This is part of an accidental mini series on the psychological and ecological benefits of taking new perspectives on life, society, citizenship and the planet.
The first part of the mini series looked at what I see as the organisational purpose of Thighs of Steel and took a new perspective to help me understand why I do anything at all: connection.
This second part will look more closely at happiness and take a new perspective to help assuage or at least understand the economic, ecological and existential distress that so many of us are feeling right now.
I’ll be honest: I wish I could have spent another twelve years researching and writing this piece, hands buried in the soil.
Think of it as a work in progress and please be gentle!
The Three (Or Four) Species Of Happiness
All good things come in threes:
- Jesus, Joseph and Mary
- Earth, Wind And Fire
- Wet Wet Wet
Human happiness is no different: there are exactly three different species. (Except when there’s four, but we can ignore that one later…)
The first species of happiness is the kind that you can only feel when you’re inside the experience right now.
You might feel a sort of experiential penumbra of good vibes for a short time afterwards, but basically the happiness is gone as soon as you leave the situation.
For example, the visceral happiness you get from playing on a swing:
The question at the root of this first variety of happiness is: Am I having fun?
The second species of happiness is the sort you feel even when you’re no longer actually inside the experience.
This is one kind of time and space travel that humans can do: quite unbidden, a remembrance — oh, yes, I’m happy! — pops into our mind.
This sort of happiness is unlikely to stem from playing on the swings. Even this one:
(Watching that video, I think I screamed as much as they did. Worth the build up.)
This second species of happiness is more likely to crop up through a satisfying work life, successful relationships or a family of supportive friends.
The question at the heart of this second variety of happiness is: Does this feel right?
The third type of happiness goes deeper again: it’s an existential happiness, reaching out far beyond our selves and our immediate circle.
It comes from the sense that we exist as one small element of a community and society, a landscape and ecosystem that is thriving in unity together.
The question is: Are we all, people and planet, thriving?
This happiness is something I have felt in the past.
I’m not alone in struggling with it right now.
The Fourth Species
The fourth species of happiness that we can safely ignore is the kind that yogis and Russell Brand talk about:
Transcendence of all earthly happiness through direct connection with The Oneness of The Universe.
But you can forget all that for now — except one word: connection.
(Yes, I know — I’m obsessed with this idea.)
Because all three (or four) species of happiness depend on connection.
Back A Second: What Is Happiness?
Happiness is what happens when our sensory bodies come into contact with an experience and form a positive emotional bond.
When we play on the swings, that bond is easily broken by leaving the playground, and our happiness fades too.
When we form a close relationship with another human, such bonds are more complex, cropping up in more and more of our experiences and environments the longer and stronger that we share a emotional connection.
If that connection is predominantly positive: happiness ensues.
But even the strongest interpersonal relationship cannot sustain our happiness if the ecosystem around us is sick.
It is very hard to be happy when you discover that the earth is burning. Or that Liz Truss has become Prime Minister.
This is where the mushrooms might help. (Not like that! Although…)
The Great Entanglement
On the way back from Greece, I (finally) read Merlin Sheldrake’s book Entangled Life.
The subtitle is How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, And Shape Our Futures — and, yes, there is a lot of stuff in there about how fungi can forage for food, eat rocks and find the fastest route through IKEA.
But what struck me most forcefully was how, as a mycologist, the more Merlin learned about his subject, the more uncertain he became about what it means to be human.
The first living organisms on land were a collaboration between algae and fungi: lichens. The algae could photosynthesise to produce energy from the sun and the fungi could digest minerals from rock: the perfect partnership.
Likewise, plants are a collaboration between the above-ground photosynthesising organisms and the below-ground fungal mycelial networks that break down and transfer nutrients from organism to organism.
And the breaking down element is crucial: until fungi like the white rot fungus ‘learned’ how to digest plant matter, the earth was coated in a pile of dead plants, kilometres deep.
(This is how we got coal, by the way.)
By digesting dead vegetation, fungi guarantee the cycle of nutrients from one living organism to another. This is the thing we call soil. It wouldn’t exist without fungi.
Even humans are a collaboration between ‘humans’ and untold millions of bacteria, fungi and viruses that help, among many other basic living functions of body and mind, to break down the plants and animals that we eat as food.
It becomes increasingly difficult to determine where human ends and the rest of ecology begins.
Life is, indeed, entangled.
Back to that question of existential happiness: right now, do you feel like we are all, people and planet, thriving?
If you’re anything like me, that’s going to come across as a really stupid rhetorical question.
Apart from major scientific advances like the Vegan Sausage Roll, everything’s going to shit.
So what can we do about it?
Here’s one thought.
(It’s not a very clever or original thought, but hear me out because in a second I’m going to get you to imagine being a fungus and that’ll change everything.)
As a society, perhaps we have been putting too much effort into tending our digital networks.
