Making yourself happy

1

I was at an event a few days ago. There was chilled Pinot Grigio, wooden walls, and the sound of a vacuum cleaner in the background. It was a bunch of thought leader types looking for ways to build a hopeful community. Well, that was the brief. The main speaker repeatedly mentioned how that event was all about ‘people connecting’. Meanwhile, he used his mastery – and what a master he was – to hog attention and energy. But hey, who’s free from such contradictions?

About two thirds of the way through, another speaker – a finance consultant – said the following. That he worked with the people who did well, if not best, in the current system. And that as much as he could see, those people were mostly not happy. Then the conversation moved on, and the thought passed.

It stayed with me – and has been resonating since, as one of the saddest things I’ve heard. I wrote a short Linkedin post about it – which resonated with people. So here I am, expanding on those reflections.

2

Aristotle proposes that happiness – eudaimonia – is the purpose of the good life. It is also the sign of a life well lived. Happiness here is not simply the experience of pleasure. It is an emergent property, arising from satisfaction taken in the exercise of an activity. But not only that, it is also the result of long term accretion, as one goes through life, and develops friendships, knowledge and healthy habits. So never listen to the life advice of a grumpy old man. Their misery signals a life poorly lived.

Sure, happiness is partly dependent on luck, placing material goods and people of compatible temperament in our way – or simply giving us a favorable starting point. It is, in equal part at least, dependent on our choices, our commitment to cultivate the cardinal virtues of prudence, courage, justice and temperance or moderation. Happiness is thus something that we develop consistently, over time. Irrespective of where we start, we can become happier.

More, in the views of Aristotle and other proponents of virtue ethics, happiness is something we must cultivate. As a teenager, I became obsessed with Andre Gide. In his journal he writes: ‘It is a duty to make ourselves happy’. I have adopted that sentence as a motto, and an encouragement to cultivate virtue. Not that I have never fallen prey to depressive or anxious spells, but that – as a fundamental beacon for my own life, I should look at what would yield consistent, long-term happiness.

3

How did we come to build a system where the people who ‘succeed’ are not happy? I mean – I see the contradictions of our post-colonial, partiarchal, neoliberal capitalist societies – but how does the model perpetuate itself? Why are leaders, and other ‘successful people’, not putting a stop to it all, saying ‘this makes me miserable’? For those who were less privileged to start with – or failed to build the right habits – well, their lack of happiness would make sense. But surely, a good system is one where success comes with profound fulfilment.

My default first step towards the answer is not exactly joyful. One of my favourite pieces of political philosophy is a text by Montesquieu, from The Spirit of the Laws, where he describes the distinct passions that underly different political regimes. A true republic, says Montesquieu, relies on a collective desire for virtue. Aristocracy relies on honour. Tyranny rests on fear. Corollary, you know what regime a country lives under by observing what passion dominates among its people.

This doesn’t bode well for us. In spite of much hand-wringing about democracy (and its purported threat from China, Russia, Iran and other rogue states), the dominant passion I observe around me seems to be fear, much more than a passionate love of virtue. Whether it’s corporate types avoiding responsibility, or millennials retreating from the world to nurture their generalised anxiety. Workplaces at least – no matter how many Chief Happiness Officers they might appoint – do not seem to nurture the consistent practice of healthy habits (or virtue), leading their employees to experience deep lasting happiness. Gin cocktails and ping pong tables notwithstanding.

4

In late 2020, I joined hands with a peer – facilitator extraordinaire Helen Palmer – to organise a little digital experiment. We brought together a bunch of friends to design and test mourning rituals. The proposal was to experiment with DIY models to process the negative emotions accumulated through the pandemic. The hopes and aspirations that would not manifest, the futures desired and never come to life, the senses of self shattered under the pressure of forced isolation.

It’s been a long obsession of mine, that the present times call on us to process enormous amounts of grief. It’s not just COVID – it’s climate change, environmental collapse, the death of species, and the overall experience of living in the end times. As many other middle class Europeans, I grew up in a joyful utopia of globalised consumerism. It was the end of the Cold War, infinite growth, human progress, and diminished suffering. Many of my childhood dreams played out against the background of an expanding world. And though new dreams have come, new real possibilities of real happiness – many ghosts remain.

I don’t think it’s just me. I sense it around me. That collectively, we need to process the enormous grief of a society that hit its environmental limits. Grief not only for what has been properly lost – the Pyrenean Ibex, the Western Black Rhino, the Baiji, all gone the way of the Dodo – but also for lost futures, for the loss of imagined opportunities, predicated on infinite resources and energy. I have not been trained to deal with that much grief, nor has anyone I know. Nor do I see much effort to process this grief. In fact, much of the current blockages, resistance to climate action and system change, I ascribe to this emotional weakness. The people who did well in the current system – older upper and middle class white men, for most of them – are hardly capable of processing grief at all that I can see. The prospect of dealing with the loss of future worlds continuing their legacy far outstretches their capacity. So they remain firmly stuck in denial. And meanwhile the world collapses.

