In pursuit of happiness

POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGY

In pursuit of happiness

That happiness is a state of mind is well known. But, whether it is attainable is a million dollar question. With happiness as a concept becoming one-dimensional, being hijacked by the never-ending pursuit of wealth and material goods, it is sad to say that happiness is overrated, writes Colin Todhunter

For thousands of years, people have been writing about happiness. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristippus concluded that happiness lies in the pursuit of external pleasure. He is considered to be the founder of Hedonism. Other philosophers, from Antisthenes to Buddha, have stressed that looking inwards and leading an ascetic life based on virtue, simplicity and inner peace is the route to happiness. And then there are others who seem to think that we can only be occasionally happy in what is essentially a miserable world. The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer said that all happiness is an illusion and that life oscillates like a pendulum, back and forth between pain and boredom.

So, just what are we to make of thousands of years of humanity’s philosophising on happiness? It’s all rather complicated, and at times, even depressing, especially if we turn to Schopenhauer and end up believing that all we may expect is to experience fleeting moments of happiness in all the gloom. But it might not be that bad, especially if we follow the teachings of various Eastern philosophers, such as Patanjali, who contemplated the possibility of attaining a more permanent form of happiness.

Before going any further, however, let us take as a starting point a very basic definition of happiness. Happiness is, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, “a state of well-being and contentment: a pleasurable or satisfying experience.”

That doesn’t really tell us a great deal. Is true happiness permanent or fleeting, superficial or deep? For some, happiness runs much deeper than merely being content. Aristotle held that being virtuous was only one aspect of happiness. In the absence of, say, wealth and intelligence, virtue could only bring about a form of contentment.
But that’s not enough for some people. They strive to achieve an ongoing state of bliss, of feeling at one with the universe and everything in it. A case of all may not really be well with the world, but, perhaps through years of meditation, self-reflective practice or consciousness development, you can learn to transcend the illusion of existence and live life on a higher reality. More a case of ignoring reality while striving to live out an illusion?

The illusion of happiness

Let’s not get too caught up in cynicism here. Illusion is all around us — both on a personal level and on a wider political level. Virtually every government in the world creates an illusion for its people. Take the economic policy. Government policies might hurt us in the short term, but we are all on a one-way route to the ‘promised land’ of happiness, or so we are told by the ones making us suffer. It all gets rather confusing when governments bring us war in the name of peace, austerity in order to achieve prosperity, or suffering to eventually make us happy.

It begs the question: does the obsession with happiness leave any room for truth? Politicians never like to tell the public the truth. The feel-bad factor is never a vote winner. Best to keep the public in the dark and rely on positive spin. Because, if people knew the truth, they just wouldn’t be happy.

And selling the feel-good factor is all pervasive. In this age of irretrievable materialism, the route to happiness is more goods, better goods, newer goods. A never-ending smorgasbord of goodies to be craved for, which will bring us happiness. In league with private corporations, governments have learnt to play on our desires to create a one-dimensional type of happiness based on consumerism.

In part, Edward Bernays is responsible for this. The father of modern public relations and propaganda, he was expert in manipulating human perceptions of pain and pleasure, or, if you like, misery and happiness. Tap into or shape people’s desires in a certain way, and you can sell virtually any notion of happiness, regardless of how bogus it may be.

Whether it was whipping up mass hysteria in the US about the bogeyman of communism or selling the ‘American Dream’ of happiness through consuming goods, Bernays and the advertising industry, which took its cue from him, were able to join misery and happiness at the hip — if you do not buy into consumer capitalism, the alternative will be misery; if you do not buy this or that product, life will be terrible; if you do not join in the celebration of capitalism, those awful Soviets will take over and impose a fundamentally unhappy system on each and every one of us. Under American capitalism, everyone would live happily ever after!

