For much of the past few years, I've felt that I'm happier with life if I'm making something, or have recently made something and can look on it with satisfaction or pride. Whether it's a big project of some general interest, or just me coding some mathsy pictures for myself and a few interested friends, there's something about the effort that goes into it and the results that come out that give me a profound sense of purpose and usefulness. It's a feeling that very much isn't replicated by watching endless hours of sport on TV or reading essays in the New Yorker. I no longer have a TV and Foxtel subscription and I think I'm happier for it. I do now have a subscription to the New Yorker, and for the past six months I've been reading it and other long-form journalism or essay writing a lot more than I used to; it doesn't seem to give me any lasting happiness, and I've felt generally lethargic, perhaps burnt out after a hectic 2015.
(As a curious aside, reading books, electronic or paper, does bring me a feeling of accomplishment. But I haven't opened my Kindle since getting about a third of the way through Piketty.)
Daniel Kahneman talks about the experiencing self and the remembering self, and suggests that we usually give too much weight to the remembering self – ignoring the moment-to-moment happiness that we might feel but which later dissipates, instead focusing on our judgements when we reflect on what we've done or accomplished, or memories of experiences, even when we spend relatively little time enjoying any such reflections or memories.
There's a thought experiment of sorts, which I'll adapt very slightly for my purposes, that asks whether or not it would be worth it to hit a magic button that artificially made us happy all the time by directly stimulating the relevant parts of the brain (without any of the side-effects of narcotics). The LessWrong crowd call this "wireheading".
Despite largely accepting the logic of Kahneman's defence of the experiencing self, I nevertheless still care mostly about my memories and reflective judgements, as indicated by the second paragraph of this post. And I've generally been sceptical of being made artificially happy by wirehading – it would be a happiness without the reflective satisfaction that, rightly or wrongly, I seem to care about.
The one thing that's really shifted my mind on the wireheading question is listening to the Hamilton cast album. I'm not even a musicals person! I enjoyed it a lot on my first listen, but it grew on me enormously on subsequent listens.* I have never had such an intense emotional reaction to music. It's not like an Adele album or an hour spent on YouTube watching Paul Potts' Britain's Got Talent audition and related videos. Those work in ways that are well-crafted but basically expected. By contrast, after a week of listening to Hamilton, becoming more entranced each listen, I was moved to tears by the federalist papers. One night, after finishing the album and before falling asleep, I cried when thinking of Washington's Farewell Address.
*Perhaps this is partly because I wasn't following along with the lyrics on my first run-through. I'm not used to the speed of rap and missed quite a lot; also I was often unsure of which character was rapping/singing. I'm also not clever enough at understanding stories and musical themes to have made the sort of commentary in this very entertaining live-tweet Storify by someone listening to Hamilton for the first time.
This is on top of the more ordinary storytelling – the rousing battles in Act 1, and the assorted betrayals and deaths in act 2 and Eliza's epilogue in the final song. This mildly exaggerated and very silly video captures most of the effect (though, for whatever reason, I was never so invested in Hamilton's character that I felt hurt or frustrated when he cheated on his wife).
That first week was an incredible time. I'd spend my day at work looking forward to 5pm, so that I could go home and listen to Hamilton. I'd start it playing after dinner, and in calmer moments I might notice a clever rhyme that had previously flown past me, making me love the album a little bit more. But mostly, at least in my memory's telling, I was emotionally convulsing for the better part of two and a half hours. Exhausted and sobbing at the end of 'Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story', I felt that if I could put this listening experience on a constant loop, interrupted only to eat or sleep or shower, then that would be a satisfying life worth living, even if I accomplished nothing else of any merit.
I wondered how long these daily paroxysms would last. Sometimes when I hear a song I like I put it on loop and hear it several dozens of times in a row before I feel like changing it. Would I need to listen to Hamilton several dozen times before its effects started to wear off? No. The end of that week was the peak, and a couple of days later, my eyes weren't even watering at 'It's Quiet Uptown'. I thought that Hamilton would soon be merely in the category of "music that I like to listen to".
