Saturday, May 27, 2006
Happiness Conundrum solved?
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.
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.
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.
"Ask yourself whether you are happy and you cease to be so."
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