5

It was half a year ago, at an event run by Regen Melbourne, exploring a regenerative future for the city. The closing circle invited participants to reflect on their vision for the future of Melbourne. ‘I imagine a city full of glitter, and lots of sex,’ I said. It was an obvious provocation, but one anchored in the intuition that we cannot build a better world based on sad passions alone. I am a Catholic at heart, and experience it as an exuberant religion. The first miracle was turning water into wine – and good wine at that. We need a sense of abundant gratuitous joy, if we are to channel enough energy to go forward – and rebound after accepting the weight of grief. For this, we need to nurture our capacity to experience greater pleasure, with less material input. And this is also the cornerstone of moderation, basis of all virtues, and hence of happiness.

Values cards project – happiness

All through 2019, following on the reflections and practice I conducted in 2017-2018 on Christian, Confucian and Buddhist virtues, I had a regular (weekly-ish) Skype conversation with my friend and ‘virtue-buddy’ Patrick Laudon in Japan, to reflect on values. We did this simple thing: each time we spoke, we pulled a card out of a ‘values card’ pack, and had an improvised conversation to try and figure what we thought of that value. I took some notes during those conversation, and am now sharing a reviewed version, which I present in dialogue form. Those are neither a full transcript nor a perfect representation of our conversation – even less should they be understood as showing distinct positions in a debate. They’re no more than loose fragments of a conversation saved from oblivion.

A: There is a song by a Belgian singer, Angele, that’s about happiness, and it says: ‘Il n’existe pas sans son contraire.’ I like that song, and I’ve been thinking, it’s probably difficult to recognise happiness, while unhapiness, that’s something you can recognise.

B: Maybe it’s that, one way to define happiness is just as an absence of suffering. So, there is no proper definition, we just look for its opposite.

A: You know the buzzword in startups, ‘chief happiness officer’. I hate it, it makes it sound like happiness is something that the company will try to sell you. Maybe you know this guy? Arnaud C**. That’s his whole platform. Pure platitude.

B: What if we tried to see it from a different angle? I like to think of happiness as a well-functioning immune system. Like a form of Nietschean ‘Great Health’, it works like a kind of armor, it’s, somewhat artificial, and protective.

A: What about this? We could say that most of the things we think about are things that will happen in the future. And they will only happen if we believe that they will. So, happiness is about our approach the world, the way we choose to encounter things. And there are different forms of approach, some more positive, some more negative. But if you somehow anchor yourself in the present, then there is a form of happiness that’s directly connected to this sense of a better future. And so, yes, maybe happiness is just something that derives from hope?

B: Maybe we can tie this with etymology. ‘Hap’ – or ‘heur’ in French – it has to do with what happens, what unfolds. And so maybe, thinking about hope, happiness is a certain way to perceive our environment as conducive to something positive, and that will naturally unfold into the future. If we think of it this way, we can make sense of injunctions, like Gide says, that it is our duty to make ourselves happy. It’s about cultivating a relationship with the world that sees the possibility of future good. And that relationship is experienced in the present as happiness.

A: So maybe, this also tells me something about cynicism and suspicion. When I reject what I would call ‘happiness in a can’, those happiness recipes and tricks and chief happiness officers, maybe that has to do with my own sophistication. I’m saying, this wouldn’t work for me, therefore it’s intrinsically wrong. Or it there is some truth to it, it would work, but only for less sophisticated people. But when I think like that, I fall into the pit of snobbism.

B: I like this image of ‘happiness in a can’. If we come back to the idea of happiness as an immune system, maybe that kind of happiness you describe is like an over-reactive immune system, and that’s dangerous, for individuals and for the collective. It’s like an allergic reaction, it can kill you. Or like drugs, it helps in the short term, but it’s harmful in the long run. Because, that kind of artificial happiness, It disconnects you from the real.

A: Or maybe it’s just that this ‘in a can’ feature, this pre-formatted message, it negates a characteristic of happiness, that it’s always experienced on a personal level, not as an abstract universal.

B: Is it then that this ‘happiness in a can’ presents happiness as a means, not an end in itself?

A: Yes, while wisdom traditions, like the Greeks, take happiness, eudemonia, as an end in itself, as a form of healthy relationship with the world.

B: But could it be that happiness is precisely the means to this healthy, fair, harmonious relationship with the world?

A: I think, happiness is a personal thing, it’s experienced individually, not collectively. It’s impossible for a collective to pursue personal goals. So, we cannot pursue happiness as a group. It doesn’t make sense.

B: Well, that would be particularly true if, as we said in the beginning, happiness is hard to define. Because if an end, or a goal, is hard to define, it is also difficult to pursue. And so, we could shift things a little and say the collective goal is to pursue the absence of unhappiness, but that’s way more depressing.

