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And Again I say, Amen!!!



Why happiness is overrated]


Stuart Jeffries


July 11, 2006 08:00 AM




You can't move in Britain for people trying to make you happy. There is David Cameron, the Conservative party leader, who will tell the Police Foundation today that professionals should pay attention to the emotional development of young people, and try to make them happy.


Then there is psychology professor Martin Seligman, from the University of Pennsylvania, who has come over to train British teachers so that they can give lessons in happiness. This follows an initiative at the elite Wellington College earlier this year, where privileged students were given lessons in positive psychology and the science of wellbeing.


Only the other week, a happiness guru was recommending that cognitive behavioural therapy courses be set up at government "happiness centres", in order to cut the number of working days lost to depression.


Happiness and how to get it are big business. In bookshops around the country, volumes of poetry have been ousted in favour of self-help manuals with the word happiness in the title: Richard Layard's Happiness: Lessons from a New Science, Daniel Gilbert's Stumbling on Happiness, Richard Schoch's The Secrets of Happiness, and Darrin McMahon's The Pursuit of Happiness are among some of the latest. There is even a book called Happiness is a Warm Bun by a glamorous French pastry chef with flowing locks and Gallic good looks, who maintains that making your own croissants is the only way to spiritual wellbeing. Actually, I made that last one up, but I wouldn't be surprised if it were true, such is our mad hunger for the sustenance we believe happiness literature provides.


The press is now calling professor Layard the happiness tsar, which sounds, at least to my ears, like an oxymoron (forgetting for the moment that the final tsar of all the Russians was the last word in political inefficacy, the suggestion that a political ruler could set about making us make us happy seems inept). It can only be a matter of time before companies appoint happiness action officers whose job it will be to patrol workstations with a clipboard: "Jenkins - cheer up or it's a remedial, wellbeing residential workshop for you. Smith - happy enough!"


If I had a penny for every time a self-styled happiness guru has pointed out that our increased riches and health have made us no happier than we were 50 years ago, I would have enough money to buy a really good pair of those Bose headphones - you know the ones that enable you to complete block out the wittering of people nearby, especially that of those who enjoining you to be happy.


The point is that all this happiness talk is making me really miserable, chiefly because it seems philosophically naïve, and practically self-defeating. There is only one thing more dismal than the prospect of attending lessons in happiness and that is listening to Ken Dodd's song on the same subject. "Happiness, happiness," sang the forerunner of the current glut of happiness gurus, "The greatest gift that I possess." A song that makes me want to hit the bottle, at the very least, or, failing that, a Diddy Man.


Nietzsche wrote, in The Twilight of the Idols, "Mankind does not strive for happiness; only the Englishman does that." Actually, Nietzsche's words are no longer true: they also strive for happiness in Bhutan, where Gross Domestic Happiness is the overarching political goal. Indeed, David Cameron is now nicknamed General Well Being for his notion that the British government would do well to pursue GDH rather than GDP along Bhutanese lines.


But Nietzsche's sarcastic point was surely that those who aim at being happy - as he claimed the English utilitarian philosophers did - invariably get it wrong. Their project was doomed to depressing failure. We can only become happy as a by-product of something else (and then the question for Nietzsche became: is happiness a worthwhile by product, or is aiming at it symptomatic of a degraded culture?). Indeed, Richard Layard in his book recognises that this sceptical view about happiness has a long heritage, extending from Socrates to the Dalai Lama, but he does so only in a footnote on page 235. Layard, though, does rightly recognise that the greatest of those English philosophers of happiness, John Stuart Mill, himself argued, in Utilitarianism, that happiness is valuable but vexingly, not achieved by trying.


Where does it come from then? Perhaps happiness might come, for example, by making a self-denying political stance and buying only necessities for a year - an anti-capitalist project chronicled by Judith Levine in her new book Not Buying It. That said, if you stopped buying stuff for a year with the aim of becoming happy, it probably wouldn't work. Such is happiness.


