Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
The quest for happiness is no laughing matter
Thirty thousand people die in a cyclone, messaged my friend, and you’re off to a happiness conference? You can see his point, though there’s no real connection. But the thronging happiness delegates in Sydney last week would probably answer thus: you help the world best by first being happy yourself. Like the bit in the flight blurb that says, “Mothers of small children should don their own oxygen mask first, before assisting the child.”
But how selfish is happiness, actually? And is it, as most conference speakers insisted, not just a basic human right but almost a duty?
For the Austrian psychoanalyst Viktor Frankl, happiness was only ever a by-product. “Don’t aim at success,” he advised, “… for success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue … as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself … Happiness must happen … You have to let it happen by not caring about it.” Frankl spoke from experience. A four-year Auschwitz survivor, he noted that, even there, the most enduring were those most able to help others.
But for last week’s conference, happiness was no byproduct, no don’t-look-now kind of accident. Happiness was it; not just a product but the product. Everything else, it was argued, from love to wealth to brilliant career, we desire for the happiness so promised. Happiness alone do we desire in and of itself.
There’s a sophistry here, of course, since it means even melancholics are really seeking the happiness sadness brings. It also makes happiness, as product, the ultimate easy sell, the one thing we all reliably want.
But a conference? Can a conference deliver happiness? Or was the Reverend Bill Crews right when declaring from the stage: “Don’t worry about happiness. You lot should throw away your notes and just go out and do it.”
Crews – notwithstanding the happy-clappy, back-slappy feel to the, uh, congregation – was the conference’s token Christian. Most speakers were either Buddhists (like Tenzin Palmo, an East-Ender who spent 12 years in a high-altitude Himalayan cave and still craved more) or high-profile circuit-psychologists such as Martin Seligman, Stephen Post, Richard Davidson and Daniel Gilbert. Some, like B. Alan Wallace, were both.
All fastidiously avoided mentioning God, morality or the afterlife carrot. There was no trace of a suggestion you should act thus because it’s right, or written, or expected and no sense of authority – except, of course, science.
It’s as though some marketing genius somewhere has decided that this well-off secular-humanist baby-boomer audience – the market, if you will, for happiness – having been cured of all pressing fears except the fear of death, will comfortably swallow Eastern religion and Western science but never, never Western religion.
Yet the wildly dominant take-home message, from all persuasions and professions, was, if you’ll pardon the term, Christian; that to be happy is to be good, and to be good is to be compassionate, loving and altruistic.
The difference is in the packaging. Where once the message could be forced home, now it has to be packaged to appeal to self. So speaker after speaker detailed the personal benefits of happiness: better health, longevity, acuity, earning-power and career, each effect repeatedly demonstrated by science.
Plus all the old Thatcherite shibboleths about hard-wiring for selfishness and genetic destiny are once again up for query. The implication, it will not have escaped your notice, is that happiness is something we can choose.
The Pennsylvania academic Dr Martin “I’m a pessimist and a depressive” Seligman is revered as the father of positive psychology. He scientised morality further still, postulating three categories of happiness: the Pleasant Life, the Engaged Life and the Meaningful Life.
The Pleasant Life runs on emotional pleasure, what Seligman calls “happyology”. The Engaged Life means entangling your finest self with the world, what he calls “being one with the music”. And the Meaningful Life means dedicating these same strengths to some greater cause.
Each happiness-type, he says, is measurable and buildable, but while there are “pleasure shortcuts” to happyology, there are no shortcuts to the Engaged or Meaningful Life. Which is a shame, because these kinds of happiness are not only more reliable and redemptive, but also lend meaning to ordinary base-level pleasure.
Seligman’s Engaged and Meaningful Lives closely parallel theology’s traditional distinction between the immanent and transcendent view of god; the god of good works and the god of mystic communion. But drop even a hint, a whiff of old school theology at such a conference and the best-willed happiness-seeker will stop clapping, hold her nose and run.
The market demands wisdom, to salve its remaining fear, but such wisdom must be either control-tested, dot-pointed and peer-reviewed, or couched in lyrical cave and water metaphors. It must also demonstrably benefit the self.
So, full-circle: if happiness requires altruism but is motivated by self-benefit, is it, or isn’t it, selfish? TS Eliot’s Thomas Beckett describes this as “the greatest treason, to do the right deed for the wrong reason.” But the happiness push has a market to consider. Fine, it answers. Forget it. For each year of proven happiness your health premium will halve. That’ll make ya happy.