New Internationalist

The happiness conspiracy

July 2006

What does it mean to be happy in a modern consumer society? John F Schumaker argues that our entire socio-economic system is designed to spew out citizens eternally in search of satisfaction.

‘The trouble with normal is it always gets worse,’ sang the Canadian guitarist Bruce Cockburn back in 1983. Seems he was on to something. Normal doesn’t seem to be working any longer. The new Holy Grail is happiness. At every turn are ‘how-to’ happiness books, articles, TV and radio programmes, videos and websites. There are happiness institutes, camps, clubs, classes, cruises, workshops, and retreats. Universities are adding courses in Happiness Studies. Fast-growing professions include happiness counselling, happiness coaching, ‘life-lift’ coaching, ‘joyology’ and happiness science. Personal happiness is big business and everyone is selling it. Being positive is mandatory, even with the planet in meltdown. Cynics and pessimists are running for cover while the cheerleaders are policing the game with an iron fist. Only the bravest are not being bullied into cheering up or at least shutting up.

But a society of ‘happichondriacs’ isn’t necessarily a healthy sign. No-one is less able to sustain happiness than someone obsessed with feeling only happiness. A happy and meaningful existence depends on the ability to feel emotions other than happiness, as well as ones that compete with happiness.

‘Happiness never appeared to me as an absolute aim,’ said Einstein. ‘I am even inclined to compare such moral aims to the ambitions of a pig. The ideals that have lighted my way are Kindness, Beauty and Truth.’

If we’ve become pigs at the happiness trough, it’s understandable. As higher systems of meaning have withered, life purpose has dwindled to feeling good. Innocence, the lifeblood of happiness, is obsolete. We live on cultural soil perfectly suited for depression.

Other happiness blockers include materialism, perpetual discontent, over-complication, hyper-competition, stress, rage, boredom, loneliness and existential confusion. We’re removed from nature, married to work, adrift from family and friends, spiritually starved, sleep deprived, physically unfit, dumbed down, and enslaved to debt.

Health professionals face new epidemics of ‘hurry sickness’, ‘toxic success syndrome’, the ‘frantic family’, the ‘over-commercialized child’ and ‘pleonexia’ or out-of-control greed. Too much is no longer enough. Many are stretching themselves so far that they have difficulty feeling anything at all. At its heart the happiness boom is a metaphor for the modern struggle for meaning.

We laugh only a third as often as we did 50 years ago – hence the huge popularity of laughter clubs and laughter therapy. We make love less frequently and enjoy it less, even though sex is now largely deregulated and available in endless guilt-free varieties. Yet we’re the least happy society in history if we measure happiness in terms of mental health, personal growth, or general sense of aliveness.

A society’s dominant value system dictates how happiness is measured. The native Navajos in the southwest of the US saw happiness as the attainment of universal beauty, or what they called Hózhó. Their counterpart of ‘Have a nice day’ was ‘May you walk in beauty’.

Personal satisfaction is the most common way of measuring happiness today (via something called the Life Satisfaction Scale). This mirrors the supreme value that consumer culture attaches to the romancing of desire and the satiation of the self. When measured this way, almost everyone seems pretty happy – even if it’s primarily false needs being satisfied. A high percentage of depressed people even end up happy when ‘personal satisfaction’ is the yardstick.

By the middle of the 19th century, social critics were already noticing how happiness was losing its social, spiritual, moral and intellectual anchors and becoming a form of emotional masturbation. In his classic 1863 work, Utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill scorned this trend: ‘Better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied,’ he opined.

Total satisfaction can actually be a major obstacle to happiness. Artist Salvador Dali lamented: ‘There are days when I think I’m going to die from an overdose of satisfaction.’ To preserve the ‘rarity value’ of life one must resist wrapping heaven around oneself. Keeping paradise at a distance, yet within reach, is a much better way of staying alive. People who have it all must learn the art of flirting with deprivation.

The highest forms of happiness have always been experienced and expressed as love. But happiness is being wooed in increasingly autistic ways that lack this vital dimension. In a recent survey only one per cent of people indicated ‘true love’ as what they wanted most in life. Our standard of living has increased but our standard of loving has plummeted. The backlash against today’s narcissistic happiness is rekindling interest in the ancient Greek philosophers who equated happiness with virtue. Especially celebrated by them were loyalty, friendship, moderation, honesty, compassion and trust. Research shows that all these traits are in steep decline today – despite being happiness boosters. Like true love and true happiness, they have become uneconomic.

If we’ve become pigs at the happiness trough, it’s understandable. As higher systems of meaning have withered, life purpose has dwindled to feeling good. Innocence, the lifeblood of happiness, is obsolete. We live on cultural soil perfectly suited for depression

When author John Updike warned, ‘America is a vast conspiracy to make you happy,’ he was referring to the superficial mass happiness that prevails when economics successfully conspires to define our existence. I profit, therefore I am. To be happy, gulp something. Pay later. Novelist JD Salinger was so unnerved by the happiness conspiracy that he confessed: ‘I’m a kind of paranoiac in reverse. I suspect people are plotting to make one happy.’ The wrong type of happiness is worse than no happiness at all.