Of course, you may want to protest that rising depression in our schools; the curse of low self-esteem; the need to end bullying, and the urgent social imperative to love people who wear hoodies, makes such philosophical considerations beside the point. We owe it to the working classes, and to our children, to end their sufferings. I am not arguing against this (slightly patronising) view; nor am I suggesting that these problems are not terrible.


But as soon as the word "happiness" is invoked in this context, something has gone awry. Every undergraduate who has written an essay on the distinctions between pleasure, wellbeing and happiness (as I remember doing), knows that you're getting into a conceptual morass by invoking happiness as an achievable societal goal. Kant wrote wisely, "The notion of happiness is so nebulous that although every man wishes to attain it, yet he can never convey accurately and distinctly what it is that he really wishes and wills " But today, as never before, it is being touted as the societal cure-all: happiness is treated almost as a human right rather than what it is; namely, a goal that retreats the closer one tries to get to it. Perhaps happiness is an unnecessary goal that confuses us when we try to tackle real social problems.


The alarm bells started ringing for me a few weeks ago, when it was suggested in press coverage that Layard's report measures depression in purely economic terms (cost to the economy in terms of days off sick, and the cost to the NHS of drugs to ameliorate depression). Maybe measuring mental illness or happiness in such economic terms is part of the problem, rather than the solution: it surely indicates that we have become homo economicus rather than a species that might emerge happily from the dismal science of cost-benefit analysis.


A new book by Professor Klaus Bergdolt called Well Being: A Cultural History (to be published by Polity in translation in December) is a useful corrective to our current fixation on happiness. The German sociologist argues that the history of medicine "teaches us that permanent wellbeing is not realistic in everyday life. On the contrary, the experience of suffering may enrich man's existence."


But such considerations are inimical to the current conviction that we can create a happiness calculus: a few weeks ago, a Guardian leader quoted Coleridge's Dejection: an Ode in which he spoke of his misery in the following terms: "A grief without a pang, void, dark, and drear". The implicit suggestion was that he would have benefited from cognitive therapy. But would he? Indeed, reading Richard Holmes's biography of Coleridge, one finds that the poet harboured the "the hope of recreating himself out of the sense of failure itself", and that self-recreation was necessary to any happiness he managed to stumble on in later life.


A genial spirit, Coleridge was gadding about madly; sometimes winningly, sometimes irresponsibly, just as he usually did, up hill and down dale, through metaphysics and poetry, when he smacked into the wall of Wordsworth's will. His best friend refused to put Coleridge's poem Christabel into the second edition of Lyrical Ballads. This, seemingly small, incident crushed Coleridge, making him doubt his poetic gifts, and left him for years crossing a desert of opium, illness and marital unhappiness.


Can we say that Coleridge would have been a better man, poet or essayist had he not been through this misery? You may object that Coleridge was a poet and intellectual, so perhaps needed an injection, of depression to fire him up, while the rest of us shlubs, trying to get through the day, don't. We must be made happy; insured against depression; inoculated somehow against misery: it is our right, dammit! But it is a patronising view that implies ordinary people must live experientially less-fulfilled lives than artists.


One product of Coleridge's depression was that marvellous ode, one that inspired the great wail of melancholic Romantic poems - among them Shelley's Ode to the West wind and Keats' Melancholy. Reading Coleridge's investigation of his dejection in that ode, you might well think that the experience of suffering enriches our existence. Not too much suffering, obviously, because then you would be dead and, by definition, unable to benefit from suffering.


But some suffering, at least, is important to one's development as a human being, as professor Bergdolt claims. Otherwise one risks becoming utterly vapid. As Graham Greene remarked: "Point me out the happy man and I will point you out either egotism, selfishness, evil - or else an absolute ignorance." Britons today like to think that we can capture and hold on to happiness, and that we have a right to do so. In this we may be egotistic, selfish, or evil; but, most of all, we are absolutely ignorant.

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