A: Doesn’t Aristotle write about happiness as a type of satisfaction that directly derives from the pursuit an activity? So maybe, we should think of happiness as an aristocratic type of virtue. That’s what you see today in startups, and all this talk about, your work should make you happy. You can get that kind of happiness if you’ve got slaves who do the dirty work. It’s probably not so easy to feel happiness from your activity when you’re a cleaner or a delivery person. And so –the practice of virtue that leads to happiness, that takes time, and it calls for certain conditions. So, there’s something dangerous about this discourse that says we should pursue happiness, and if we’re not feeling happy, we’re doing something wrong. I think, it’s hiding something, it’s not in touch with the real.

 

Values cards project – joy

All through 2019, following on the reflections and practice I conducted in 2017-2018 on Christian, Confucian and Buddhist virtues, I had a regular (weekly-ish) Skype conversation with my friend and ‘virtue-buddy’ Patrick Laudon in Japan, to reflect on values. We did this simple thing: each time we spoke, we pulled a card out of a ‘values card’ pack, and had an improvised conversation to try and figure what we thought of that value. I took some notes during those conversation, and am now sharing a reviewed version, which I present in dialogue form. Those are neither a full transcript nor a perfect representation of our conversation – even less should they be understood as showing distinct positions in a debate. They’re no more than loose fragments of a conversation saved from oblivion.

A: I see joy as associated with a desire for power.

B: There’s something about it that’s exuberant, something to do with activity.

A: It’s not a permanent state, but it’s connected to something you do.

B: It’s derived from an activity that’s geared towards the good.

A: It’s also connected to something particular. It can be an object or it can be an action, but it’s about something.

B: Maybe joy and happiness are like fear and anxiety. One is about a specific thing, the other is more like a looser state, without a clear object.

A: There are also people who are more or less prone to joy. You know those people who just seem particularly joyful.

B: And joy can be more or less calm.

A: There’s something religious about it too. Something Christian. I mean, it’s in Christian songs.

B: It’s like a greater capacity to rejoice – enjoy – whatever is coming from the outside.

A: It’s kind of like a candy-machine where you don’t need coins, it just comes when you press a button.

B: OK, so joy has an external source. It means there’s no self-contained joy. It’s a positive attitude, but also something to do with a kind of openness.

A: Yes, happiness is more about having a harmonious relationship with yourself, while joy is about your relationship with nature, or with God, or with other people.

B: So, what’s the opposite of joy? Maybe it’s vice, as the pursuit of an activity that will bring you temporary pleasure on the spot, and remorse afterwards.

A: Another opposite of joy would be rejection. When you’re closed off to things.

B: Or there’s pain, that’s more physical, there’s despair, and that’s more about your inner psychological state, but then there’s sadness, and that’s the opposite of joy?

A: Is joy an end in itself then?

B: Cultivating joy is an end in itself.

A: So, it’s about the pursuit of happiness, as a right and a duty.

B: A right that’s not associated to a duty doesn’t deserve to be defended

A: There’s Andre Gide, saying it’s a duty to make yourself happy

B: Or Gandhi, saying there’s a duty to be happy from the mere fact that you were brought to the world.

A: What about joy and desire?

B: Ha, well, at a first level, desire is about wanting what you don’t have. But at a second level, it’s about the capacity to rejoice from the things you have.

A: In Ignatian terms, you’d say the goal of our existence is to figure out the unique manner in which we’re called to pay homage to your creator. And then do that. Joy is just an epiphenomenon.

B: So, there’s a duty to be joyful. You can’t tell somebody to be happy, but you can bring joy to others through your own joy.

A: It’s a kind of hospitable virtue.

B: A Mediterranean virtue.

A: And what about joy and truth? There’s this passage from Descartes, in the Passion of the Soul, where he it’s better to feel fake joy than true sadness. I call that the Cartesian dilemma.

B: Well, this sounds like one of the only real ethical dilemma.

On happiness

“It is a duty to be happy,” writes Andre Gide in his Journal. I first read this sentence as a teenager, and adopted it as a personal motto.

Happiness is not a pure gift of fortune. We should not expect the world to make us happy, nor should we resent the world if we’re not. Happiness is what we build, over time.

This may sound offensive. Is depression a personal failure? Inequalities irrelevant? Not so. If happiness is a duty, then we must aspire to it, no matter what our circumstances. We may be far from happiness, for reasons outside our control, whether birth in the wrong house or dysfunctional brain chemistry. The duty remains. We must part from sadness or anger. Spend as long as required, alone, or with help, to reach happiness. Make this a priority.

This sentence, in its simplicity, is a beautiful call to moral courage and emotional honesty. When a certain course of action would make us happy, but goes against another duty, the court is open. Self-sacrifice, shame, conformism, are acceptable only to the extent that they will not result in lasting bitterness. And if our preconceived idea of success clashes with happiness – then maybe, success must go.