On Happiness: New Ideas for the Twenty-First Century
by Camilla Nelson Deborah Pike and Georgina Ledvinka (editors)
Published June, 2015
What is happiness? The word conjures sunshine, pleasure, expansiveness and possibility – and we all claim some knowledge and experience of happiness. Nonetheless, happiness, perhaps more than any other experience, is defined and delineated in the negative. Happiness is not suffering, not anguish, not absence or lack, not loneliness, not depression, not melancholy. That we do not in fact have grasp of a pure state, such as happiness, in isolation from its contraries illuminates something important about how our selves and our realities are structured. We are able to recognise it not only because it is already a part of our experiential repertoire but also because we are already familiar with its converse. This insight has direct implications for our experiences in general and for the experience of happiness in particular.
The Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna’s (150-250 CE) tetralemma illuminates this paradox. The tetralemma is established as follows: we can recognise a thing as being what it is because of its positive characteristics; the thing is also what it is because of what it is not; the thing is thus a combination of what it is and what it is not; and finally, because of our shifting non-coinciding attention between what it is and what it is not, the thing is neither what it is nor what it is not. If we run this four-cornered negation with ‘happiness’ we have: happiness is the state or experience of pleasure, joy and positivity; happiness is not the state or experience of suffering, anguish, depression and so on; happiness is both what it is and what it is not; because of our shifting attention between what it is and what it is not, happiness is neither what it is nor what it is not.
The aim of this tetralemma is to demonstrate the radical contingency that is at play in our grasp of reality — and this applies equally to our grasp of the experience of happiness. The negative, what opposes happiness, is as essential to happiness as the positive components; ignoring the negative effectively negates happiness. In this way we can say that the analyses and discussions about happiness in On Happiness have conceptual and logical vindication. They justify the editors’ warning that ‘this book will not make you happy’. Focussing on happiness as a life goal or investing in a sense of entitlement to be happy, is finally self-defeating. Only when we relinquish our efforts to orchestrate and control life’s contingencies, only when we take a long look at unpleasant things and seek rather to cherish other-directed values, will happiness arise organically. Happiness is thus an epiphenomenon, a by-product of doing and achieving something that has value. Like a shadow thrown by a light, happiness inherently depends for its existence on another source than itself.
On Happiness illuminates the phenomenon of happiness with a clear eye to its paradoxical nature – that in seeking to capture the essence of happiness itself, many divergent and sometimes seemingly opposing notions come into play. Paradoxical, also in that in mustering all the strategies and necessary ingredients for a happy life, sometimes in the end the reverse is in fact achieved – abject misery.
The editors thus demand that readers be prepared to relinquish the cherished conventional nostrums about happiness in favour of a more nuanced approach, one that may in fact lead to some rather uncomfortable conclusions. Commonsense assumptions about happiness are interrogated through various lenses – philosophical, political, social, cultural and literary – ultimately inviting us both to reconfigure our understanding of the paradox of happiness and to seek out ways of better addressing issues that block or corrupt our flourishing as individuals and as societies.
The Ancient Greeks considered happiness not merely as a subjective state, but as the by-product of cultivating various virtues which constituted a ‘good life’. But is a good life necessarily a happy one? What significance should we assign to the various values or virtues? Is there an intrinsic interdependence between certain values and virtues? Is happiness dependent on freedom, justice, courage or honesty? Can a slave, an unjust person, a coward or a liar be happy? A virtuous person may have tragedies befall her – would we wish to claim that her life was a happy one?
Over the course of the history of philosophy various candidates for ‘happiness’ have been considered, from the most basic idea of sense pleasure, through to the higher pleasures and further to the Greek notion of eudaimonia (generally translated as human flourishing) which spans the spheres of private and public concerns. With the ascendency in late antiquity and the middle ages of Christian thought, the ‘good life’ exemplified in personal flourishing and harmonious communities came to be supplanted by Christian virtue and ‘other-worldly’ aspirations. No longer were evident flourishing and happiness seen as indications of a ‘good life’. Rather they could indicate a deficiency of piety and sacrifice and potentially close the gates of heaven.
The early modern period heralded the beginnings of philosophical efforts to wriggle out of the straitjacket of the medieval scholastic dogmatism. In the work of Jeremy Bentham we see a return to a secular ethic which defined ‘the good’ in terms of utility and pleasure. His student John Stuart Mill redefined the greatest utility as ‘happiness’. Today utilitarians define utility more flexibly and broadly as ‘preference satisfaction’. The recently established school of ‘positive psychology’ aims to encompass all the historical candidates for happiness; happiness as satisfaction and ‘flow’, as a subjective state, as an interior experience unique to the individual in conjunction with happiness in the eudaimonic sense as a life well-lived, attuned to others and society. As Husserl, Stein, Scheler and Merleau-Ponty argue, we are not isolated solitary creatures but are born into sociality and sociality is constitutive of the kinds of beings we are. Any individualistic ‘happiness-endeavour’ is thus doomed from the start – others must also be part of the equation. Burgeoning research in the field of social cognition into intersubjectivity, empathy, altruism and compassion lends significant empirical support to these phenomenological accounts.
