Tim Kaine and Social Economics
Reinventing Happiness

Rainn Wilson on Life’s Big Questions

By Jonathan B. Wight

Rainn Wilson, The Bassoon King: My Life in Art, Faith, and Idiocy (2015)

What does a nerdy, goofy actor from the sit-com The Office have to tell us about ethics?  The main point of the book has to do with developing an authentic relationship with oneself—that is, learning how to live in one’s own skin.

Rainn wilsonIt wasn’t easy for Rainn Wilson, whose parents divorced early and he wound up in a variety of difficult situations, such as getting the s*** kicked out of him while living in the slums of New York. The comedic actor also played straight roles, such as Hamlet, but admits he was never very good at it. He kept trying too hard to be what he thought others wanted him to be.

That is the essence of the ethical issue: if you are a transactionalist, as most neoclassical economists think people are, one “acts” in a way that is designed to produce the highest desired outcome. But “acting” in that way can be profoundly phony, and will ultimately be unsuccessful.

Only when one lets go of thinking—and concentrates on being—can one succeed in the world of acting—and other facets of life. But to “be” means to be true to one’s real inner being, because only then can it be an effortless flow.

Wilson’s story of how he became a TV and film star after numerous false starts and missteps is interesting as a case study in virtue ethics. More than that, it offers glimpses into the kinds of questions everyone should ask to live a life fully. One exercise he describes is having people write down the 5 things that they “know for sure—really for sure.”  It’s a revelation, and my own list starts with “I am alive” followed by “I will die.”

Wilson was raised in the Baha'i Faith, which believes that all great religions are one. He left as a Bohemian rebel and became an atheist, then an agnostic, before returning to the faith as an adult.

Wilson went on to help create SoulPancake, a whimsical website and media production company interested in pursuing uplifting spiritual, psychological, and philosophical interests.  It is a for-profit company promoting the virtues of resilience and courage, exemplified by the wildly popular short Youtube video, "Kid President".

Below are the break are some of my favorite quotes from the book.

On Critical Thinking:

“I started to understand that I had been doing the role for all the wrong reasons: to impress people, to gain accolades, to gain fame. I was looking outside myself. Trying to be something that I wasn’t.…

I didn’t want to be that kind of fakey artist anymore, performing out of obligation, neediness, and a desperate need to be liked. I knew that ultimately I needed to be myself, and screw whatever other people thought of me. I felt this newfound commitment to freedom in my bones and it was a revelation.… I gotta be me…

… It is the OBLIGATION of every human being to find the truth for themselves. This is not a suggestion; it’s mandatory on our life’s journey. But so liberating!

On Love:

“No behavioral list can ever tell me that the profound feelings I have for my son and wife, say, or simply a result of chemicals electricity causing my brain to form a connection to my offspring to preserve my heredity and species. I know in my bones and heart that I love my family and that this crazy little thing called love is more than feeling but rather a powerful force in life beyond the mere material. The same holds true for art, beauty, and music, either way. They’re incredibly affected cannot be reduced to an electrochemical line in the brain. Page 192 – 193

On Happiness:

“I have a few minor insights into what DOESN”T make you happy. One of those things? The myth that happiness is something to be pursued. “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” is total bull balls. You can’t pursue happiness. What does that even mean?

What it really means, the pretty overt subtext to our national motto about that “unalienable right,” is that nothing should get in the way of a citizen’s trying to accrue things. In other words, I have the RIGHT to go out and get crap without neighbors or the government or institutions getting in my GD way.  It should really read “LIFE LIBERTY, AND THE PURSUIT OF ACCRUING CRAP.” And implicit in that “right” to buy, stockpile, and obtain is that eventually once you have the right home on the right plot of land, the right mate, the right family, right job, the right savings, the right everything, then you will be happy. It’s an “if – then” proposition. And it just doesn’t work that way, I believe.

The ancient Greeks had a different word for happiness. They often use the term eudemonia, which translates just as “human flourishing.” That’s such a rich, complex, evocative term. Think about it: human flourishing. That includes art, service, contentment, connection, community, challenges, and endeavor!

What if our “right” in the Declaration of Independence was “life, liberty and the pursuit of human flourishing”? That would create a much deeper and more varied dialogue on what human flourishing actually is.  How can the individual and community both flourish? How can we help one another to greater and greater flourishment?…

Happiness is not something “just around the corner” or “over the hill” or that can be enjoyed as soon as you have a certain level of material comfort. It’s a moment-to-moment choice. Joy and contentment come from daily, hourly, minute Lee, secondly decisions to be grateful for what you have. With every breath. Savoring every moment. Focusing on the good. On service to others. On the sacred, whatever that word means to you. Happy?  Pp. 188-190


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