Reason For Happiness / Blog Update

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(NB this article gets going with the 3rd paragraph.) Those who know me well -or at least have me impose myself upon them via social media- are aware that I’m highly obsessed with music. (I was going to say besotted or infatuated but neither word would do- besottuated perhaps?) Presently I’m looking into getting another mp3 player- a waterproof one that I can use while doing lengths at the pool. Rather than tightening my belt so I can afford this, I find myself using it as an excuse to discover and buy music suited to this purpose, namely high BPM dance music (perhaps the advertising for Danny Boyle’s new film Trance subconsciously affected me too). And it really struck me as alien how overtly happy this music tends to be. I mean, I have thousands of pieces from other genres and as much as I love my music -it masks my chronic pain and cheers me up- when asked to play something happy I can’t find a single track.

I don’t wish to force this casual observation into a metaphor for life, but it has got me thinking more about happiness recently- the topic this blog is meant to be focusing on, with its tagline ‘Philosophy and the Joyful Life’. Happiness has been present, along with its bedfellows -health and the sense of meaning- in my recent posts on Working Less? And Benefits of Meditation, but it’s been over a year since I’ve properly focused on my extended Eudaimonology Project. This project is to look at all the major philosophies of ‘the good life’, both religious (East and West) and secular (ancient and modern) and see what we can learn from them.[1] Eventually, after outlining a philosophical method, I would like to synthesise the best features of these into a new theory, a new vision for the good life. And through this Vibrant Bliss, as an idea, a group, a movement, and (begrudgingly) a brand, can try to make a difference in the world.

Given the centrality of happiness to this project, I would have to be extremely incompetent to miss an event so significant as the first annual international day of happiness. It will come as a great shock to you therefore to discover that I am extremely incompetent, because last year the member states of the UN agreed upon 20 March as such a day, with this year being the first year officially celebrated. The aim of the day is to inspire action for a happier world, which is obviously a laudable ideal, but you may well question why it warrants this political effort.

The reason is that governments, perhaps in the West especially, have a problem with happiness. As the economic crisis of recent years has underscored in the most dramatic way, the ultimate goal of public policy has been economic growth without regard for wider consequences. Similarly, on an personal level the overriding ambition of our lives for many of us is for a larger income (and after that a larger one still). But while the economy has grown massively since the early ’60s, along with real wage levels, the average person is no happier now than they were then. Indeed, income tends to explain as little as 2% of the spread of happiness levels within a given country. And young people in particular seem to be less happy, as suggested by an unprecedented rates of juvenile anxiety and depression. Consequentially, governments need to take a lead in developing happier societies rather than assuming that greater wealth is an adequate substitute for happiness in their calculations.[2]

Of course members of the public need to take action too, which is why I’ve been promoting the work of Action For Happiness over the last couple of years. They’ve produced this mnemonic acronym ‘Great Dream‘ which I suggest you look at now. These suggestions are great, both those directed externally and internally, but it will be worth the risk of over complicating things to think about what we can add to them. This involves reflecting critically both on the problem and on the proposed solutions. It is to this end that in addition to acting for happiness we also need to reason for happiness. And as I mentioned in that previous project update, inquiries into happiness or human flourishing (eudaimonia) involve some conceptual and normative questions, and thereby require philosophical input. This does not diminish at all the need for action, and of course action and reflection are jointly necessary in all contexts to guard against the corrosion of our duties.

You may be relieved to hear that I’m not going to rigorously define happiness and analyse the factors that contribute to its strength or weakness here. That level of clarity and the solutions that it would suggest is something that should come out of the larger project that is only just beginning. We will continue therefore, to use a ‘thin’ concept of happiness, avoiding theoretical baggage as much as possible. But I will make one substantive point at the end.

The first thing I noticed about the Great Dream formula was that it doesn’t explicitly recommend meditation (or spirituality more generally), perhaps due to a desire to present a fundamentally secular image. I think this is a shame because meditation and related forms of mental discipline clearly aid our spiritual/personal development, as well as our use of reasoning. But for this very reason one could argue that it is so foundational that it is included implicitly under a number of the recommendations.

The major omission, however, is the workplace. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that a major problem with the world today is that too many people have given up on trying to be happy in their working lives. (Not that individuals should be blamed for lacking this drive, since it is a difficult one to maintain.) Useful here would be a clear distinction between enjoying particular tasks -which is a luxury- and happiness more generally, in the sense of being contented and of being part of a larger endeavour you find fulfilling- which is essentially a human need. But individuals taking a firmer attitude towards this, can only do so much without structural change.

One reason that the relationship between work and happiness is so important is that in developed countries mental health is far and away the biggest determinate of happiness, and mental health is very strongly affected by one’s work. It is not just that we will say we are happier with a job if it is less stressful, being happy in your job will actually make it less stressful. What is the best way of improving job satisfaction? Democracy. Work can become democratic, not just via cooperative models of management, but ideally through cooperative ownership also. I suggest reading about Worker’s Self-Directed Enterprises here. This is a form of ‘economic democracy’, another concept which like happiness, has become more popular since the financial crisis. Tony Benn has said: “We won political democracy after WWII. Power was transferred from the market place to the polling station; from the wallet to the ballot box. However, political democracy must be developed further to include economic democracy so that the agenda can be adjusted to meet people’s needs not the FTSE, the Dow Jones, the ‘markets’.”

Economic democracy, in the form of collective decision making and accountability, elected positions, and worker’s self-direction, provides a communitarian working environment. Having more power of course makes work more rewarding because it makes your tasks seem more significant, and lessens the alienation between yourself and the fruit of your labour. The overall aim is for workers to enjoy more meaningful and trusting relationships with one another and to value the contributions of all. All of these measures would contribute to greater happiness.

