Brian Micklethwait's Blog

In which I continue to seek part time employment as the ruler of the world.

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Monday April 09 2007

I am enjoying this essay, by Darrin M. McMahon.  Quote:

Thus, one of the most striking developments in Western societies over the last several hundred years is the steady expansion of the hope and expectation of happiness in this life. Concomitant with this expansion has been the steady erosion of other ways of conceiving of life’s purpose and end. If other ways of doing so have not been entirely abandoned - there are those who still live for virtue, honor, one’s homeland, or family name - in a world that places a premium on good feeling and positive emotion, these other ends have nowhere near the power to channel and constrain our choices that they once did. The same may be said of religion - long considered the ultimate end - but which today, even in places like the United States, where religious observance remains strong, is more often than not treated as a means to a better and happier life. The American author of the 1767 True Pleasure, Cheerfulness, and Happiness, The Immediate Consequence of Religion was undoubtedly ahead of his time. And yet only decades later, that famous observer of the young republic, Alexis de Tocqueville, found it difficult to be sure when listening to American preachers “whether the main object of religion is to procure eternal felicity in the next world or prosperity in this.” Today, when not only Protestants, but Catholics, Jews, Buddhists, and Muslims regularly offer their faiths in America as effective means to earthly happiness, it is more difficult still to discern religion’s main object. In a sense, they too serve the greatest of the modern gods, the most ultimate of ultimate ends: the god of good feeling, who now reigns here below.

My first answer to Norman Geras about my blogging was: “Because I can.” (Why do I blog?) Okay, a good little joke, but a widely applicable answer to all manner of questions.  Why do so many people now pursue happiness, when in earlier centuries all they thought about was getting through the day without too much misery?  Because we can.

However, I don’t like the idea of politicians bothering themselves about my happiness.  This is a recipe for them interfering in everything I do and say and even think, because everything I do and say and think affects my happiness, and potentially everyone else’s.  (McMahon mentions Professor Layard, and the general view among politicians that they should now concern themselves more with happiness, and less about mere money or mere misery.) But the circumstances that now enable us all to pursue earthly happiness came about because politicians learned to confine themselves to restricting definite evils, most notably the worst sorts of crime, leaving us to decide about virtue for ourselves.  I seem to recall Karl Popper having written rather intelligently about this, although it’s a long time since I’ve read him.

My own experience of happiness is the widespread one that happiness is achieved best by being pursued indirectly.  It always seems to require investment, rather than mere purchasing, with even the purchasing of happiness being a skill that must be cultivated.  (Happiness tip: Learn how to shop, by reflecting on which purchases make you truly happy, how, for how long, and why.) But just as all businesses (I owe this insight to elder brother Toby who is an accountant) must have “non-financial” objectives if they are to be financially effective, so too all human purposes need a non-happiness dimension if happiness is to be attained.  This does not have to involve God, especially if like me you do not believe in such a thing.  But it does need to include something beyond your mere self and your mere creature comforts.

Leon Louw (whom I podcasted with some while ago) was adamant that whereas mere economic wealth does not crank out happiness, economic growth does.  This makes sense to me, if what makes us happy is movement towards beyond-happiness type goals and purposes.  Economic stagnation frustrates us in our chosen goals, even if we are quite wealthy.  Mere abundance on its own may even, if we define our goals stupidly, deprive us of worthwhile goals, luring us with mere comfort away from even choosing them wisely, let alone pursuing them vigorously or intelligently.

Or as McMahon puts it, quoting George Orwell:

“Men can only be happy when they do not assume that the object of life is happiness.”

Amen.  Sorry.  All rather obvious.