There is a bit of a backlash against David Cameron’s desire to measure the nation’s happiness. Not that you can’t measure some of the things that often make us happy, or some of the signs that indicate we have reached a certain level of happiness. Just that the contemporary obsession with seeking happiness might actually be making us more unhappy!
Tim Lott wrote about this in the Times yesterday (2:4-5; paywall).
In this country we seem to take our cue from the American Constitution and believe in the ‘pursuit of happiness’ as an inalienable right. In this formulation of human fulfilment, happiness is like an elusive animal that has to be tracked down mercilessly, until we finally capture, then cage it.
This world view is misconceived. In his recent book, Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy, the writer Edward G. Wilson called America ‘a land of crazed and compulsive hopefulness’ and deplored the idea that unhappiness had become something to be ashamed of.
Much the same argument was put forward in Barbara Ehrenreich’s counterblast against the ‘positive thinking’ culture, Smile or Die, in which she complained that during her experience of breast cancer it was distressing constantly to be told that she had to ‘stay positive’.
Both Ehrenreich and Wilson are correct – the pursuit of happiness, as we currently imagine it, is counterproductive. The thing about happiness is, the more you seek it, the more it eludes you. As the novelist C. P. Snow wrote, ‘The pursuit of happiness is a most ridiculous phrase; if you pursue happiness you’ll never find it.’ But we continue as if we took the fairytales literally, hoping to find a way of living ‘happily ever after’. We can’t; and neither should we want to.
Because there’s no such thing as happiness – at least as it is confected by marketers and advertisers. There is a whole commercial world, quite apart from that other imaginary world of fairytales, that is invested in telling us not only that something called happiness is achievable, but that you are a failure if you don’t have it.
This flies in the face of every fact of human nature. It is the most normal, natural and everyday occurrence in life to feel unhappy. The rejections, slights, embarrassments, petty failures, snubs, stresses and disappointments of life are simply not avoidable… Unhappiness is not some dreaded malignancy to be avoided at all costs, but a proper and inevitable part of the warp and weft of life.
Then he comes back to his central point:
…that the pursuit of happiness is actually what leads to unhappiness. Rather than spending our lives indulging in this hopeless quest, we should seek acceptance of what is humanly inevitable – the alteration of happiness and unhappiness. Recognition of this unpredictable process has the great virtue of avoiding an extra layer of unhappiness, that is, the disappointment of unrealistic hopes.
So we have normal happiness, and normal unhappiness, without the extra level of unhappiness that comes from being unhappy that we are unhappy. Easy!