It got a new lease of life when YouTube recommended to me a bootleg video of 'Helpless' and 'Satisfied'.* I was a wreck a minute into 'Helpless' – seeing faces and colours and choreography made it a whole new level of wonderful. I started crying again when I next listened to the album straight through.
*My ethics on this are that if I see it on YouTube before Lin's lawyers launch the copyright claim, then it's fair game. I've resisted the urge to learn how to torrent to get the whole show.
And from then on, more than anything else, Hamilton as an abstract entity has been a radiating source of happiness. I check the Hamilton subreddit most days; I've cried at people excitedly posting that they have tickets and they'll soon get to see the show, and I've cried at fans writing reviews. I've watched lots of amateur covers and adaptations on YouTube and I almost always watch the videos a second time. I was well satisfied with the time I spent reading through a 23,000-word recap of the staging on Tumblr.
I've felt (and still feel) a sense of kinship with other fans of the show. Most of these are anonymous redditors or Tumblr users, but I've even felt some goodwill towards Louise Mensch (culture warrior and former Tory MP) after yesterday seeing her tweet a Hamilton line to a detractor and learning that she's been raving about the show since she saw it at the Public Theater last February. I've seen people who, for unaccountable reasons, dislike Hamilton, but for everyone else it really does feel to me like the show gives us a shared sense of humanity.*
*Freddie DeBoer: Me? Economically conservative but culturally liberal, I think poor kids should be fed expired Kraft singles but I like the Hamilton soundtra
The intensity of my reactions to the songs is now very much on the wane. I haven't even cried at 'One Last Time' for a couple of weeks, and that's perhaps given me some motivation to write this up – as a record for myself of what this extended listening experience was like.
The wonder of it is that Burr and Hamilton are hardly sympathetic characters. When Hamilton's motivated by high principles, it's for a subject as dry as federal government debt. It says something interesting about dramatic story-telling that this actually works to create a compelling part of Hamilton's character arc – as long as the character has some principle to fight for, the details of what's wanted don't matter so much, and we'll all go along for the ride.
I'm also fascinatd by my reaction to Washington's character. The historical Washington was a slave owner, and even put out an advertisement for the capture of a fugitive slave of his wife. The show regularly reminds the audience (or listener) about slavery, but Washington's own relation to the subject is mentioned only obliquely.* I love Washington's character. I don't know if that's because I can put up a wall in my brain between historical-Washington and the near-perfect character-Washington, or if I'm simply able to celebrate the good things while knowing about the bad, in a way that I'd perhaps previously have struggled with.**
*In the text, the closest is the deliberately ambiguous "Not yet" in response to John Laurens' "Black and white soldiers wonder alike if this really means freedom." The actor Chris Jackson feels it keenly though, and he talks in this interview with some of the cast (at 27:45) about a subtle point of the staging in 'Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story'. When Eliza sings "I raise funds in DC for the Washington Monument," Washington responds with "She tells my story," and Jackson describes how he's exuding a revelling spirit at having his story told. Then when Eliza follows up with "I speak out against slavery," Washington feels shame, bows his head, and retreats.
**At first I felt it was the former, but I think the latter might be a growing principle in me. I've often enjoyed watching Barack Obama speak, but in recent years it's been an enjoyment accompanied by troublement, particularly about the millions of deportations he's been responsible for. But I was watching his commencement address at Howard University recently, it was interesting and inspiring in roughly equal measure, and I felt much freer, in a moral sense, to celebrate his words.
Of course all this reflection is by design – Jefferson in particular is made to be a brilliantly charismatic presence so that we enjoy him at the time and then later feel uncomfortable at having done so. I can only imagine what extra feelings it generates for Americans; I have to rely on cut-price borrowed patriotism to stir all these feelings up that extra little bit.
Michelle Obama described Hamilton (at 4:50) as "the best piece of art in any form that I have ever seen in my life", which sounds absurdly over the top, but it's utterly appropriate. It is (so far) an enduring source of joy, and I can only hope that one day I'll actually see it live, as I impatiently await the film, to be released in circa 2036.