Bernays set the stage for modern politics. The US government quickly learned that angels and demons could be manufactured out of thin air and wars could be built on packs of lies — lies about the bogeyman at the door, lies about the impending misery he would inflict, and lies about the government delivering us from impending doom. Of course, it’s best to arm ourselves to the teeth with nuclear weapons to ensure no one imposes their miserable regimes or awful ways of life on us. And to prevent us all from shuddering with the fear of the threat of nuclear Armageddon on a daily basis, it’s a case of don’t worry, be happy, forget about it and watch TV. Even the very real danger of near-instant annihilation of the species is shoved to one side for the sake of a feel-good culture.

And the best way to instil that feeling is to have us endlessly treading around a wheel in a cage, like a hamster. Millions are locked into the pursuit of the Bernays’s model of happiness. They are locked into addiction. Addicted to the pursuit of acquisition, of hedonism, of chasing the dream. Addicted to the belief that there is a point to it all, that there is an end-point, where happiness is achieved by possessing all the must-have products.

In the US Declaration of Independence, there is the phrase “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Freedom and happiness (or the pursuit of it) is central. And yet, happiness as a concept has become so one-dimensional. It’s become hijacked by this never-ending pursuit of wealth and material goods. It became hijacked by the likes of Bernays. With his knowledge of psycho-analysis (Sigmund Freud was his uncle), he knew it was relatively easy to manipulate desires and get people hooked on, indulging in certain behaviour, even if ultimately they don’t really want or need those consumer products they strive to acquire. Getting them hooked is what really counts. As the sociologist Max Weber once implied, ritualised behaviour can eventually make us lose sight of the end-goal it was designed to achieve in the first place — in this case, happiness. Like the previously mentioned hamster, we become trapped in an iron cage of work-consume-work that is all controlling and all consuming and that robs us of the happiness we crave and that our actions were designed to achieve.

When people get what they think they desire, they will probably be no happier than they were before they began the pursuit. If anything, they become disillusioned. The answer — just trap them into buying more, acquiring more. You have no time to think about the disillusionment because you are all too busy buying the next quick-fix for happiness product. It’s called retail ‘therapy’ for good reason. It’s a feel-bad, feel-good then feel-bad again spiral.

Happiness is unethical?

Maybe it’s good to forget about happiness and just become occupied with what you consider a worthwhile activity or cause. Slavok Zizec, the Slovene philosopher, argues that happiness doesn’t matter. When you have a cause or are involved with a creative act, you are willing to suffer. Happiness doesn’t come into it. Scientists have even been prepared to risk their lives by being exposed to radiation in order to continue with their experiments. To be driven, passionate or creative is what we should be aiming for. Happiness is a side issue.

For Zizec, happiness is unethical. What good comes to the individual or the wider group from its outright pursuit? Moreover, if happiness is the be all and end all, should we tell a person that they have a terminal illness and therefore make them feel unhappy? Again, as in the political realm, when the happiness is constantly spoon-fed to us as part of our culture, there may be little room for truth. Look no further than all those feel-good Hollywood films that gloss over all the mundane, miserable aspects of life. Little wonder then that half the world wants to live in the US. The need to be happy, to strive for happiness, has served to kick reality into touch.   

Happiness is even a misnomer because, as Bernays knew all along, perhaps we don’t even want what we crave in the first place. Zizec provides the classic example of a married man with a mistress. His relationship with his wife is good. In his mind, however, the man thinks he would be happier if his wife were out of the equation. But when he gets his wish, his whole life crumbles because the affair with his mistress then takes on a different dimension and falls apart. He is then left with no one. He didn’t really want his mistress per se. The affair with her was only pleasurable because he had his wife too. And this scenario is all too common in reality.

The man was only really content when he had the mistress at a distance, when she was unattainable — not to be lived with. Be careful about what you wish for: it might come true!

And the message here? We are happier when we have an object of desire because we don’t really want what we think we desire. The happiness is in the craving, in the addiction. That is, if this could ever be called happiness in the first place. And this is one reason why, for Zizec, happiness is an unethical concept. Little good comes from its attainment and little good derives from its pursuit.