Optimism, the notion of dispositional happiness which is able to face obstacles and vicissitudes with resilience, also warrants examination. The eponymous hero of Voltaire’s novella Candide ou Optimisme, presents us with a caricature of extraordinarily robust dispositional happiness. Candide’s unquestioning confidence in the authority of his teacher Professor Pangloss, who, despite the evidence of horrendous brutality and corruptions, espouses the view that this is the best of all possible worlds, both plunges him into many fraught and dangerous situations and ironically ensures that he escapes relatively unscathed. Bob Brown, the former leader of the Greens, aligned himself with Candide in giving his 2014 memoir the title Optimism: Reflections on a life of action. Candide and Brown both are witness to the devastation and corruption that goes hand in hand with ignorance and greed, and both finally settle for cultivating their respective gardens. Brown writes:
These days I am an optimist and I like it. It is also a reasonable option because optimism is a key ingredient for any successful human endeavour – and isn’t keeping Earth viable the greatest endeavour we can ever undertake?
Brown goes on to quote philosopher Bertrand Russell, ‘the trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt’. What is relevant here is that happiness and optimism do not arise ex nihilo, they are situated in the world, a particular time and place, and arise in dependence on cultivation and action. As His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso advises, ‘happiness is not something ready-made. It comes from your own actions’.
Each essay in On Happiness tackles a different dimension of our experience of ‘happiness’ according to the writer’s experience and expertise. The scope and concerns of each essay, nonetheless, spill across disciplinary boundaries so that the ethicist, the economists, the philosophers, the professors of English and of law, the psychologist and the cultural theorists all draw variously on literature, philosophy, politics, comedy, history and the human sciences. This interweaving of thought and styles makes the collection both particularly readable and provocative.
In the first section, Philosophical Engagements, Clive Hamilton launches an incisive examination of the opposing forces of self-deception and authenticity. He targets specifically the happiness industry which underwrites the consumerist culture of markets, brands and lifestyle icons, leading, he argues, to the corruption of values, the trade in false promises and the dumbing-down of society in general. Underpinning these lies is not only the implicit message that having gained all the ‘happiness-inducing’ goods, the pathway to success and popularity will open up — but also that everything is within our control and we only need adjust our attitudes. In this way unhappiness is neither an unfortunate state of mind, nor the outcome of difficult external circumstances such as debt, failing marriages, poor health, unemployment or overwork for example; it is just having the wrong attitude, being out of tune with this positivistic universe and as such becomes blameworthy.
John Quiggin’s essay ‘What Happiness Conceals’, picks up this line and unpacks the relatively recent fixation with ‘happiness economics’. He draws attention to the ‘Easterlin Paradox’ – that is, that increased wealth only increases happiness levels up to a certain point after which it tapers off and may even decline. So long as the basics and some extra luxuries are affordable, higher levels of wealth add no further ‘happiness’ value. Quiggin also considers the decision of the King of Bhutan when he replaced the GDP (Gross Domestic Product) with the GNH (Gross National Happiness) in the 1970s. Replacing economic measures with happiness measures was hyped in the West as an ‘ingenious’ way to solve a developing country’s economic woes. While the Bhutan case study may have inspired a questioning of values about prosperity, Quiggin concludes that how something is measured does not fundamentally alter that which is measured.
Brock Bastian’s essay ‘Loving happiness but feeling sad’, returns us to the subjective as he examines the emotional toll of living in cultures with a ‘happiness’ obsession. Bastian contrasts the West’s fetishisation of happiness with the East’s suspicions of happiness-seeking, and grounds his arguments in psychological research that concludes that when it comes to happiness, you can have too much of a ‘good thing’. This may be the key connecting insight across the collection: we understand happiness by considering concepts that stand in apparent opposition to it, in this case, sadness. Bastian tracks how our culture, in its tendency to reject and delegitimise negative emotion, effectively compounds depression and psychological suffering. He describes this as a kind of materialism which has not only over-evaluated pleasure and happiness and negated the value of uncomfortable emotions, but also has led to the commodification of happiness and the pathologising of negative emotion.
In the opening paragraph of his essay, ‘Anger and Courage: The Daughters of Hope’, philosopher Richard Hamilton confronts us with the misery of the world: the sufferings of disease, loss and starvation — and the misery of the empty pleasures of the degenerate affluent. Such miseries are most often accommodated within corrupt political systems and intensified by the looming ecological catastrophe. How do we face up to these brutal realities without losing hope? How do we overcome the self-deceptions that allow us to see the suffering of others as somehow deserved? Hamilton is critical of this literal and distorted interpretation of ‘karma’ – the poor deserve their poverty, the rich are entitled to their wealth – especially as it tends to conveniently ignore the systemic imbalances that perpetuate such disparities. His references expose the sometimes ugly and paradoxical psychological dynamics at work in our attitudes to wealth, love, success and all their contraries. For example, the ‘Just World Hypothesis’ of Melvin Lerner captures the pernicious nature of victim-blaming and entitlement-defending, from personal misfortunes to repressive political mentalities embodied in the extreme right rhetoric of the Tea Party and now Donald Trump or closer to home the rhetoric of One Nation and Pauline Hanson.
