Happiness

How do we measure, or otherwise assess, the progress or development of a society? The standard measure is through GDP (Gross Domestic Product), the total of all goods and services produced by a country in any given year. Politicians are obsessed with GDP, or, as they will prefer to call it, economic growth. Even politicians from the left (even JC) refer to economic growth as the main measure of the success of their plans and society in general. Why? Many philosophers have argued that all people really seek in life is happiness. Jeremy Bentham, the founder of the English Utilitarian tradition, for example, argued that any action or activity is good when “the tendency it has to augment the happiness of the community is greater than any it has to diminish it”, and that our overall aim should be to produce the greatest good (happiness) for the greatest number. So why don’t we focus on achieving happiness rather than economic growth?

Supporters of economic growth will argue that it is only through the accumulation of wealth that levels of misery and deprivation can be eradicated and happiness increased. This is true to the extent that a degree of wealth can certainly alleviate deprivation and supply many of the basic essentials that all humans need. It’s stupid to try telling a person without food or a home, without warm clothing and protection from the weather, that wealth would not increase their happiness. But research has shown that once personal wealth has reached a very modest level (approx. £16,000 per annum) happiness no longer increases. If this is the case, what is the point of striving for constant economic growth? Instead, why not try to work out how we can increase actual happiness? If you further factor in research that indicates a correlation between levels of GDP and inequality (that the richer the country becomes the greater the gap between the rich and the rest), and that a sense of inequality diminishes levels of happiness, such a question seems to make even more sense.

The pursuit of happiness, however, is not without its own problems. Perhaps the most interesting of these is the Paradox of Hedonism, a phenomenon first noted by Henry Sidgwick, the last of the great nineteenth century English Utilitarians. He argued that if you seek pleasure or happiness for the sole purpose of achieving it yourself, you will fail. Instead, you must pursue other goals that will bring you your desired happiness as a side-effect. Or, in the slightly more poetic words of Nathaniel Hawthorne: “Happiness is a butterfly, which, when pursued, is always beyond our grasp, but which, if you sit down quietly, may alight upon you.”

So where does this leave our pursuit of happiness? Well, first of all, it seems obvious that of all the things in life to be desired, happiness comes out on top. We may desire many things, but only because we believe that they will make us happy. Think of anything that you desire, and then imagine possessing it but not being happy. The overall importance of happiness has been noted by philosophers at least since ancient Greece. Epicurus, for example wrote that we “pursue the things that make for happiness, seeing that when happiness is present, we have everything; but when it is absent, we do everything to possess it.” But perhaps the paradox comes about because we don’t truly understand what happiness is. We certainly understand it differently from the ancients. Epicurus understood happiness in the negative – not what it was, but what it wasn’t; for him happiness was calmness of the soul, freedom from disturbance, the avoidance of pain and fear. Such an understanding certainly explains why a degree of wealth can produce happiness (in as far as it relieves pain and fear), but the continued pursuit of wealth only allows pain and fear to return.

The other ancient philosopher who placed happiness at the centre of his thinking was Aristotle. He argued that everything we do in life we do to achieve a certain end, a certain good, but when we examine these ends or goods we quickly discover that we seek them in order to achieve some further end or good. If we follow this line of reasoning through we discover that the greatest good, that which is at the end of the line of successive means and ends, is what he called eudaimonia. This is often translated as ‘happiness’, but, because what Aristotle had in mind did not have the subjective connotations we attach to the word, a better translation is ‘flourishing’. Eudiamonia is the sense of a life going well, and, for Aristotle, a life going well was always assessed within the context of the polis, the city state.

Eudaimonia was achieved through the development of certain character traits. The important thing about these character traits, traits like courage, is that they need to be developed over time, they need to be worked at, and that they form what he called a ‘golden mean’ – a balance between excess and deficiency. Using the example of courage, if developed in excess a person becomes rash, but if underdeveloped that person displays cowardice. The important point to take on board is that there is not a definitive state of courage against which all others can be compared. It’s a process of trial and error, and different situations require different displays of courage. But with practice and reflection a person can develop the ability to display the appropriate degree of courage for any particular situation. The more a person develops a whole range of character traits, the more his or her life can be said to be flourishing.

If transposed to modern society I would interpret eudaimonia to mean the development of range of character traits (not necessarily the ones Aristotle promoted) that give us the ability to respond appropriately and effectively to any social situation, to make good decisions, and to be a good citizen. If we can do this I not only believe that ‘flourishing’ would be a good description of the lives we are leading, but I suspect that we may become happy as well. May be, that by trying to be good citizens, that by concentrating on developing those character traits that allow our societies and communities to flourish, we would allow the butterfly of happiness to settle upon us.