Forget about happiness

We should therefore attempt to do interesting things — things that we find interesting, whether through our work or during our leisure. Be creative. Be an explorer of the environment. Be a philosopher or scientist. Be passionate about something. But, most of all, don’t pursue things or do things just with the sole aim of achieving ‘happiness’ — because a genuine sense of well-being, not necessarily happiness, comes through worthwhile endeavour.

Think of the self-employed artisan who spends a day or a week making something with his or her hands. He or she takes pride in his work — both in the way the work is carried out, and in the end product. It’s a form of self-actualisation brought about by meaningful work. And for Karl Marx, self actualisation was to be truly achieved in a society that makes it possible for someone to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as he has a mind.

 So, being ‘happy’ then becomes a state of being and is not achieved through the pursuit of an ultimate unattainable elusive goal on a never-ending treadmill of drudgery. Not a fixed end point to be achieved by possessing a hundred latest, cutting edge consumer gadgets and indulging in the competition of conspicuous consumption that proclaims ‘look at me, I’m better than you, I’m elevated from the crowd’. And by elevating oneself in such a way, the gregarious human animal is cut off from the wider group and may ultimately become rather unhappy.

It’s for good reason that the older generation keeps reminding us that people today are probably less happy than they were back in the 1950s, when communities were more cohesive, people had less material goods and excessive individualism was not rampant. Once the genie was out of the bottle and people’s aspirations went through the roof, disillusionment was bound to take a hold.

As one of the wealthiest countries in the world, take a Sunday morning stroll through England’s green and pleasant land to see this and to appreciate what the pursuit of ‘happiness’ may actually result in. Stale pools of last night’s beer-vomit clog the gutters. Sunday morning booze-soaked hangovers fuzz memories of the previous night’s deeds done and actions best forgotten. Every Saturday night is a full-fledged grim reality show on the streets of downtown Britain.

A million wannabe young women wishing they were not themselves, wishing they were Jenny Lopez or Victoria Beckham. From minimum wage beautician to footballer’s wife in an X-Factor instant. Vodka fuelled dreams in this, England’s not so green and pleasant land.
Save me from my life of low pay and even lower aspiration, Vicky. I wanna be like you, I wanna be you. Sex sells, but who’s buying? Some coked-up drug dealer might do, but preferably David Beckham. I could be the next ‘Posh’, if I give you what you want, what you really, really want.

Glammed up, spiced up and sexed up, believing they have the ‘x’ factor or whatever it takes to be free, free from the mundane, free from being ordinary in a fake fantasy culture of ‘girl power’, fame and celebrity.

This is aspirant Britain. This is comatose Britain sleeping to the sounds and visions of media-produced plastic role models and celebrity product endorsement. It’s not about overthrowing the system, it’s about being made blind to it. It’s not about rejecting it, it’s about accepting it as normality. Who reads Karl Marx when Cosmo says empowerment lies in lipstick? Who needs Lenin when you can watch English Premier League multi-millionaire footballers whose only revolting duty is to endorse the very products that bind the fan to the lies and logos of a narcissistic, self-incarcerating consumerism?

It is a damning indictment of modern society, where people accept the faith that this is how life should be lived, as they pray before the never-ending conveyor belt of disposable commodities and heroes to be fetishised, consumed, then spat out when they pass their very short ‘sell by’ dates.

But this is the unethical hamster wheel version of happiness, a sugar coated fun-fare of hedonism where no one is allowed to be unhappy, where politicians constantly lie about reality to maintain consensus to ensure we are a happy bunch, where the great lie of happiness of striving to be happy is fed to the masses only to be violently spat out onto the streets come every Saturday night.

Happiness is unethical? We should forget all about the concept? Perhaps so. We may not wish to fully agree with Zizec, but somewhere along the line, he has a point.

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