Thursday, December 30, 2021

“Trivial pursuit of happiness” - Philosophers and Other Conjurers

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Ross Gittins : Let me wish you a happy new year. And not just a happy New Year’s Eve, a whole year of happiness. But the thing about happiness is to be sure you know what you’re wishing for. It’s something that’s surprisingly easy to get wrong.

Normal economic journalists don’t waste time thinking about such a touchy-feely topic, but I went astray. I spent a lot of time reading and thinking about it. Even wrote a book about it.

Illustration: Simon Letch

Illustration: Simon LetchCREDIT:

I blame Bob Hawke, who once hit the headlines for saying that economics was about happiness. Though many economists today may deny it, he was right. He meant that economics was about helping people maximise their “utility” – the satisfaction they derive from their consumption.

“Happiness” is a word used by ordinary people, so journalists use it freely. Although some economists study it, most would never use such a frivolous word. “Welfare” is the closest they come. They’ve stopped talking about “utility” because they can’t measure it.

It’s psychologists who take most interest in happiness, but even they prefer to call it “subjective wellbeing”. Sounds more scientific.

A recent article from the British Psychological Society says that “people who are happy – who enjoy ‘hedonistic wellbeing’ - experience plenty of positive emotions and are generally pretty satisfied with life”.

But that’s just a psychologist’s way of saying that happy people have been shown to be ... happy. It doesn’t tell you how to become happy – nor whether happiness is what we should be shooting for.

The article does go on to quote the finding of a review of many studies that, while some strategies recommended for boosting happiness – such as taking time in the day to reflect on what you are grateful for – are far from bad in themselves, if you expect them to make you feel noticeably happier, you’re likely to be disappointed.

The social commentator Hugh Mackay – a man from whom I’ve learnt much – is very critical of the modern preoccupation with happiness. It’s that word “hedonistic” that offends him. It implies that it’s OK to make the pursuit of pleasure our primary goal. Seek out positive emotions and avoid negative emotions as much as possible.

As usual, he’s right. A life of pleasure seeking and avoiding all pain is unlikely to be satisfying. Pain and sadness are part of the human condition, and without our measure of them we aren’t fully human. It’s inhuman not to feel sad over the death of someone we love or the breakup of a relationship.

We’ve evolved to feel pain as well as pleasure, negative as well as positive emotions, for good reason. Pain, for instance, can be a signal to keep our fingers away from hot stoves, or to go to the doctor’s.

The sadness we feel over our own misfortunes should leave us with empathy towards the misfortunes of others, that we should renew our efforts to live up to the Golden Rule.

The British article offers a better kind of happiness: what Socrates called “eudaimonia” – the feeling that your life has meaning, and that you are reaching your potential.

It quotes a study finding that people who felt more strongly that the things they did in their lives were more worthwhile – in other words, that their life had meaning – were better off in all kinds of ways: socially, physically and emotionally.

So, how do we add meaning to our lives? One way could be through our jobs – paid or unpaid. The goal of helping to make the world a better place is easier seen in some jobs than others. But I remember reading of a hospital cleaner who saw her job as vital to speeding the recovery of the patient and the convenience of their visiting families.

The more fundamental way to add meaning is via our relationships with family, friends and workmates. We are, first and foremost, social animals.

Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert says “social relationships are a powerful predictor of happiness – much more so than money. Happy people have extensive social networks and good relationships with people in those networks”.

The other thing I’ve learnt is not to be misled by the US constitution and think you can pursue happiness. The founding fathers meant people should be free to run their lives as they see fit. True. But it’s a mistake to have being happy as your primary goal – and even worse to think you can make yourself happy by treating yourself to all the things you enjoy doing (chocolate, for instance).

People who keep asking themselves “am I happy?” or “what can I do to make myself happy?” aren’t happy – and probably never will be. Happy people rarely think about being happy.

Happiness pursuers have got it the wrong way round. Happiness is a side effect of being too busy leading a fulfilling life to think about it.

The way to be happy is to forget your own happiness and concentrate on making other people happy.

Trivial pursuit of happiness

Don’t worry, be happy and spread the love to others

What a joy to read an economics guru’s take on the pursuit of happiness (“Trivial pursuit of happiness, December 29). Look no further for an ideal New Year’s resolution than Ross Gittins’ conclusion that the way to be happy is to concentrate on making other people happy.Th e writer and Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard tells us: “Happiness is not a gift that good fortune bestows and a reversal of fortune takes back – it depends on us alone” – a much-needed personal responsibility mantra in these turbulent times. Joy Nason, Mona Vale

Gittins writes with his usual common sense but, surprisingly for an economist, makes little reference to being financially secure as a marker of happiness. Not super-rich; not even “comfortably off”. Just knowing that you can pay bills when they come and that you can have an occasional treat must help to promote happiness, or at least, emotional stability. Joan Brown, Orange

It is a basic marker of our age that we take action to achieve some goal. Many people admit that in their activity they are pursuing happiness. Yet we have never been so divided and depressed. We must have taken a wrong turn and it is time to go back. I find that the words joy and happiness are used interchangeably. For me happiness refers to an external source, whereas joy wells up inside you. COVID encourages me to look inside me. I find a world of wonder there and with the wonder, joy. Happiness ensues. But pursuing happiness is like trying to nail a drop of water to a wall. Michael Kennedy, West Pymble

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