Saturday, May 27, 2006


Happiness Conundrum solved?

Ever since yesterday, I've been trying to answer the question I posed in my post: given that we're so much better off than we were in myriad ways, why aren't we happier? I have thought for some time that maybe it's in the culture we've developed in which we are encouraged to aim constantly for more and for the best. We make a million- we feel only a tempoary buzz- we want many more millions and feel frustrated if we don't get them; we write a book, and we want to be bestsellers in our genre. Meanwhile bestselling authors want to be bestsellers and Nobel prizewinners. If we set the bar so high we are always going to be disappointed with our lives. We're never going to be happy because our culture encourages us to set ourselves too stern a set of tests.

There must have been some kind of cosmic timing going on for the Guardian to publish today an article on the thoughts of Tal Ben Shahar(pictured looking owlish), a Harvard academic who, like Richard Layard, has gone into the 'study of happiness' business. His analysis of why we're not happy seemed to chime in with my own thoughts. He was once a potentially world class squash player yet it never made him happy. His explanation is that pursuit of 'perfectionism' leads to disappointment and depression. Layard and others appear to have proved the unsurprising adage-essayed so recently by that exciting modern philosopher, Dave Cameron- that 'money can't buy you happiness'. It seems that as long as one receives something like the average income, becoming rich is no guarantee of happiness.

So how can we achieve more of this indefinable commodity? Ben Shahar suggests focusing on what has been achieved rather than on what has not. Every evening he writes down five things for which he feels grateful- it could be'that fantastiic sandwich I had'- he tells Oliver Burkeman, a trifle sadly I thought- or, I suspect, tonight, he might include the very positive article on his thinking which I have just quoted. I don't know many rich people, but those I do are not conspicuously happier than myself or those many others much poorer than they.

Maybe they -and we- should all keep up to date 'gratitude diaries' and see if the ploy works. So, am I happy with this explanation? Well, not really... it might become quite depressing if just about everyone transformed into happiness freaks, toting their diaries as they skip along, singing carefree songs.

Well I'm guessing the 'gratitude diary' just aims to make us appreciate the good stuff in our lives as we as people are prone to remember only the bad things that happen to us.

As for the last paragraph, I think it shows happiness is relative. Perhaps if you just hung around people who are constantly depressed you might realise your life isn't as bad as it could be...
As a middle-aged, not- poor- not- rich person my life must be pretty good. I'm sure you're right about depressed company; I have had a few friends who are depressive and in the end it does begin to rub off on one- everything seeming negative and so forth.

Happy people make infinitely better company- I find enough of them, luckily, in my local pub the contribution of which institution to the nation's happiness might make a suitable next subject of study by Lord Layard, should he be looking for one.
I read Layard's book, "Happiness: Lessons from a New Science" some time ago, and profoundly disagreed with its conclusions. Layard, from what I can remember, first set about identifying correlations between perceived "happiness" (I remain very skeptical as to whether this quality can be quantified in such a way) and certain activities. Layard presented various graphs and charts which seemed to indicate that activities such as church-going and marriage made people happy. He then jumped to the conclusion that governments of rich nations should concentrate on promoting these activities, and others, which (apparently) increase our levels of happiness, and pay less attention to GDP growth.

This assumes persons to be far more homogenous than they in fact are. A government's promotion of activities such as those mentioned above necessarily and unjustly disciminates against people for whom this "approach" does not work. Some people do not suit marriage, and no amount of graphs that Layard produces can alter that fact.

The current system - that is, capitalism, with an emphasis on growth - facilitates individual choice. I believe this integral to a functioning society and indeed a necessary condition for the pursuit of happiness. There may be some validity in the argument that our culture fosters high expectations, which subsequently affects our pereceived levels of personal happiness, but this by no means vindicates politicians such as Cameron, who seem to be trying to tell us to be happy. That's a matter for us, Dave; not you. But thanks anyway.
I have stumbled across a telling maxim from JS Mill:

"Ask yourself whether you are happy and you cease to be so."
Not sure I'd agree with that, actually; I prefer Orhan Pamuk's 'And know this: people who seek only happiness never find it.'(Snow)
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