Who doesn’t want to be happy? Who can’t get behind happiness as a personal, social and political agenda? Isn’t the pursuit of happiness guaranteed to us, with the expectation that we can attain it?
I could not let this New York Times opinion piece on the dangers of happiness go unremarked. Let’s be honest: We live in a country that is obsessed with achieving a perpetual state of contentment, and we’re trying to convince ourselves that it is always entirely in our own hands.
Anyone care to repeat after me two little words — cultural brainwashing?
Of course, any happiness mantra is the stuff of those who have the time, resources and devices to absorb media in all its forms. Or, in my opinion, those most susceptible to a positive spin during tough times. Then again, even without the aforementioned trio of advantages to stay “current,” most of us would be hard-pressed to avoid the embrace of the messaging we receive as it is preached in positivity parlance until we believe it.
Among other topics, the column in The Times touches on morality and politics. I think I will consider these words a quick little thank you note to Mr. Carl Cederstrom, a professor at Stockholm University, who penned the piece I hope you will read.
Morality — A Thing of the Past?
On the morality note, just how often do we smash the happiness of others to pursue our own happiness? Is that moral?
“Ah, that’s so subjective,” you may tell me. Or, “That’s just life.”
Subjective? Sure. Just life?
I say that’s too pat, too dismissive, and a non-response.
Dare we even address morality issues of a broader nature — poverty and war?
Right. Thought not. And yes, these are exceptionally challenging issues, with roots that are historically complex. Still, can’t we agree that easy answers and platitudes don’t solve problems? Don’t we give ourselves comfort with the convenience of moral relativism?
I’m far from an angel myself, though I do believe in owning up to my mistakes and attempting to take lessons — real lessons — in the fallout.
Eudaimonia: How Do You Live It?
The article references a new book in the history of happiness and points out that happiness and morality were once inextricably linked, as the concept of eudaimonia is raised. Courtesy of the ancient Greeks, eudaimonia (or eudaemonia) gives us the notion of living a full and happy life, which is
… lived ethically, guided by reason and dedicated to cultivating one’s virtues…
Apparently the notion of adding pleasure to that list came later. Can you spell “hedonism?”
So where does all of this leave us? How do we assess appropriate boundaries? What constitutes harmless self-interest or reasonable self-interest versus selfishness? Do we know when we cross the line? How does any of this mesh with a life “lived ethically” that cultivates virtues?
Mr. Cederstrom hits highlights of the happiness evolution through history, including Christianity’s concept of “divine union” after this life. Might that belief be part of your “living well” today, or somehow bumping up against it?
Ah, the Happiness Industry…
I can’t say that I disagree with this writer’s point of view when he describes how our Western concept of happiness has become crazily self-involved:
… we are now asked to pursue union with ourselves. To be happy in a time when we prize authenticity and narcissism, we need to express our true inner self… and follow the path set by ourselves… Today we pursue happiness by worshiping our bodies, building them up through long-distance running, punishing bootcamps, iron man triathlons…
And might I add, even as I suffer from my fair share of this often daily-hourly preoccupation which has long been the domain of American women, we are obsessing over our appearance and chasing after the fountain of youth. Shall we try to value that pursuit in dollars?
Unemployed or Entrepreneur — or Both?
The litany as expressed by Mr. Cederstrom continues, including mention of our “entrepreneurial ethos” in which success is all about “me” over “we” because after all,
… your fate is, of course, in your own hands.
Might you be unemployed? (Not to worry. Reinvent yourself as an entrepreneur. You can do it!)
And our politics? Doesn’t the above sound like a precept right out of the Republican handbook? If you’re unemployed, you must have done something wrong…
Isn’t our voting record fueled by the belief and motivating sound bite that we are entitled to individual happiness? Moreover, aren’t we told that we can achieve it with government out of our lives (though strangely, still in a woman’s bedroom or physician’s office)?
Dare we even bring up the profit motive in all this?
Mr. Cederstrom will, no doubt, be deemed a pessimist (or worse — heaven forbid, a socialist) by some who read his article. I believe his assessment of how dangerous a diversion the happiness mantra has become is right on target. Likewise, that the ugly underbelly of politics is always at work.
… happiness becomes a Trojan horse used to normalize inequality and oppression. Poor people may then be sent to happiness courses to improve their attitudes, or assigned personal life coaches, as Paul Ryan once proposed in his bizarre anti-poverty plan…
Strange, really… That we are told we have a right to happiness, but not to health. Go figure…
And no, it is not lost on me that Mr. Cederstrom makes his observations from the perspective of a culture with a social safety net.
Our Friend, Moderation
I am a believer in self-reflection. I am a believer in working toward self-awareness. I am a believer in hard work, in individual expression, in defining our own path — to a large degree — and that degree will vary by person and by circumstance. Some of those circumstances will be out of our hands.
Squarely in a place of moderation that I consider reasonable — pursuing a measure of self-involvement balanced with a deep-rooted belief that we should help each other, whatever the originating reason for someone’s distress or misfortune. I cannot be happy if my neighbor is miserable. And whatever your beliefs may be, mine are governed by “There but for the grace of God…” — a perspective that I consider rational whether in the context of a monotheistic god, all the gods of the fjords, or no gods whatsoever and the reality that “shit happens.”
Yes, there are exceptions and qualifications, for example attempting to help the alcoholic until we realize that the alcoholic must help himself. But far more frequently we are dealing with kindnesses extended to our friends and neighbors — or withholding those kindnesses, blindly believing that somehow they brought misfortune on themselves and therefore, they should suffer.
Even if someone’s troubles are the result of a miscalculation, does that mean we shouldn’t extend a hand to help? Shouldn’t those with exceptional good fortune help those on the other end of the spectrum because more of us are likely to be happy as a result?
The Morality Merry-go-round
Returning to earlier mentions in the column that pertain to happiness and morality, and the once-upon-a-time link between the two, I might say I would prefer emphasis on the pursuit of a moral life over a “happy” one. Morality is always on my radar. It is who I am, which is not to say that I am a saint (I’m not), that I don’t want to be happy (I do), or that I don’t want my family and friends to be happy as well. Moreover, I would much prefer morality as a goal over what we have today so prettily peddled as happiness, and more aptly viewed (by yours truly) as a mash-up of narcissism, materialism and a strange sort of self-flagellation (for “non-success”) that must be a topic for another day.
And yet, to establish and lead a moral life is also concerning. “Moral Majority,” anyone?
Unfortunately, we know this to be a minefield; your morality and my morality may clash, and then what?
That said, if leading a moral life means exercising decisions according to a set of guiding principles that involve treating each other with decency and respect — I’m in. If I lived in a society that took decency and respect to heart — personally, socially, politically — especially politically — I suspect that I would be happy indeed.
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