Let’s talk about…death

Why, you are no doubt asking, is this guy writing about death? And why would I want to read about it? After all, it’s hardly the most engaging or inspiring of subjects. But that’s my point. Why don’t we talk about it? Back in the eighteenth century both Daniel Defoe and Benjamin Franklin thought that there were only two certainties in life, death and taxes. Fast forward to the twenty first century, and, if all the leaked papers are to be believed, we are down to just the certainty of death. So accepting that this will happen to each and everyone of us, without exception, why don’t we openly discuss what it means to us?

I have pondered this question many times, but it’s current incarnation is the result of two nearly back-to-back, yet completely unrelated occurrences. First was a conversation in the pub last Thursday evening. For no apparent reason two of us ended up discussing how inevitably, once you reach a certain age, you become very aware that you have already lived far more days than await you, and that you have already consumed most of your life experiences. So, what to do with the days that remain? A popular option at this point is to compile a ‘bucket list’. But isn’t this just an excuse for some middle-class indulgences? And apart from the obvious waste of resources just so that we can have the satisfaction of having had certain experiences before our ability to experience them ends, there’s also the obvious point that we can’t take these experiences with us. Experiences are only of value if we still able to consciously recall them! So, rather than focusing on activities that distract us from our finitude, would this not be a good time to take stock of what we have so far taken from, and contributed to, society, and, more importantly, what we have done for future generations? The problem with such reflection, of course, is that it would probably bring our own inevitable death too far into focus. I suspect that we are too fearful of such self honesty. But why? What have we to fear?

Which brings me to the second occurrence. The following morning, purely by chance, I happened to catch a programme on Radio Four on the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus. Some years ago I did quite a bit of work around his work, thoughts which came flooding back to me as I listened. Epicurus was famous for his materialism and support for ancient atomism. He didn’t go as far as to deny the existence of God / gods (that would have been far too dangerous in a very superstitious Athens) but he did argue that they took no interest in human affairs – so were not to feared. Coupled with this, he also argued that death was not to be feared. He did not believe in any afterlife, and therefore he did not believe in any punishment or retribution for any behaviour deemed wrong by non-existent or non-interested gods. Life was purely a material phenomenon. Therefore, death “is nothing to us, since while we exist, death is not present, and whenever death is present, we do not exist.” He adds: “The wise man neither rejects life nor fears no living.”

If, as Epicurus argues, because we cannot actually experience death it makes no sense to fear it, what is there to fear? Well one obvious reply is a painful death – a situation in which the process of dying is long and painful. Another is the fear of incurring an injury or contracting a slow degenerative disease which so erodes our quality of life that, whilst any physical pain is numbed, our emotional or intellectual pain at not being able to do any of the things which make life worth living is overwhelming. And, arguably, if these emotional or psychological pains were numbed with pharmaceuticals in the same manner as we expect physical pain to be, in what sense (other than a purely basic biological one) could we say that life still existed? There are no definitive answers to these questions, but my point is that we tend to shy away from discussing them. It may be that discussing the issues involved together with our associated thoughts and feelings with friends and loved ones, that bringing our private anxieties and nightmares out of the shadows, would, in itself, reduce any associated fear.

Another fear arises from our attachment to others. We quite naturally feel grief at the loss of someone who was significant to our life. A significant other person is a main character in our own life narrative, and their loss affects the meaning and worldview that this narrative gives us. Likewise, again quite naturally, we are no doubt are aware of the sense of loss that our own passing will have on the personal narratives of those we hold dear. But again, if we were more open about our thoughts and attitudes towards death, if we not only tried to rationalise our fear of death but our fear of talking about it, perhaps we would develop better emotional health, and that as a result we would be better able to recover from the loss of loved ones. Our background health affects our ability to heal and recover from emotional trauma as well as physical trauma.

If we were able to talk more freely and openly about the inevitability of our own death perhaps, as we reach that point in our life where we suddenly realise that we are about to grow-out of middle age, we would be better able to reflect on what we have achieved and what we will leave behind. If we do this on our own we tend to focus on personal achievements and material inheritances, but if we were able to reflect in a more open and inclusive atmosphere perhaps be would be better able to review what we have achieved collectively, and perhaps, far more importantly, what sort of world we have left for future generations to inherit.