Well, someone’s got to ask it.

We are in the midst of an explosion of interest in happiness.  The UK and Canada, among other countries, are now measuring their citizens’ well-being as earnestly as they do GDP.  Books about how to get and stay happy sit contentedly on best-seller lists.  Happiness think tanks are springing up like mushrooms, like the Wellbeing Programme at the London School of Economics.  The introductory statement on their website says, “People want to be happy.  But do we know what makes us h appy, or how society is best organised to promote happiness?”  They take it as axiomatic that happiness is the goal:  the only question is how.

Even if one is supremely disinterested in this movement, it’s coming for you. The other morning, I received a new magazine called “What Makes You Happy” inserted into my Globe & Mail newspaper.  I’m professionally immersed in this subject, and even I was amazed at the breadth of happiness articles:  happiness at work, raising your children to be happy, global happiness averages, etc, etc.

On the face of it, questioning whether we really want to be happy seems absurd.  Look at it the other way:  “Do you want to be unhappy?” Of course not!  And yet, as the get-happy steamroller bears down on us, it’s worth digging in our heels a little, at least long enough to ask an important question:

What exactly do we mean by happiness?

This is where it all gets a bit woolly.  In some respects, happiness is one of those things that we’re just supposed to “get” because everyone has experienced happiness and unhappiness at some time.  This is presumably why the LSE can so boldly state that all people want to be happy, and also why there really isn’t any social pushback or qualification to the happiness trend.

But look a little more closely, and one sees that there are a lot of hidden assumptions at work in all this happiness business.  First, everyone seems to be running with Aristotle’s argument that, no matter what goal we believe ourselves to be striving for, like financial success or building a family, we’re really doing it because we believe that it will make us happy.  Thus, happiness is the real goal.  While more than a little hesitant to take on Aristotle, I’m not actually 100% convinced of that.

But whatever the case, based on my recollections from my undergraduate years and a quick refresher at the website of The Pursuit of Happiness, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting human happiness, Aristotle also said that we don’t really know we’ve achieved happiness until the end-game, when we’ve lived our whole life and can look back on it.  It’s not a temporary state of happy-happy-joy-joy at all, it’s a life goal.

My sense is that the majority of the merrily bubbling happiness literature doesn’t look at it this way at all…mostly it seems to be promoting happiness right here, right now.  And this is where I begin to get a little uncomfortable.  In this vision, it seems like it’s too easy for happiness to devolve into the ultimate individualist, consumerist quest.  It’s all about me!  And we elevate our feelings to the level of obsession, using fleeting moments of what we perceive to be happiness as sort of a litmus test for the worth of an activity or commitment.  There’s a fair argument to be made that this is just plain narcissistic.  But more than that, I’m not sure it’s making any us feel better.  It may even be perpetuating the problem.

So what else can we develop that elevates the discussion beyond individual happiness?  This is where the idea of an excellent life, a rich life, comes in.  To me, this implies something beyond an individual’s feelings, because, as I see it anyway, a rich life is one defined by interconnection.  You can also assess it in a much more clear-cut way than happiness…is your life rich with people, work, community engagement, purpose, ideas, activity, connection to place and so on?

To be fair, a few of the well-being indices do some version of this.  For example, the Canadian Index of Wellbeing, based at the University of Waterloo, measures factors such as living standards, community vitality, health, environment, time use, democratic engagement, leisure and culture and environment.  This is a step in the right direction.  But I’d love to see us take the idea of interconnectedness head on, and measure the worth of activities and pursuits by how much they connect us to things.

Because I think this is the goal.  Yes, as individuals we’re mired in our own feelings and experiences, and we’ll all do our final reckoning about our lives at the end.  But in the meantime, we can passionately seek connection…to others, to this beautiful world of ours, to creative expression, to all the things that can elevate our humanity, and that really are worth striving for.

 

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