The Philosophy of PHIL: The Story of Suicidal Happiness
When I saw the movie, PHIL, I was thrilled with its theme. As if the movie script was taken from 13thchapter of 3D of Happiness which has the following title: “Searching for Happiness while Sinking into Depression”.
The actor and producer, Greg Kinnear, did an excellent job in his role as an unhappy dentist, Phil. The movie begins with a suicide scene of Phil. He is standing on the edge of a highway bridge and staring down at the black water below. A car full of giggling teens pulls up with their iPhones at the ready, and one of them encourages Phil to jump: “I can make you famous on YouTube!” For some reason, Phil changes his mind at the last minute. Obviously, he does not want to die. Rather, he wants to know the secret of a happy life. He thinks that he finds a happy human, Michael Fisk, a talkative, very happy looking man. Michael pretends as if he knows great wisdom through sharing a quote from Socrates: “The unexamined life is not worth living”, encouraging Phil to live his life to the fullest. Phil is amazed at his happiness and wants to do anything crazy to learn his secret of success. Phil follows Michael for the day, from a wine store to the woods where Michael hangs himself. He is truly shocked to see his happiest man committed suicide. Now, he is fully determined to find out why Michael killed himself. He tests several hypotheses through his funny inquiries but turns out to be wrong almost always. He finally concludes that perhaps Michael committed suicide because he had everything.
If you have not seen the movie, I certainly think it is worth to watch to understand the suicidal nihilism of the 21st century as it was predicted by Nietzsche. I want you to share your view of the movie in terms of its depiction of depressed and unhappy lives in modern times. If you want to know mine, please read the following discussion taken from 3D of Happiness.
Over two thousand years ago, Socrates challenged a human being to examine his/her life. He claimed that “an unexamined life is not worth living.” Schopenhauer was a very deep thinker in the 1800s. After carefully examining his life, he claimed that life was not worth living. This message seems to resonate with an increasing number of people who commit suicide. Even more, people attempt to commit suicide, and many come very close to it. Why? Schopenhauer thought that we were asking the wrong question. From his perspective, we should not ask why people commit suicide. Rather, we should ask why they do not commit suicide. In other words, it is normal to commit suicide. It is abnormal not to commit suicide, once we realize that life is not worth living.
Midlife Crisis and Missing Happiness in Modern Times
Why does one face a happiness crisis in mid-life? We do not think it is just a coincidence that people often face a mid-life crisis in their 40s. It can be attributed to many reasons.
First, in a consumer society, we are constantly told that happiness is the function of what we have, do, and are in life. Given the fact that as we grow, we see many people follow this happiness path, we are likely to do so, too.
Second, at a young age, we are capable of experiencing higher hedonic pleasure if we are healthy and wealthy.
Third, given our curious nature, we want to experience many things just to know what they are like.
Fourth, by our mid-life, we have enough experience to learn that diminishing marginal utility and adaptation bring down our pleasure of having, doing, and being to a very low level.
Fifth, as we get older, we will realize that life is not just fun. We see many adversities and calamities which cause significant pain. We are likely to have a serios illness. We begin experiencing weakness in our body. This will remind us of the downside of life.
Sixth, we will see the death of known and beloved people. We will know that we cannot escape from the painful end of death. As a result, we begin asking existential questions. If we do not find any satisfying answers to them, we will realize that everything is ultimately meaningless. Therefore, it will be hard to find an excuse to live longer. We either have to indulge in something to forget our ultimate fate, or we need to seek a different path that might lead to the answers to existential questions. In other words, we will either seek help from alcohol, drugs, or other addictive mind-blocking means to forget troubling questions, or, we will pursue a spiritual path to explore answers to our questions.
Ironically, it is our very success that leads us to the ultimate failure. The more we succeed with having, doing, and being in life, the more likely we are to face a mid-life crisis. Failing or struggling individuals might not find time to examine life. They might die while still deprived of having, doing, and being. The successful ones would learn from their experiences that having, doing, being could not bring authentic happiness. They would know transient meaning would increase happiness, but not enough to bring lasting satisfaction.
We argue that it is more likely to fall into a mid-life crisis if we limit our pursuant of happiness to hedonic and even eudemonic happiness. In early life, we would experiment with having, doing, and being. We would hit the dead end through the DEAD loop of deprivation, emulation, achievement, and disappointment. Instead of learning our lesson, we repeat the cycles with different items, though the end result will be the same. As we get older, we are likely to seek happiness through meaning. However, as we make meaning the center of our lives, we could not help asking the ultimate meaning of everything in life. Our success in achieving having, doing, being, and worldly meaning might ultimately result in failure.
If we have no belief in an afterlife, it will become apparent to us that everything is ultimately meaningless. Though adding worldly meaning increases our marginal utility at an increasing rate for a while, it will eventually decrease toward zero. We will live in a two-dimensional flat world which is a shadow-like transient reality. It does not matter how much shadow we accumulate in our life, we will soon realize that it means nothing. Thus, the DEAD loop of our happiness search is likely to lead to depression.
Depression and Destruction of Life
We argue that unless the social and psychological problems discussed above are appropriately addressed, they lead to the destruction of life for many people. Thus, it is essential to examine the lives lost due to homicide, suicide, and drug overdose.
The chart below is based on the most recent data on homicide and suicide per 100K people in a year. Even though many people look at crime rates when they search for renting or buying a house because they do not want to be killed by others, perhaps they should be afraid of themselves more than of others. Indeed, the chart clearly shows that for an American, the odds of killing oneself is 2.5 times greater than being killed by others.
Data source: 1) Homicide: FBI Data for 2017, https://ucr.fbi.gov/crime-in-the-u.s/2017/crime-in-the-u.s.-2017/topic-pages/tables/table-1; 2) Suicide: 2016 data from American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: https://afsp.org/about-suicide/suicide-statistics/
Illicit drugs pose an even greater threat to human life compared to homicide and suicide. Indeed, in 2017, 72,000 people lost their lives due to a drug overdose. Using the same metric of calculating death per 100K, as shown in the chart below, it seems that an American is four times more likely to kill himself by drug overdose than to be killed by others. Since in reality, death from drug overdose is a form of suicide, even if unintentional, we shall combine the deaths from suicide and drugs. In this case, if you live in the United States, you are SEVEN times more likely to kill yourself than to be killed by others.
Data source: Homicide and suicide data are from the same source in the previous chart. Drugs Overdose: 2017 data from National Institute of Drug Abuse: https://www.drugabuse.gov/related-topics/trends-statistics/overdose-death-rates
We think the number of people killed due to preventable homicide, suicide, and drug overdose should be taken very seriously. Indeed, it is alarming that the malaise of modernity produces casualties greater than many terrible wars. To put it into perspective, we provide the number of people killed during the American war against homicide, suicide, and drug overdose and the number of people killed in the Syrian Civil War in the last eight years. Since what is killing Americans is ultimately moral issues, we call it the “American Moral War.” We used the highest estimate of human casualties for the “Syrian Civil War.” Despite this, we found the number of Americans killed in the moral war was twice the number of those who died in the Syrian civil war.
Source: Syrian Civil War: The highest estimate by activist groups as reported in Wikipedia, accessed on October 23, 2018. American Moral War: Calculated based on the actual data in the previous chart.