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The trouble with happiness

Dr Mark Byrne*

Published at New Matilda, 29/9/06

A new opinion poll, carried out by Ipsos Mackay during August for the Sydney Morning Herald, reinforces the message of numerous other surveys in recent years: more money doesn’t make us happier, and good relationships are the greatest contributor to wellbeing. This led Australia Institute director Clive Hamilton to proclaim once again that “"We need a wholesale shift in the orientation of government away from a focus on the economy and towards national wellbeing."

However, what if the quest for happiness is part of the problem: one more manifestation of Baby Boomer narcissism; or even a source of unhappiness if we believe we’re not as happy as we should be? As the irascible mid-century Australian philosopher John Anderson reportedly complained, “There’s more to life than being happy!” I’m sure he didn’t think we should merely do our duty, less still that we should be deliberately miserable; rather that a full life should also involve the pursuit of Plato’s “the Good, the True and the Beautiful.”

Hamilton recognises this in the Australia Institute webpaper he authored with Emma Rush. Although this wasn’t picked up by the SMH, there he reminds us that “happiness is a desirable byproduct of living a fully human life, in itself it is not the aim.”

Another way of putting this is to say that there are different kinds or degrees of happiness. While the SMH gave us multiple photos of people smiling and laughing, as if putting on a happy face is all it takes, American psychologist Martin Seligman, the guru of “authentic happiness,” identifies three levels of happiness: the pleasant life (the pursuit of pleasure); the engaged life (“being one with… music, absorbed and immersed in your work, love, friendship and leisure”); and finally, the meaningful life, in which we use our strengths and talents to serve something greater than ourselves.

According to Freud, “Love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness.” Although it wouldn’t have pleased Freud, there is also evidence of a correlation between religious beliefs and happiness.

What do family, work and religion have in common? As Seligman identifies, a relationship to something outside of, and usually greater than, ourselves. They have one other thing in common, too: through routine and ritual, they tie us to the everyday and the here-and-now, the rhythms of nature, the ground beneath our feet, and a sense of history, of who and where we came from.

The trouble is, if we want our “something greater” to be more than adherence to a football club or a political ideology, and our connection to the everyday and the earth to be more than a question of daily chores and real estate, there is usually a cost. If we want a new life, it most often comes by letting go of the old one. Or, if a new life wants us, often against our conscious will, the old life is wrenched from us in pain.

As the great anthropologist Victor Turner explained, this means “dying” to one’s old life and entering a “betwixt and between” period, in which we feel like one of the walking dead (bereft of energy, feeling or motivation) or the unborn (gestating something of which we are as yet unaware), before the emergence of a new self and a new way of life.

The encounter with death can be literal, as we confront our own mortality or the loss of loved ones. Or it can be symbolic, as we face disease, theft or just the disappointments and failures that life inevitably brings. Something is lost, but by facing the loss and using it as an opportunity to re-evaluate our lives, we often discover a deeper sense of meaning and belonging. Paradoxically, the turning within often ends up with us becoming oriented more towards the welfare of our fellow humans and other beings.

Here’s an example. The 2001 film About Schmidt begins with a retirement party. Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) is praised by an old mate for having lived a “meaningful” life because he has devoted himself “To being productive. And working for a fine company. To raising a fine family. To building a fine home. Being respected by your community. To having wonderful, lasting friendships.”

Yet this isn’t enough for Schmidt, and following the sudden death of his wife he takes to the road to try to convince his near-estranged daughter not to marry her “nincompoop” boyfriend. Along the way he reads aloud, in voiceover, the letters he writes to Ndugu, an African orphan he has recently started to support. When returns to his big empty house, he opens a letter from a nun on behalf of Ndugu, who is recovering from an eye infection. The film ends with Schmidt crying as he looks at a painting by Ndugu which the nun has enclosed. It is of two brown people smiling in the sun.

This little thing he has done - the sending, with the stroke of a pen, of a pittance to a boy he has never met on the other side of the world - and the difference this has made to the boy’s life, ends up being more meaningful to Schmidt than all the supposedly meaningful things he has achieved at great cost to himself and to the people he was supposed to love and cherish the most: his wife and daughter.

There is a spiritual journey in About Schmidt, as its protagonist discovers how near and how simple, yet how immensely difficult, it is to have meaning in his life. It was to be found in what Christians might call the graces of everyday life; or in what a Buddhist might call the simple act of awareness. Although it might seem tragic, he couldn’t have come to that point without having gone on a journey, and without having lost everything along the way.

Real happiness, in other words, don’t come cheap. Hamilton and Rush come close to recognising this in their analysis of the survey question about whether people would choose to take a legal happiness drug. “Tribulations on one’s life path”, they note, “are an inevitable part of any meaningful and fulfilling human life.” More than inevitable. Surrender and sacrifice, loss and despair, may be prerequisites for us to be truly, madly, deeply happy.

What might be the public policy implications of this take on the quest for happiness? The Australia Institute’s Wellbeing Manifesto, which “takes as its starting point the belief that governments in Australia should be devoted to improving our individual and social wellbeing” is a good start. But it’s been around for over a year and to date the grand total of 7276 people have given it their public endorsement. This would seem incongruous in light of the overwhelming public support in the new survey for the government’s prime objective to be “the happiness of the people, not the greatest wealth.” This may be one more indication that we might value happiness above money, but we don’t act accordingly.

Why not? Fear is my guess: fear that if we fall behind economically we’ll end up on the dole queue, the back blocks, the public ward. And greed too, but greed is mostly a reaction to fear. It might be partly the narcissist shouting “Look at me!”, but it’s also the gatherer in us, hoarding against a future crisis. Governments can’t predict the future, but when we have a government that is so oblivious to the future as John Howard’s is in relation to climate change and energy security, for instance, we would be forgiven for all working like crazy now to be near the head of the pack if and when things turn bad.

In the SMH report, former NSW Minster Michael Egan mocked the idea that governments can help people to be happy, but in fact governments do this all the time (unhappy people tend to vote them out). They just differ in the way they go about it: is it by removing obstacles to individual creativity and entrepreneurship, or is it by providing enough social and other supports so that we don’t have to worry about the basics of life? In other words, is it by focusing on economic or social wellbeing?

Another way of putting the question is to say that it is not so much “How can governments help us in our search for a meaningful life?”, but “What can governments do to help remove the obstacles to that search?” This may involve using both hard economic policy as well as the “soft power” of cultural leadership to influence the work/life balance, the culture of over-consumption, the balance between individualism and social cohesion, and the anxiety that inevitably follows when interest rates and petrol prices are the arbiters of our individual and collective wellbeing.

It may also involve just getting out of the way: allowing authentic shared values to develop in response to shared crises, rather than attempting to engineer them for political ends as this government has done in relation to asylum seekers and the threat of terrorism. Climate change and energy security are two issues which require concerted responses based on a shared vision of the nation - if we are to have a nation, and a world, in fifty or a hundred years. They demand of us a degree of imagination, and a level of collective vision and action, that are probably unparalleled in human history, with the possible exception of the threat of nuclear war during the Cold War. That’s the bad news. The good news is that they also give us an unparalleled opportunity to develop a shared sense of meaning that will manifest in a livable planet to leave to our kids. Beats going down to the mall.

Dr Mark Byrne is Senior Researcher at Uniya Jesuit Social Justice Centre.

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