VIEW: The quest for happiness —Saleem H Ali
As schools are closed and people are left wondering what will happen next, let us curl back and seek happiness in ways that we may not have considered for a while — read a good book, spend time with our kids, cook a meal and feed it to those most in need
Amid all the tension of the current terrorist attacks across Pakistan, many citizens must be feeling a sense of loss, depression and a longing for a happier world. The question of what makes us happy has eluded scientists and philosophers alike. If there was ever a universal aspiration for humanity, it was to attain “happiness”.
Although historically emotions of disappointment and sadness have also been praised as motivators of creativity, there is little empirical evidence in terms of productive quality to support the poet Shelley’s assertion that our “sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.” Many a disappointed miner, or a losing gambler would have claimed fame on that account, but the only prospect there might be is that despondency and crisis provide opportunities for some individuals to consider alternative paths or trajectories, which in turn may lead to fulfilment.
Thus, the preceding stanza in Shelley’s poem, “our sincerest laughter with some pain is fraught”, might well have some empirical support. In general, the pursuit of happiness that was enshrined even by the American founding fathers alongside “life” and “liberty” has been time-tested in various ways despite the natural peaks and troughs of the human experience.
The quest for this emotional state of bliss has been a subliminal motivator for much human enterprise and its consequent impact on the environment. There is clearly a self-centred aspect of attaining happiness — each individual wants to be contented for his or her own sake. However, the aggregate of individual happiness also impacts the functioning of society at large, and we must appreciate this collective good as we consider human impulses for material acquisition.
Nobel laureate philosopher and literary doyen of the early twentieth century, Bertrand Russell grappled with this question in his seminal treatise The Conquest of Happiness, where he tried to understand the need for happiness and how to achieve it. An important premise that Russell stated in his correspondence regarding this work was the intrinsic worth of happiness at the societal level: “The good life, as I conceive it, is a happy life. I do not mean that if you are good, you will be happy; I mean if you are happy you will be good.”
This unidirectional causality that Russell proposed at the time is also supported by empirical data, though at the time of his writing Russell was not as concerned with neurological studies or labour satisfaction surveys. Rather he was trying to consider post-industrial concerns regarding technology, materialism and spirituality. Literary scholars in the Victorian era had grappled with these issues quite directly.
In his acclaimed dialogue essay, The Critic as Artist, Oscar Wilde stated that humanity likes to “rage against materialism, as they call it, forgetting that there has been no material improvement that has not spiritualised the world.” This thread has also been picked up by many revisionist scholars of consumerism and material culture who ask us to reflect upon the social ties created by gift-giving, the livelihoods created by the products which are produced as a result of conspicuous consumption. In his provocatively titled book Lead Us Into Temptation, James Twitchell tries to make the case primarily through observational analysis that consumer fashions and branding lead to bonding in an age of individualism.
To respond to these criticisms, let us return to Russell’s very simple assertion that “good” conduct, which could suggest behavioural attributes such as being industrious, studious, morally proper, might not necessarily make you happy. Such attributes may lead to wealth if our system worked well. You work hard and you play hard — the mantra of many Wall Street treasure seekers. The wealth in turn from working hard may allow for consumer spending, which the aforementioned revisionists would contend makes us happier.
It is thus worth considering how far this line of reasoning is valid, especially since Russell urged us to also consider the reverse — if we are happy, we are more likely to do well for society. The data on this latter assertion is fairly well established. If people are happy individually (but not to the point of selfish complacence, that can be a temperamental trait in some subjects), they are more likely to perform better at work, be more productive family members, and active philanthropists in their societal contributions. There is also a circularity to this premise as the research shows that philanthropy itself makes people happier.
However, there are limits to our quest for happiness. According to social psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky, the acclaimed author of The How of Happiness, there is a happiness “set point” that accounts for about 50 percent of the happiness that is determined by temperamental factors (genetically determined). An additional 10 percent is determined by social circumstances and perhaps around 40 percent is within our control in terms of behavioural choices. Consumption behaviour would fall within this 40 percent of behavioural attributes that could potentially give us a higher sense of well-being. During times of turmoil it is easy for us to be taken in by despair but in the larger context of the human experience we have many means at our disposal to seek joy.
As schools are closed and people are left wondering what will happen next, let us curl back and seek happiness in ways that we may not have considered for a while — read a good book, spend time with our kids, cook a meal and feed it to those most in need. All this will help to partially relieve the sense of helplessness and be an important note of personal victory against the nihilistic killjoys that confront us.
Dr Saleem H Ali is associate professor of environmental planning at the University of Vermont. This article is partially excerpted from his new book “Treasures of the Earth: Need, Greed and a Sustainable Future” (Yale University Press, October 2009)