Governments are the biggest players in the happiness conspiracy. Any political action aimed at a more people-friendly or planet-friendly happiness is certain to be met with fierce resistance. The best consumers are itchy narcissists who hop, skip and jump from one fleeting desire to the next, never deeply satisfied, but always in the process of satisfying themselves. Our entire socio-economic system is designed to spew out this type of ‘ideal citizen’. Contentment is the single greatest threat to the economics of greed and consumer happiness.

Our ignorance of happiness is revealed by the question on everyone’s lips: ‘Does money make us happy?’ The head of a US aid agency in Kenya commented recently that volunteers are predictably dumbstruck and confused by the zest and jubilance of the Africans. It’s become a cliché for them to say: ‘The people are so poor, they have nothing – and yet they have so much joy and seem so happy.’

I never knew how measly my own happiness was until one day in 1978 when I found myself stranded in a remote western Tanzanian village. I saw real happiness for the first time – since then I have learned that it has vastly more to do with cultural factors than genetics or the trendy notion of personal ‘choice’.

So it didn’t surprise me that an African nation, Nigeria, was found recently to be the world’s happiest country. The study of ‘happy societies’ is awakening us to the importance of social connectedness, spirituality, simplicity, modesty of expectations, gratitude, patience, touch, music, movement, play and ‘down time’.

The small Himalayan nation of Ladakh is one of the best-documented examples of a ‘happy society’. As Helena Norberg-Hodge writes in Ancient Futures, Ladakhis were a remarkably joyous and vibrant people who lived in harmony with their harsh environment. Their culture generated mutual respect, community-mindedness, an eagerness to share, reverence for nature, thankfulness and love of life. Their value system bred tenderness, empathy, politeness, spiritual awareness and environmental conservation. Violence, discrimination, avarice and abuse of power were non-existent while depressed, burned-out people were nowhere to be found.

But in 1980 consumer capitalism came knocking with its usual bounty of raised hopes and social diseases. The following year, Ladakh’s freshly appointed Development Commissioner announced: ‘If Ladakh is ever going to be developed, we have to figure out how to make these people more greedy.’ The developers triumphed and a greed economy took root. The issues nowadays are declining mental health, family breakdown, crime, land degradation, unemployment, a widening gap between rich and poor, pollution and sprawl.

Writer Ted Trainer says before 1980 the people of Ladakh were ‘notoriously happy’. He sees in their tragic story a sobering lesson about our cherished goals of development, growth and progress. For the most part these are convenient myths that are much better at producing happy economies than happy people.

When normality fails, as it has today, happiness becomes a form of protest. Some disillusioned folks are resorting to ‘culture jamming’ and ‘subvertisements’ to expose the hollow core of commercial society. Others are seeking refuge in various forms of primitivism and eco-primitivism. Spurring this on is intriguing evidence from the field of cognitive archaeology suggesting that our Paleolithic ancestors were probably happier and far more alive than people today. The shift toward ‘Paleo’ and ‘Stone Age’ diets also reflects the belief that they had happier bodies.

There is an exquisite line by the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche which touches on one of the keys to happiness: the need to appreciate ‘the least, the softest, lightest, a lizard’s rustling, a breath, a moment’. Paradoxically, happiness is closer when we kneel than when we soar. Our own nothingness can be a great source of joy.

We usually hitch our emotional wagons to ego, ambition, personal power and the spectacular. But all of these are surprising flops when it comes to happiness. Today’s ‘success’ has become a blueprint for failure.

Visionaries tell us that the only happiness that makes sense at this perilous juncture in Earth’s history is ‘sustainable happiness’. All worthwhile happiness is life-supporting. But so much of what makes us happy in the age of consumerism is dependent upon the destruction and over-exploitation of nature. A sustainable happiness implies that we take responsibility for the wider contexts in which we live and for the well-being of future generations.

Sustainable happiness harks back to the classical Greek philosophies in viewing ethical living as a legitimate vehicle for human happiness. Compassion in particular plays a central role. In part it rests on the truth that we can be happy in planting the seeds of happiness, even if we might miss the harvest.

Some argue that as a society we are too programmed to selfishness and over-consumption for a sustainable happiness to take root. Democracy itself is a problem when the majority itches for the wrong things. But if we manage to take the first few steps, we may rediscover that happiness resonates most deeply when it has a price.

The greatest irony in the search for happiness is that it is never strictly personal. For happiness to be mature and heartfelt, it must be shared – whether by those around us or by tomorrow’s children. If not, happiness can be downright depressing.

John F Schumaker is a US-born psychologist currently living in Christchurch, New Zealand/Aotearoa, is the author of In Search of Happiness: Understanding an endangered state of mind (Penguin).

This column was published in the July 2006 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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