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Sunday 16 April 2006
Richard Schoch: Do you sincerely want to be happy? Then stop all this pleasure-seeking
The more we have, the less fulfilled we feel. Many of us spend Easter in the shops, but for real contentment we should look beyond quick fixes
"Spring is here! Why doesn't my heart go dancing?" lamented the songwriter Lorenz Hart in I Married an Angel. It's hard to know which is more poignant: the pain of a heavy heart or the expectation that the mere turning of the seasons will likewise turn our heart to joyful dancing. Perhaps we have a similar expectation this Easter weekend, as the days lengthen and we suspend our normal workaday routine. Behind all such expectations is the presumption that the happy life is the carefree and joyful life - the dancing life.
But that is a fiction, if a consoling one. Pleasure is a dangerously unreliable basis for happiness because we can never be sure that the pleasures we want - money, success, beauty - will be the ones we get. Nor do pleasures last; by their nature they are ephemeral. Uncertain of the future, and unable to control it, we can only, as Cicero put it, "pray heaven that happiness might come our way". Do we really want our happiness to depend on good luck, passing fancies, and answered prayers? Surely we want our happiness to be made of sterner stuff.
We spend lots of money searching for the secret of happiness. Self-help books generate nearly £2bn in annual sales, while the global market for antidepressants stands valued at an astounding £25bn. The "desire industry", whose titans are Botox jabbers, personal trainers and lifestyle gurus, rakes in even more. These are all sham versions of happiness, for they merely glorify the ego. But undeniably, happiness is a growth industry. It is the ultimate luxury item.
What makes us such good customers is selfishness: we want happiness and we want it now. Arrogantly, we insist that happiness is our birthright. Swallow a pill, get happy, do yoga, find your bliss, hire a life coach, regain your self-esteem. We feel entitled to be happy.
Anyone tempted to hand over thousands of pounds to enrol on the eight-week Happiness Now! course - no, I'm not making it up - should stop to recall Thomas Jefferson's words, enshrined in the American Declaration of Independence, that we have the right, not to happiness, but only to its pursuit. Jefferson recognised that happiness is something we must achieve. It is certainly not something we can buy, not even from charismatic peddlers of self-esteem.
The damning flaw of "self-help" culture is that it makes us dependent upon someone else for our happiness, whether therapist, pharmacist, guru or coach. In recent years there has been much talk in political circles about the Government's role in making us happy. Leading policy advisers to Downing Street advocate, without a trace of irony, a "happiness-based approach to public policy". They propose that the state should stop worrying about material prosperity - gross national product -and start worrying about the emotional well-being of its citizens - gross national happiness.
Who can argue with that? The state ought to be interested in our happiness, as the legal philosopher Jeremy Bentham first argued 200 years ago. But the problem is that the state misunderstands what happiness is. Governments, and the current one especially, are overly fond of timetables, targets, and performance indicators. They cling to such measurements in the vain, yet stubborn, belief that an improvement in statistics correlates with an improvement in the quality of life. So when it comes to happiness, all the Government can do is measure levels of comfort and feelings of contentment. But that takes us back to pleasure as the basis of happiness, and we know how risky an idea that is.
We don't need to accept this modern enfeeblement of happiness. Rather, we can enrich our lives by recovering the great philosophical and religious traditions of happiness - and then put them to work in our lives today. In such traditions we find the real secrets of happiness, ones so unfamiliar that we might doubt their worth. But throughout history, every conception of happiness has taught the same basic lessons: that we must moderate pleasure, control desire, transcend reason, and endure suffering. If we really want to be happy, we know what we have to do.
The Greek philosopher Epicurus, although he believed that pleasure was the basis of happiness also believed that extravagance was unlikely to make us happy. Our own experience tells us that the pleasure we derive from any object gradually declines over time; the moment we get used to something nice, it stops feeling nice. Psychologists call this process hedonic adaptation. At first, your flashy Jaguar gives you a great deal of enjoyment. But eventually it won't seem any more attractive than the sturdy Volvo that it replaced.
Many people are trapped in a spiral of consumption that compels them to buy ever more luxurious items to maintain a consistent amount of pleasure. At some point, and it arrives sooner and sooner, pleasure turns first to boredom, then to dissatisfaction, and, finally, to anxiety. We torture ourselves by asking why our hard-earned possessions fail to make us happy. Our clothes are never stylish enough, our cars never fast enough, our homes never palatial enough.
