter how comfortable it is.” (I have mentioned some of this before.)
As for the matter of happiness and marriage, Harari takes on the notion that people who are married tend to register themselves as happier than those who are not. His interpretation of why research finds that married people are happier is that it’s not necessarily due to the married state producing their happiness, but rather that being a happy person by nature leads to being married because happy people are more attractive spouses. He adds that biochemistry is only one aspect of happiness and that psychological and sociological factors also contribute so that “somebody born with an average of level five happiness [on a scale of ten] would never dance wildly in the streets. But a good marriage should enable her to enjoy level seven from time to time, and to avoid the despondency of level three.”
Ultimately, Harari notes that from the times of Apollo (thousands of years BCE) it was believed that “the average person is ignorant of his true self, and is therefore likely to be ignorant of true happiness.” Moreover, “the main question is whether people know the truth about themselves,” and we have no evidence that contemporary people have any better understanding of that truth than those from ancient time had.
Oddly enough, Harari explains that Buddhism has elevated happiness to a position of higher importance than most religions and has studied its essence and causes for centuries. What Buddhism has concluded is that happiness is ephemeral and chasing happiness is the root of suffering. Therefore, Buddhists make every effort to detach themselves from their impermanent feelings and try to stop pursuing them. You live in the moment, which means accepting your feelings without craving any of them. Thus, true happiness is independent of our inner feelings. The relentless pursuit of particular feelings is a misery trap.
Since this is a blog about Doc Martin, I want to bring this discussion back to some of these issues as they impact the show. Let’s dispense with the subject of Buddhism first. From the earliest episodes of the show we have been aware of the Buddhas in Martin Ellingham’s office, and now and then those Buddha figurines are handled with some prominence. Edith notices one of the Buddhas when she’s in Martin’s office and recollects that they were together when he bought it. Soon after that we see him separate out that Buddha from the rest of his possessions being loaded onto a moving van and place it in the backseat of his car. It isn’t long before the rocky ride to catch up to Louisa causes a bottle of vodka to smash into the Buddha, yet the figurine remains in the car even as Louisa and the baby are seated with it in the backseat. No one mentions it, however. And now, in S8, we have the Vicar ask Martin if he practices Buddhism.
I speculated about some possible explanations for the Buddhas in a previous post, and I remain a bit unsure if there is any real meaning behind them. I hate to make too much of something that could simply be what could be called a MacGuffin, or a thing of value that declines in importance but may reappear later in the story. I really don’t know what the purpose of the Buddhas in this show is, but it’s fun to find a way to apply them, so here goes:
When Martin is flummoxed by why people always have to be happy and has trouble figuring out why it should matter if he’s happy, the reason could be that he has a psychological impediment to knowing his own feelings, and that he has repressed his desire to be happy because of his childhood and his parents’ obvious disregard for his happiness. Or the whole subject of pursuing happiness, which Louisa considers important, is being depicted as a fruitless endeavor, as Buddhism teaches. By S7 he has given up his clocks, which used to be a source of pleasure (or at least accomplishment and sublimation). His self-abnegation might be a sign that he wants to detach from some of his worldly things in an effort to get more in touch with his feelings.
He has decided that his marriage to Louisa requires him to make her happy as much as he can, and he is shown making efforts to arrange lunches and dinners, accept her decisions on JH and her own future, and restrain his typical inclination to object to the car she wants to buy. I can’t say that he is necessarily more aware of his inner feelings, but his consistent argument against being concerned about pursuing happiness could be seen as aligning with Buddhist principles. Furthermore, I have to wonder if Louisa is actually happy, or happier than before, now that Martin is preferencing her over other things.
Insofar as marriage is concerned, we might be able to argue that Louisa’s innate sense of happiness that we witnessed in the early series helped to make her a more attractive prospect as a spouse, but that wouldn’t work in the case of Martin. However, it may be that because he has been with Louisa he is now having a reduced risk of depression and a heightened ability to be at a higher level of happiness. Thus we hear him say he’s glad to be in Portwenn at the end of S8. And Louisa’s pursuit of happiness has perhaps concluded because it was making her miserable.
Residing in a small, self-contained community with very little contact with the rest of the country, much less the world, makes life much less complicated. Staying in Portwenn gives Martin a greater chance of doing what he likes to do, which is taking care of medical problems of all kinds, while being married with a child. He can shut out the outside world for the most part, his expenses are low, and, under these circumstances he can be as happy as he could ever be. Louisa has found the “right” man, has had the child she’s wanted (and may have more), while continuing to live amongst the community that has been a family for her. She may not be deliriously happy; but she’s content.
There…I have solved every problem: happiness, their marriage, why they want to stay in Portwenn, the possible significance of the Buddhas, the possible reason for the departure of clocks from Martin’s world. Done! 🤭 😜