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.
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.
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.
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.
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.