One secret of happiness is to moderate our pleasures, so that we find ourselves in the hugely more satisfying state of tranquillity, where simple things yield as much enjoyment as luxuries. Once we grow accustomed to simple things we have a better time in life, because we appreciate luxuries all the more, if they come along.
Behind the pursuit of pleasure lies desire - the impulse to possess whatever we find attractive. We might say that the root cause of unhappiness is unbridled desire, as Buddha preached in the towns and villages of northern India more than 2,000 years go.
Sometimes our desires are sharply focused, and we seek whatever is gratifying to taste, to touch, or to see. Strawberries and cream. Silk against the skin. Scarlett Johansson. Other desires, more dangerous because harder to control, feel like inner compulsions. Buddha described this as an excessive attachment to life. He meant an insatiable drive to experience new things; to race through life with your foot on the accelerator, a desire to become someone other (not someone better, which is different) than the person you are now. In today's popular culture, we call this a makeover.
Desire, in itself, is not harmful. Indeed, it can be good, such as the desire to protect your children. What is harmful is the inability to control our desires, so the key to being happy is to be detached from them. When desires arise, as they always will, we should neither suppress nor indulge them. Rather, we should step back and watch them pass, like clouds drifting across the sky. Beholding our desires at a calm, dispassionate remove, we can release ourselves from their imprisoning grip.
To control our desires we must call upon the powers of reason and rationality, so that the mind might tame the body's wayward impulses. But, equally, there is a dimension to happiness that reason cannot touch, as Muslim and Christian mystics have taught. Our happiness requires something other than reason. We may call it imagination, although it has been called other things over the centuries: mystic ecstasy, meditation, and prayer.
Heirs as we are to the traditions of science and logic, we might doubt that imagination is the path to happiness. But imagination is less about making things up (which is fantasy) than about grasping truths that lie beyond rational comprehension. Through the gateway of the imagination we gain access to a world of possibility. Can we really be surprised that it takes some imagination to be happy? After all, happiness begins almost always with imagining the self that we might become.
So where does the leap beyond reason take us? To the awareness that the ego needs to be dismantled. All the great world religions share the conviction that only by transcending the ego, by breaking down the massive protective edifice of self-image, can we find true happiness. The problem is that we ourselves have placed this barrier squarely in our path, and have built it with the tools of reason and rationality. We can always find the words to justify the needs of the ego.
To free ourselves from reason's shackle does not mean that we adopt some fraudulent pose of spirituality, as if we had risen above the practicalities of daily life. Far from it: happiness demands a frank engagement with the challenges that we face here and now. And the toughest challenge of all must be the brutal fact of suffering. Our instincts tell us that suffering and happiness are polar opposites; but our instincts mislead.
In the story of Job, the faithful servant of God who endured the most awful suffering at God's own hand, the Hebrew Bible gives us a nearly cosmic definition of happiness, far removed from any simplistic notion of pleasure or good fortune. In this timeless parable of suffering we see happiness in an unaccustomed, yet penetrating light - as bound up in our search for the meaning of life when life seems most meaningless.
Happiness is what happens as we search for meaning in circumstances of such bewilderment and perplexity that they appear to render meaning absurd. If there is meaning in the totality of life, there must also be meaning in suffering, for it is as much a part of life's charted course as birth and death. Neither invited nor welcome, suffering, is, nonetheless, part of what makes a life full and complete. To live as if suffering were an affront to our humanity and a barrier to our happiness is to miss the point of what it means to be human and happy.
To moderate pleasure, to control desire, to transcend reason, to endure suffering, are powerful testaments to the truth that a happy life is about things higher, greater, deeper, and vaster than ourselves. It is a profoundly human need to aspire to something more, and to be carried by that aspiration beyond the horizon's edge. We want to envision something that surpasses our selfish desires, that outstrips merely personal goals; and then we want to attain it. Often we shall fail, but we shall have learnt enough to know that we are stronger than our failures. Our life is an ever striving, and we call the striving happiness.
Richard Schoch is professor of the history of culture at Queen Mary, University of London and author of 'The Secrets of Happiness: Three Thousand Years of Searching for the Good Life'
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