Tiptoeing Around the Lake Of Happiness

My long-term, long-suffering readers will understand that I (and most likely all of us) have had an abiding interest in happiness, what promotes it and how it may be attained. Indeed if you search the archives of my blog posts you will find a number of essays on this topic. My essay this week will continue the discussion already commenced. I should warn however that it is really a commentary on related issues and does not purport to add any particular substance to the views I have previously expressed.

Probably a legitimate question that we should ask ourselves, is whether happiness and fulfilment and the search for meaning are merely luxuries? For most of human history it could be argued that Man’s preoccupation has been merely survival.

But this seems to me an unduly pessimistic point of view. The history of Western civilisation normally elucidates the agrarian revolution as that point in time when surpluses were able to be accumulated and thus led, for the more wealthy at least, to the opportunity for more leisure time. This enabled some to pursue cultural and philosophical pursuits, which in turn served to create society as we know it today.

Anthropologists however tell us that even hunter gatherers experienced times of plenty when there was time for play and amusement. You could legitimately ask for example when Europeans discovered Australia did they live more satisfying lives than the indigenous occupants?

That life is meant to be more than physical survival has been a growing theme in recent centuries. This fact is even recognised by how we calibrate the progress of countries in the Third World. Such progress  tends now to be measured by more than GDP. The United Nations for example since 1990 has used the Human Development Index as its indicator of progress which gives consideration to quality of life.

But this more enlightened point of view doesn’t seem to have been embraced by all fields of knowledge. It is probably instructive to note that the word “happiness” does not generally appear in economics textbooks where people are often referred to as “human factors of production”!

But as the Harvard entomologist and proponent of evolutionary theory, E. O. Wilson writes, “We are obliged by the deepest drives of the human spirit to make ourselves more than animated dust, and we must have a story to tell about where we came from and why we are here.”

Critics point out that capitalist economies are based on consumerism which seeks to have consumers feel they are deprived. Advertising which is designed to artificially create desires for goods and envy of those who have more than we do, works by creating discontent. It is entirely contrary to the Buddhist point of view that teaches happiness is more likely to be obtained by curbing our desires. It is enigmatic then that we live in a society whose material progress is advanced by promoting envy and discontent.

There is of course a physical determinist point of view that posits that a sense of well-being is merely an outcome of brain chemistry and instead of pursuing enlightenment we might be well-advised to take some more Prozac, have another drink or indulge ourselves sexually! There is little evidence to suggest that such activities result in long term well-being. But nevertheless the short term euphoria resulting from such activities inveigles many of us to do just that!

The philosopher Bertrand Russell in his usual down to earth way told us that, “We can make no distinction between the man who eats little and sees heaven and the man who drinks too much and sees snakes.” Each is in an abnormal condition, and therefore has abnormal perceptions.

There is generally a tension between such experiences and some of the more conventional concepts of religion.

There is a school of thought that suggests that our Western obsession with the individual has manifested in rampant dissatisfaction. Modern “Pop Psychology” has promoted the notion that we can be anything we want to be and a plethora of self-help books have been published purporting to show us how. Unfortunately they don’t work for most of us thus resulting in disappointment. As I have pointed out in the past, the authors of such books tend to rely on their own history of “success” to promote such books. They invite us to try and emulate them even when their own personal efforts perhaps had limited influence on their “success”. They all want to portray themselves as being “self-made” and “successful”. I am eagerly awaiting the day when someone might publish a book with the title “I am a Self-made Failure”!

Research has largely supported the notion that we should have realistic expectations.

Amusingly, the American writer Bill Bryson who lived in Britain for quite a while concluded that the British are the happiest people on earth. He believes this is so because “they have mastered the art of cheerfully diminished expectations.” He recollects that they commonly use such phrases as. “mustn’t grumble” or “you could do worse”! Who would have thought that Buddhism was inherent in the British character?

Ever since Freud burst onto the world stage there has been a growing tendency to seek therapeutic solutions to all of life’s inconveniences including unhappiness. Indeed Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at the University of Kent has argued that at the beginning of the twenty-first century  as a result of this demand “society is in the process of drawing up a radically new definition of what constitutes the human condition.” He has found that therapy, happiness and fulfilment are becoming dangerously entwined.

As a result of this change in outlook many experiences that have previously been interpreted as a normal part of everyday life, have been redefined as injurious.

Furedi quotes a wealth of statistics in support of his thesis. In substantiating his claim he elicits such facts as:

  • Children are far unhappier now than ever before;
  • Children as young as four are seen as legitimate targets for therapeutic intervention;
  • There has been a massive increase in the diagnosis of depression due to the difficulty people have in dealing with disappointment and failure.

But even worse, therapists seem to have been able to “medicalise” normal life experiences. In their efforts to make us happier, and no doubt encouraged by the lucrative outcomes for themselves, therapists are rushing to treat us for the trauma of such life conditions as:

  • Losing our jobs;
  • Witnessing accidents where people were injured;
  • Being recently divorced;
  • Having just given birth;
  • Retiring from a sporting career;
  • Exercising too much;

And so on!

I think I related to you my experience two years ago. My daughter was expecting her second child. On one frosty Melbourne morning the babe arrived rather quickly and unexpectedly causing her to give birth in her living room. The birth went well and mother and daughter both healthy were transported to hospital by ambulance. When we turned up later in the day to visit , my daughter told us that hospital staff asked whether she thought her mother and I might need counselling because of our experience! Isn’t that ridiculous? We were so pleased that the birth went well and were rather euphoric about being there, but somehow medical staff thought we might need counselling!

Let us pause a moment and talk about therapists. What a wonderful profession it is when a practitioner can create a new “disease” and then offer some palliative care to deal with it. No wonder such afflictions are proliferating!

It is easy to postulate that happiness is becoming more elusive because those with a vested interest in creating perceptions of undue suffering, that they are then paid to treat, are seeking to convince us that we are in fact unhappy!

It is a kind of recidivism in the human spirit that just as we seem capable of thinking beyond the strictures of conventional religion we resort to the allure of the pop-psychologists and the opportunistic therapists to try and augment our sense of well-being!

Furedi’s conclusion is that therapeutic culture rather than enhancing lives, holds people back. Therapy does not seem to have had any significant influence in enhancing the human condition. Worse still, it has encouraged people to look for simplistic solutions rather than face up to life’s realities.

Kermit the frog famously declared that “it’s not easy being green!” Well it seems to me that if we were to follow many of the trends of popular culture it’s not easy being happy either!

I have in previous essays given some of the strategies that we might pursue in order to be happy. (Even though I shy away from the word “happy” and would prefer to talk about those things that promote human well-being.)

Sometimes I like to acknowledge the wisdom of pursuing the “good life”. Someone, (I can’t remember who now) espoused that the “good life” was what you experienced when you determined to pursue the “good life”, and there is certainly some truth in that.

But I am also rather attracted to the work of American philosopher Ronald Dworkin. In his exquisitely titled book, Justice for Hedgehogs, he implies that life should be beautiful, morally and ethically, and above all not trivial.