(Told you it wasn’t very clever or original.)
I don’t just mean social media, I mean the creation of the whole World Wide Web.
Statista forecast that 97 zettabytes of data will be created, captured, copied, and consumed worldwide in 2022.
That’s 8,890,000,000,000,000,000 megabytes.
It’s completely overwhelming to think of all the billions of hours that are put into tending our digital society every day.
By necessity, that time is being diverted away from our other projects and has perhaps contributed to the neglect of our society offline.
That’s not to say that I think online networks can’t be extremely powerful — I doubt that social attitudes in the UK would be becoming so liberal, so quickly if it weren’t for the internet.
But I think we have to be careful that our online networks really are strengthening our ‘real’ offline lives in the direction of greater connectivity and solidarity with the people and planet that make up our ecosystem.
I think this hybrid online-offline model is why Thighs of Steel works so well: people discover the project online, meet each other online and communicate online.
But then we come together for two months in the summer to create a living, breathing community in the ‘real world’.
And it’s that in-person time that changes the wider world for the better, in all the ways that I discussed a couple of weeks ago.
The difficulty is how to imagine change when our problems are so complex and our individual capacity is so limited.
One answer is to change our imaginative model of what it means to be an individual.
(Okay, here’s where things get trippy!)
What if we imagined ourselves as a single exploratory growing tip of a fungus, tiny and courageous, but directly, intimately, unbreakably connected to, entangled with and backed by a mycelial network of unfathomable power and complexity?
Human As Hypha
The growing tips of a fungus are called hyphae, so imagine yourself as a single hyphae, one little growing tip of the human mycelial network that is exploring our society, the landscape, this universe.
It’s easy for you to feel like an individual.
Look too closely and hyphae totally behave as individuals, merrily wiggling around through the soil, looking for yummy dead things to munch.
But zoom out and we see that, despite their apparent behaviour, hyphae are not individuals.
It’s not like there’s a central brain or body that tells the individual hypha what to do, but each one is plugged into a complex and responsive network.
You see: fungal hyphae can somehow sense and communicate across the network.
(I’m not even going to try and butcher the young science: I beg you, please read Merlin’s book.)
If one hypha finds some delicious dead tree stump, very quickly (and mysteriously) the rest of the network will stop what they were doing and turn their attention to devouring it.
As a human hypha, you are exploring on behalf of every other actor in the network — all the other hyphae who can and will respond to every move you make, every touch and every discovery.
That gives you, the connected individual, power, agency — and responsibility.
The network decomposition of the dead tree stump is no mere act of destruction. The capturing and recycling of nutrients is a life-giving act of creation: what we call soil.
As a hypothetical human hyphae, recognise that your influence extends far beyond the human network.
You are also exploring and creating on behalf of the vegetation, the plants and the trees, that depend on the network for life support. No network, no soil.
Consequently, you’re also exploring and creating for the insects and animals that depend on vegetation, and so too for those predators that depend on the life and death of their prey.
See how you are connected — not hypothetically, but literally — to everything else in the ecosystem.
This is how mushrooms help me fill the pit of despair that has taken the place of my third, existential, species of happiness.
Fungi give me a lens through which to see my existence as both individual and plural.
If I fall into the trap of seeing myself as an individual alone, then it’s too easy to feel powerless about the existential problems we face as a species.
It’s too easy to bumble along, exploring life — experiencing the first two species of happiness, perhaps — but never seeing my intimate role as part of the network that is creating this ecosystem.
And without the sense of living within a healthy ecosystem, I have no hope of experiencing the foundational existential happiness.
Fungi remind me that life is about more than my own personal exploration.
It’s a simultaneous — and utterly entangled — act of personal exploration and collective creation as part of the network.
The metaphor of the human hyphae gives me license to explore and create, to follow my own path, but also to ensure I nurture a healthy network and, in so doing, healthy soil and, ultimately, a healthy ecosystem.
And, perhaps, existential happiness.
So let’s commit to the roles we were born to play: as entangled explorer-creators.
Thanks for reading — I hope some of it made sense at least. If not: get yourself a copy of Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake and take a look at this marvellous world from a myco-centric perspective.
Postscript: Entangled Happiness Networks
People’s happiness depends on the happiness of others with whom they are connected.
I can’t believe I forgot to include the most obvious piece of research in last week’s newsletter about how our happiness is entangled with our networks.
Clusters of happy and unhappy people are visible in the network, and the relationship between people’s happiness extends up to three degrees of separation (for example, to the friends of one’s friends’ friends). … This provides further justification for seeing happiness, like health, as a collective phenomenon.
- Dynamic spread of happiness in a large social network: longitudinal analysis over 20 years in the Framingham Heart Study (The British Medical Journal)
- Happiness spreads like the plague (New Scientist)