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The question of happiness and how to get it is endlessly entertaining. It’s one of the few topics on which we are all experts, having spent a large part of our lives thinking about how to obtain more of it.
For some years before the global financial crisis one could hardly open a newspaper without coming across stories on happiness and how to find it. For editors, putting the word “happiness” in a headline became de rigueur. And of course the marketers picked up on the trend. Suddenly it seemed that the answer to the riddle of happiness that had exercised philosophers for millennia was solved – you could get it at the shopping mall.
The happiness craze – especially the emergence of “positive psychology” – dovetailed perfectly with the demands of modern consumer capitalism. Being happy has become a personal project, something that arises not from our social circumstances but from our own efforts. Certainly, many people began to understand the dangers of trying to find happiness in material acquisition, but that did not stop it becoming a private undertaking that has contributed to the intense individualism of consumer society.
The self-help industry has been around for four or more decades, and has been useful in stimulating many people to stop and reflect on what they are doing, to find paths other than the office treadmill. But it has also had an anti-social effect, the more so when it merged with the happiness movement.
In bookshops one of the largest sections is titled “Self-help”. Among the hundreds of titles that claim to hold the secret to happiness Stephanie Dowrick’s Choosing Happiness is emblematic of the age. With section headings like “Trust who you are”, “Trust yourself as a source of happiness” and “You are responsible for your own happiness”, it promises that however we find ourselves − unfulfilled in our work, trapped in an unsatisfying relationship, beset by the endless irritations of modern life or struggling with anxiety − we can be happier through our own choices. Unhappiness, we are told, arises because we lack the “skills” to be happy.
While self-help books remind us over and over that we are responsible for our own happiness, the truth is that our parents, families, friends, communities and governments also bear some responsibility. The nostrums dished up in books such as Choosing Happiness serve to validate the self-focused individualism of modern life. They reflect the downside of what the sociologists call “self-determination”− the relentless emphasis on the self.
It’s obvious how this plays into conservative ideas about responsibility. The implication is that if you are discontented or melancholy then you are simply not trying hard enough, you have not put in the effort to acquire the “skills”. So you should not blame a dysfunctional family life, inequality, discrimination, workplace exploitation or harsh government policies for your condition; it’s all down to your own character and resolve.
Nevertheless, everyday experience does suggest that within the circumstances in which we find ourselves there is at least some degree of choice as to how we approach life.
A large number of empirical studies – not to mention philosophical reflection dating back prior to Aristotle – allow us to distinguish between three approaches to wellbeing – the pleasant life, the good life and the meaningful life.
I should say this work has been systematised by Martin Seligman, the doyen of American psychology and the founder of positive psychology. I’m somewhat reluctant to rely on Seligman after Barbara Ehrenreich’s devastating exposé of the emptiness of Seligman’s “authentic happiness” enterprise in her book Smile or Die: How positive thinking fooled America & the world, but I think some insights can be gained from his earlier work.
The pleasant life, or life of pleasure, is one motivated by hedonism – the desire to maximise the number of emotional and physical “highs”. This is the signature of modern consumer capitalism. Within constraints, it is possible to learn the skills necessary to foster the pleasant life, including techniques for amassing income, giving greater access to hedonistic pursuits. Although self-centered, for people committed to the pleasant life the focus of activity is always outwards – looking to the external world to provide sources of satisfaction. Status seeking through career success, for example, can be counted as a feature of the pleasant life because of its emphasis on external reward.
The second approach is the good life. It can be thought of as a life devoted to developing and refining one’s capabilities and thereby fulfilling one’s potential, an orientation adopted by Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen in their work on development and wellbeing. Whereas the pleasant life borrows from the future in order to enjoy the present, the good life invests in the present in order to augment the future. Among the characteristics of the good life are purposeful engagement, positive self-regard, high-quality relationships, environmental mastery and continued personal growth.
Aristotle argued that each of us has a daemon, or spirit, and that the purpose of life is to discover and honour it, so the “good life” approach is close to the idea of eudaimonism. The contrast between the pleasant life and the good life reflects the ancient dispute between the Epicureans and the Stoics, and there is now a body of psychological research supporting the distinction. The former is an intensely subjective idea of wellbeing explored through notions of positive affect (or emotion). It is easily, but not very reliably, measured by surveys of subjective wellbeing.
The meaningful life, the third approach to living, is similar to the good life insofar as it may require the development of one’s “signature strengths”. But whereas the pursuit of the good life can be self-focused – the athlete or musician perfecting their skills through years of training and achieving “flow” – the meaningful life entails a commitment to something greater than oneself, a higher cause. Those committed to a meaningful life are not, in fact, committed to their own lives, but to social improvement, or to living in a register that transcends the personal.
For those who pursue the meaningful life, the boundary between the self and the other is permeable. The meaningful life corresponds to what the philosophers of the past understood to be the pursuit of virtue, or selfless moral principles.
The application of reason and possession of self-control help explain the preference for the good life over the pleasant. The origin of the urge to pursue a meaningful life is more mysterious. Why do some people pursue a meaningful life?
Perhaps it can be attributed to inherent predispositions and early family life. It does require a decision to take a path less travelled, to commit to something ideal beyond the mundane, often in the face of opposition, including social pressure to be “normal”.
Sigmund Freud once complained that his American acolytes had interpreted his psychoanalytic method as a technique for making people happy. Steeped in the European philosophical tradition, he saw this as a trivialisation of the psychoanalytic movement whose purpose was to help people understand the meaning of what they do and how they feel. For Freud, the purpose of life is not to be happy, but to understand ourselves so that we can achieve integration of ego, id and superego and achieve a reconciliation with our identities and the world.
Some decades earlier, Nietzsche had made an observation similar to Freud’s: “Man does not strive for happiness; only the Englishman does that”. Considered as a whole, in contrast to continental Europeans the citizens of Anglophone nations – and especially the United States – are particularly susceptible to the centrifugal forces of the consumer life and are less receptive to the countervailing forces that would propel us to more meaningful pursuits.
Frustration at the demand to be happy at times overpowers us. In 1988 a fifty-something jobbing actor named Jack Rebney was making a sales video for an American mobile home company. Rebney was having a really bad day. He could not remember his lines and everything went wrong. He ranted until the air turned blue with his profanities. Never had the f-word been deployed to such cathartic effect.
The film crew made a tape of the out-takes and it soon became a cult hit – copied, passed around and watched over and over by those who needed some relief when they arrived home after a bad day. When it made it online in 2005 audience numbers took off and Jack Rebney became a folk hero, the “angriest man in the world” who raged against life itself, the everyman who expressed our own volcanic frustrations and irritations in one long heart-felt tirade. I can imagine what he would have done with it if someone had handed him a copy of Choosing Happiness.
A few years ago a television filmmaker decided to track down the angriest man in the world. He eventually found Rebney living a hermit- like existence in a cabin on top of a mountain. Although he had isolated himself from the “hell of other people”, as Sartre named it, Rebney was still raging against life with an authenticity you will not find in the self-help aisles of the bookshops. So next time you sink into ennui or despondency at work look up “Jack Rebney” online to experience five minutes of priceless entertainment and a poignant commentary on the pointlessness of modern life.