This relates to a third omission from the 10 Keys to Happier Living list, equality. Obviously the marginally decreasing value of wealth means that a more equitable distribution of wealth is going to increase happiness by making the poor more happy. But recently evidence has been mounting up that more equal societies are much happier as a whole. Most famously, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s The Spirit Level suggests that a stronger ethos of egalitarianism promotes human flourishing by improving public health, respect and trust. And we needn’t have to swallow a bitter pill of financial hardship to pursue better lives through equality. As Deborah Hargreaves wrote this week: “Even Christine Lagarde, arch free-marketeer who runs the IMF, has warned governments not to ignore the rise of inequality. … ‘Now all of us have a better understanding that a more equal distribution of income allows for more economic stability, more sustained economic growth and healthier societies with stronger bonds of cohesion and trust.’”[3]

Finally, we need to focus more on schools and how they can train people to be happier in future. Part of this will involve the promotion of meditation and relaxation techniques, to which end Relax Kids is doing excellent work. Further, teaching children to reason better has the potential ameliorate many social problems, and will allow students to pursue their happiness more effectively. And since the socialisation function of schools tends to reproduce the existing working arrangements which predominate in that economy, it will be necessary to change the way schools prepare students for the working world. Necessary that is, in order to aid the transition towards a more equitable society where cooperative forms of management such as WSDEs are the norm.

As promised, I will make one suggestion as to why increased material well-being has not made us happier, and this is the mindset fostered by consumerism. This mindset is somewhat paradoxical: as individuals we are each encouraged to believe that that we are special and to that extent we pursue more material goods believing that we deserve pampering. Occasionally we become conscious of this process and feel guilty about it, but even when we do not, there is a contrary process at work. Here, however much we possess, we are encouraged to feel bad about ourselves, becoming anxious over our imagined inadequacy in the eyes of others. (The public nature of our lives on social media now is often said to be worsening this envy of the life experiences of others.) The consequence of these relentlessly rising expectations is that instead of being content with what we have, we lament our unfulfilled potential (even though this often outstrips what we could realistically achieve- a central characteristic of the social disorder Durkheim called anomie). Both of these poles are directly linked to techniques used pervasively in advertising. By fostering this vacillation between buying out of pride and out of lowliness consumerism accelerates.

This dynamic is one example of potentially many factors in operation behind the scenes. And because of deeply ingrained ideological factors like this it very difficult to effect political change in education and the economy. Consequentially, the more personal actions recommended in the Keys to Happier Living formula, particularly those of reasoning and reflecting, remain the crucial starting point upon which greater structures can be built.

Notes & Blog Update

[1] I aim to post articles on: Daoism, Hinduism, Confucianism, Buddhism, Jainism, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, the Epicureans, Stoics and Neo-Platonists, Islam, Sikhism, Montaigne, Spinoza, Rousseau, Schopenhauer, Hegel, Marx, Kierkegaard, Durkheim, Freud, Weber, Nietzsche, Jung, the Frankfurt School, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Sartre, Buber, Levinas, Foucault, Baudrillard, and Lacan. (I assume that my readers are well enough acquainted with Judaism, Christianity and contemporary western liberal democracy that these will not need posts to themselves.) Individual posts don’t say a lot about how that particular philosophy approaches the good life, but when I come to compare them we will find there is plenty to be drawn out.

For those of you who have been dying for me to get on with this, my excuse for the last year has been that I now have a paid job, whereas before I was doing only a little work for a charity. My paid work has been promoting critical thinking and personal development in schools, with a view to becoming a teacher in the long term. Naturally, this has got me studying pedagogy or the philosophy of education, and I would very much like to blog through my discoveries on here. Often this would produce overlaps with material for the eudaimonology project but I am happy to publish multiple posts on the same thinker or theory. But as stated in the About page, my prior concern on this site is to upload my philosophy of religion book.

Having said that, I’m presently writing a post about the philosophy of Jacques Lacan, and a post about procrastination- as procrastination from writing the former article. My posts on Marxfree will, and homosexuality in the bible have been substantially updated, as have my articles on Muhammad and Working Less in their respective comments sections. Finally, you may notice some formatting errors as I’ve had to change the site’s ‘style’ or display settings because under the colourful old one the titles of all my articles mysteriously disappeared.

[2] The use of terms such as ‘calculation’ is liable to lead to misunderstanding. I am certainly not advocating a utilitarian method of government of the kind proposed by Jeremy Bentham whereby happiness was to be measured in a quantitative fashion. As my article on the problem of other minds implied, I am sceptical of the idea of measuring subjective experiences like happiness. Though I am not as sceptical as I am against scientistic generalisations of the discipline of economics outside of its sphere of expertise as in the case of more utilitarian ‘happiness economics’. All I am suggesting is that politicians and economists should care about values other than material wealth, such as happiness. I’m not suggesting that we should do economics with happiness instead of money.

[3] ‘The Rich Only Get Richer’, New Statesman, 22-28 March 2013, supplement p. 13

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2 responses »

  1. I received a reply from Action For Happiness here – http://www.facebook.com/actionforhappiness/posts/287328938067230?comment_id=1314148&offset=0&total_comments=1

    “Thanks Peter, very nice article. For info the reason some of those things you’ve highlighted are “omitted” from our Ten Keys to Happier Living is because the keys are intended to be focused on evidence-based things that are in our control. So we may not be able to control our working environment or the level of equality in society (which we agree are hugely important issues) but we can choose the attitude with which we approach our working lives (in terms of “Direction”, “Emotion”, “Meaning” etc) and also the way we treat others (in terms of “Giving”, “Relating”, “Acceptance” etc). And also just to highlight that we think mindfulness is hugely important and this is actually what the “Appreciating” key is really all about (albeit we should perhaps have called it “Awareness”).”

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