Steven Connor offers a lucid and ironic analysis of the hedonic, tracing our often uneasy relation to pleasure in a discussion which spans the woes of institutional manipulations and economic appropriations. The professions most intimately associated with the higher pleasures of literature, the arts and music for example, are, he observes, often almost apologetic for their passions. It is as if practitioners wish to give the impression to the general populace that they put in the ‘hard yards’ and suffer for their art. ‘The ravening beast of earnestness’ Connor argues, is poisoning our pleasures. He continues, ‘the least bad thing about this is that it is dull and enervating. The worst thing about it is that it provides so many opportunities for bullying and coercion’.
Connor’s essay works in part as a defence of Bentham’s Utilitarianism – but I would suggest that the ‘felicific calculus’ as another ‘top-down’ ethics is ill-equipped to reflect the complexities of ethical experience. Despite the various modifications Utilitarianism has undergone in the attempts to address abhorrent outcomes when rigorously applied, it still fails to engage with key ethical concepts such as justice, integrity and partiality. Moreover, these failures all point to a serious underlying flaw, the failure to take account of the nature of human subjectivity – that humans are essentially intersubjective and social.
Having teased out the ‘big questions’ and presented a number of conceptual frameworks in this first section ‘Philosophical Engagements’, the second section of On Happiness, ‘Social Interrogations’, anchors happiness in the social domain. In her essay ‘Happy Housewives and Angry Feminists: The Myths of Modern Motherhood’, Camilla Nelson offers a wry examination of the immense pressures and contradictions surrounding parenthood, most particularly motherhood. She argues that the media promulgates dubious ideas about the obligations and responsibilities of motherhood which are escalated by the fears of external threats (abductions, paedophiles, germs), the admonitions of ‘experts’ and the aspirations of the various waves of feminism. In combination, these pressures ensure that mothering is likely to be fraught and joyless. Fortunately, Nelson presents another side to the story: the ‘Parenting Hate Reads’ and the mummy blogs which celebrate ‘mothering that is chaotic, life-like and down-to-earth.’ The impoverished conceptions of happiness and the coercive promotion of the so-called ‘natural’ which underpin much of the discourse around mothering also draw her attention. She concludes:
if society can solve its social problems then maybe parenting will cease to be a misery competition – mothers might not be happy in the utilitarian or hedonistic sense, but will lead rich and satisfying lives – and then maybe a stay-at-home dad can change a nappy without a choir of angels descending from heaven singing ‘Hallelujah’.
David Ritter’s contribution to On Happiness is an evocative account of the campaign to block what could potentially become Australia’s largest coal mine at Maules Creek. The realities he presents are stark and his arguments for urgent action, backed up by thorough research, are earnest. The work of Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum – their ‘capabilities approach’ to economic and social development – underpin his approach and allow him to engage incisively with the debates on climate change. Ritter affirms that the local and the global cannot be understood in isolation; they are interdependent. The callous disregard of supposedly local concerns, such as those of the Leard Blockade at Maules Creek will inevitably contribute to the global catastrophe which is climate change.
This theme of ecological sustainability is continued in the third essay in this section, ‘Pursuing Happiness; The politics of surviving well together’. J.K. Gibson-Graham, Jenny Cameron and Stephen Healy offer useful evaluations of the various ‘happiness indicators’ developed to decouple happiness from purely economic considerations; they broaden the focus from individual well-being to societal and planetary well-being. Emerging research in this field not only challenges assumptions about the role of wealth in happiness but also unsettles accounts of economics which focus solely on production and consumption, ignoring all the other activities that contribute to economic well-being and happiness. The ‘relational metrics’ they propose accord with the relatively new domain of social accounting.
The claim that literature plays a unique role in awakening our humanity and ethical imagination is elucidated through Deborah Pike’s essay, ‘The Russian Way of Happiness: On love, choice and community.’ This essay is a thoughtful meditation on the writings of Pushkin, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, adding an important literary dimension to the interrogation of happiness in the collection. Pike organises her discussion around the themes of choice and self-sabotage. It is choice that drives the tragic trajectories of the Russian novels she analyses. She writes, ‘reading these great novels is like tumbling into an immense web of event, choice, action and consequence, where the characters’ pursuit of personal happiness above all else is radically thrown into question.’ The unflinching gaze of these Russian writers exposes the sometimes perfidious sides of human beings lurking below the push and pull of social convention. Pike’s judicious character analyses and close readings build a convincing case for the value of the long view: the pressures of choice informed by an individualist pursuit of happiness produce excoriating sufferings and moral jeopardies.
The remaining essays by Larrisa Behrendt, Ranjana Srivastava, Alice Pung, Georgina Ledvinka, Anna Kamaralli, Tony Moore and James Arvanitakis traverse other diverse personal, cultural and conceptual landscapes, investing the concrete with moral significance and adding to the wide-ranging debates contained in this collection. If On Happiness has an underpinning message, it lies in the challenge to question our assumptions about happiness, to honour the value of both sufferings and joys. Ultimately, the writers call us to ‘think of [happiness] in new and more socially attuned ways’.