The Dangers of Happiness

Eric Timothy Carlson

Eric Timothy Carlson

Beware politicians speaking with aspirational tongues

Whenever­ we talk about happiness we also talk about something else: morality. We may not know what happiness itself signifies, but we do know how it has been evoked historically — to set out a template for a moral life. As we rush to make happiness the ultimate aim both for ourselves and society at large, we might want to recall some of the wonderfully rich and depressingly contradictory history of the concept. This might help us better understand our own time and the moral values we subscribe to today.

In his book “Happiness: A History,” the historian Darrin M. McMahon provides an account of how the notion was expressed and embraced over time, going back to the birth of Western civilization, as many such accounts do, in ancient Greece.

Aristotle, one of the first to pay significant attention to the topic, thought that happiness consisted of being a good person. The happy life, what the Greeks called eudaemonia, was one lived ethically, guided by reason and dedicated to cultivating one’s virtues. Soon after, the Epicureans would connect happiness to pleasure. They argued that a good life should be devoted to whatever brought pleasure. They were no hedonists, though, and preached a strict regulation of desire. To be happy, Epicurus himself said, he needed no more than a barley cake and some water.

The Stoics gave no elevated status to pleasure, arguing that a person had the capacity to be happy no matter how daunting and painful the circumstances of life might be. Much later, Christianity, as preached and practiced throughout the Middle Ages, shunned pleasure altogether and regarded pain as the more useful path to, if not a happy life, then a sort of divine union in the afterlife. That desired state could not be attained in life on earth, but only as a gift from God, in heaven.

The Renaissance, though, brought happiness from heaven back to earth. It was not until the Enlightenment that it became a right — something that each and every person was able to pursue and attain. When Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence that the pursuit of happiness was an unalienable right, he did not just intend to say that man should pursue pleasure, but that he should also have the right to acquire and possess property.

What we esteem today, in the rich West, has its own distinct flavor.

Contrary to the message of Christianity, according to which we abandon ourselves to achieve divine union, we are now asked to pursue union with ourselves. To be happy in a time when we prize authenticity and narcissism, we need to express our true inner self, get in touch with our deeper feelings, and follow the path set by ourselves.

We are also far from the Epicureans, who were famously reluctant to engage in physical activity. Today we pursue happiness by worshiping our bodies, building them up through long-distance running, punishing boot camps, ironman triathlons and kettlebell swinging.

And unlike the work-shy Greeks of antiquity, we are assumed to find happiness through work and by being productive. We are required to curate our market value, manage ourselves as corporations and live according to an entrepreneurial ethos. When no sin is greater than being unemployed and no vice more despised than laziness, happiness comes only to those who work hard, have the right attitude and struggle for self-improvement.

These are some of the moral values that seem to underlie happiness today: Be real, be strong, be productive — and most important, don’t rely on other people to achieve these goals, because your fate is, of course, in your own hands.

This is a popular message, and has been for some time. It is drummed into the unemployed and poor who are led to believe that their misfortunes are symptoms of their inferior attitudes and inability to take ownership over their lives. They are, as Jeb Bush might claim, not working hard enough.

When happiness is recast as an individual choice, attitude becomes everything and circumstances are made irrelevant. Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology, has worked hard to spread this message, referring to studies that suggest that victims of car crashes are, on the whole, neither less nor more unhappy than lottery winners.

Even if we find such insights interesting or inspiring, they do not form a particularly helpful basis when we seek to make happiness the goal of politics. If we may all be equally happy, irrespective of our circumstances, then that would equip politicians like Mr. Bush with a convenient excuse to stop looking at structural issues like class, social and economic inequality or poverty.

It is tempting to see the Conservative British prime minister David Cameron’s sudden interest in happiness in this light. When he decided a few years ago to initiate a so-called happiness index, he did so at the height of austerity, when public spending was being cut, and the “circumstances” were made worse for many people, especially those on benefits. As it happens, this survey was inspired by Mr. Seligman, producing an echo of the “circumstances make no difference” mantra.

When happiness has become championed and talked about incessantly, as it is today, the best we can hope for is that it raises other universal issues — like equality, justice, truth and ethics, which we desperately need to discuss. The worst that can happen — and this is unfortunately already underway — is that happiness becomes a Trojan horse used to normalize inequality and oppression. Poor people may then be sent to happiness courses to improve their attitudes, or assigned personal life coaches, as Paul Ryan once proposed in his bizarre anti-poverty plan.

“We believe that every American and in every community has a right to pursue happiness,” Jeb Bush said in a speech delivered in Detroit in February, presenting his plan to address income inequality. “They have a right to rise.”

Be wary. When politicians suggest that happiness be made the ultimate aim for society we should remember that they are probably not talking about happiness at all. They are talking about ideology: their own political agendas in disguise.

Carl Cederstrom is an associate professor of organization studies at Stockholm University. He is a co-author of “The Wellness Syndrome,” with André Spicer, and “Dead Man Working,” with Peter Fleming.

Source : The New York Times. Rédigé par Carl Cederstrom