Wednesday July 6, 2011
I have been meaning to write about happiness for some time; and as I turned on the news this evening to hear Martin Seligman, the director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, addressing the British All Party Parliamentary Group on Well-Being earlier today, it seems like as good an occasion as any.
I’ve been thinking about happiness for some time now, in part because I’ve been writing a book on the subject for Icon Books. It’s a short, philosophically-slanted book, and is due out next spring – I’ll post to thinkBuddha when it is launched. This is a topic I’ve been interested in for a while; but the more I have been reading and thinking about happiness over the past few months, the more it occurs to me that there is something curious about the current enthusiasm for all things happy.
In the past I have written enthusiastically about the enthusiasm for happiness; and I still would rather, all other things being equal, that the world were a happier place. But increasingly, I am thinking that too much focus upon happiness is somewhat questionable, and that the conceptions of happiness that are being promoted by Seligman, by the positive psychology movement, and by government more broadly, are somewhat narrow.
Why so? In part, because happiness is not the only good thing in the world. Happiness is not the only thing for which we might hope or wish (of course, at this point we can pull off the Aristotelian trick of saying that everything we might aim for or desire is itself is directed towards a further end, and that only happiness is an end that we desire for its own sake; but this, I think, gives us rather too broad an idea of happiness to be useful). There are many good things in the world, and it seems to me that these various good things may not be entirely compatible.
One further thing that strikes me about positive psychology as a movement is that it is promoting a strongly normative notion of happiness. Positive psychology is not just a questioning of how happiness might be constituted and what it might be, but it is a proposal for the kinds of societies and lives that might be happy. And here I begin to have my doubts, because the proposals for what a happy society might actually be like are so very limited. From reading the literature, it seems, a happy life looks a bit like this: living in a family group, ideally in a Western democracy, having a moderate amount of wealth, having realistic but challenging goals, possessing a strong work ethic so that it might be possible to realise those goals, and having a sprinkling of ‘transcendence’, a sense of some kind of otherworldly glimmering of possibility (here Seligman’s Authentic Happiness is an object lesson, with it’s bizarre religiously-inflected coda). And it may be that all of these things, in certain contexts, can indeed be good things. But, firstly, they are not necessarily so; and, secondly, they are not the only possible good things. There are other forms of life that might be both good and happy, but that don’t get a look-in when it comes to this normative view of the happy life.
And this worries me. It worries me because the guiding view of happiness that is promoted in positive psychology is one that is, as far as governments are concerned, profoundly politically untroubling. It does not call into question the human damage wrought by some of the most powerful democracies in the world, for example; nor does it call into question the damage sometimes wrought by families, or by those institutions that promote ‘transcendence’. We should resist the tendency to shy away from certain difficult questions, and to simply roll over and let our stomachs be tickled in a frenzy of feel-good sentiment. I came across an example of this today when I looked at the action for happiness page on Facebook, and there was a downloadable poster that suggests that we should “See life as it is, but focus on the good bits.” Now, once again, in certain contexts this may be the best thing to do. But in other contexts, it may be precisely the worst kind of thing to do.
I am reminded here of an interesting talk given to the RSA by author Jake Wallis Simons, on the reason that he is no longer a Buddhist (available via the link here ). Simons was involved with the New Kadampa Tradition, a Buddhist group that has been very successful in the UK; and it’s worth reading the transcript of the whole talk, as it’s both interesting and thought-provoking. The main subject of the talk is the tangled tale of the abstruse political wrangling in the Tibetan Buddhist world surrounding the figure of Dorje Shugden (not to be confused with Mollie Sugden), a somewhat disturbing and complex story of religious politics. When Simons put his concerns about the Dorje Shugden affair to the French monk Matthieu Ricard – a man who has written his own book in happiness, and who is often referred to in the media as being the ‘happiest man in the world’ (a claim that Ricard has the good sense to gently rebuff) – he received the following response:
So I said to the happiest man in the world, your book contains everything that is pure and wholesome about Tibetan Buddhism. But what about the darker side? What about the shamanistic practices, the superstition, the factional infighting, the oracles? The demonstrations? And he looked me in the eye and said, “you should separate what is good and pure in Buddhism from the negativity and politics. Trust the Dalai Lama, and focus on developing compassion.”
See life as it is, in other words; but focus on the good bits.
However, this seems to me to be an inadequate response. A robust and broad approach to the question of happiness cannot really get away with avoiding the more difficult questions. The call to focus on the good bits risks becoming politically disempowering. If we really care about happiness and well-being, of course we should care about the good bits; but we should care also about the bad bits: about the obscene extent of the global military investment, for example; or about the pervasive problems of poverty and the scandal of the fact that there are people in this country who do not have a roof over their head; about the ever-widening gulf between rich and poor; about the way the very richest and most powerful individuals and institutions across the globe, with the support of our elected or unelected representatives, often act to the detriment of the collective good. Even when it comes to positive psychology itself, there are some postentially disturbing trends, for example the massive project on positive psychology in the military that is being carried out by Seligman and the Positive Psychology Center (see here ); and trends such as these at the very least need to be opened up to difficult questioning.
So what are we to make of the current politics of happiness? On the one hand, the notion that there are other things that might matter in life than the endless treadmill of wealth creation is one that should be cautiously encouraged. We should be talking about happiness. But there are two caveats. The first is that we should allow other conceptions of happiness into the debate: many philosophers of happiness, from Diogenes to Zhuangzi to the Buddha, do not so much support as subvert popular contemporary notions of happiness. And secondly we need to recognise that there is more to life than happiness. If we were to dethrone the old god of wealth creation and simply enshrine a new god of happiness in its place, it would get us nowhere (and, anyway, the old god would probably still be there pulling the strings behind the scenes). When it comes to those things that are good, we need a more robust polytheism, I think: not just happiness, but justice and reason and other things besides. We need to allow that there are many good things; and we need to allow vigorous debate about what matters, rather than allowing ourselves to only ‘focus on the good bits’.
Comments are turned off for this article.
Today's Most Popular
Pick and Mix: Friday August 26, 2011
Western Buddhists and the spiritually sweet-toothed.
Meditation in Schools?: Monday August 6, 2007
Should meditation be taught in schools?
A World Made of Stories?: Wednesday February 16, 2011
“The universe is made of stories, not atoms”: discuss…
Gautama Buddha: Interview with Vishvapani Blomfield: Wednesday December 7, 2011
Myth and history in the biography of the Buddha…
Meditation as Unphenomenology: Thursday February 7, 2008
Meditation, cartography and the territory of the mind.
Worldly Transcendence: Monday December 24, 2007
Do we need God if we are to be happy?
Happiness: Friday October 12, 2007
According to recent reports, children in the UK suffer from “pervasive anxiety”.
The View from the Chariot: Wednesday January 30, 2008
The Buddha: bad psychologist?
Vain, Deluded, Pigheaded, Secretive, Bigoted...: Thursday February 14, 2008
That’s the trouble with the mind – it has a mind of it’s own.
Mattering: Tuesday December 18, 2007
More thoughts on materialism
Zen, Brains and Making Friends With Your Own Head: 10 Nov, 2008
It’s a complicated business having a brain.
Lies in Which not Everything is False: 10 Sep, 2008
Stories – they are nothing but a pack of lies.
The Sutras of Abu Ghraib: 30 Oct, 2007
Aidan Delgado on Buddhism, ethics and the war in Iraq.
Baboon: 06 Jun, 2006
Feeling like a grumpy old baboon?
Meditation as Unphenomenology: 07 Feb, 2008
Meditation, cartography and the territory of the mind.