Sunday, 23 January 2011

The Happiness Agenda

"What gain, then, has the worker by his toil? I have observed the task which God has given the sons of man to be concerned with: He made everything beautiful in its time, He has also put an enigma into their minds so that man cannot comprehend what God has done from beginning to end. Thus I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to rejoice and do good in life. Indeed every man who eats and drinks and finds satisfaction in all his labour - this is a gift of God." Ecclesiastes 3:9-13

I am glad to see that The Moral Maze has finally returned to the airwaves after its Christmas hiatus, and am also glad that the subject under discussion this past week was "happiness", in particular our Government's stated ambition to measure the happiness/welfare of our nation the results of which will shape the direction of their public policy. Despite much of the discussion having drifted off the theme of measuring and responding to happiness statistics, and onto the promotion of happiness by government, some good and thoughtful arguments were made by both sides.

I suppose the question we must ask, even if we can not adequately answer it, is what is happiness? The definition offered by Professor Richard Layard "feeling good and wanting to go-on feeling good" is not perhaps too far off the mark. A sense of contentment with a positive view of oneself and one's life is pretty much the long and the short of it. Some of the contributors to the debate held the view, shared by many, that there is a clear distinction between pleasure and happiness. And in the words of Philip Hodson "euphoria and ecstasy" are to be considered different from happiness. This seemingly neo-platonic, division between the earthly, physical sensation of pleasure and the elevated spiritual reality of happiness is also a concept that many religions, especially Christianity, have embraced and promoted. The most extreme associating pleasure with sin and even the devil.

Well I am sorry to have to disagree with this weight of opinion. As far as my observations of myself and those around me go, happiness is a mixture of both inner contentment and pleasure. Life is filled with many pleasures from the physical to the psychological, and these contribute immensely to the happiness of human kind. By themselves they are rarely sufficient for any sense of lasting happiness, and those devoid of that transcendent inner contentment, will often find that an endless chase after transient pleasure only leads to an increase of sadness. But likewise to achieve immense happiness in the absence of life's pleasure is also a task that so few are able to achieve. But certainly that inner happiness, is what gives each and every one of us the ability to find joy and peace in even the most trying of circumstances. God has filled our world with pleasures for us to enjoy, let us not ungratefully reject the gifts we have been given, instead let us rejoice in them, always cognisant of, and ready to bless He who bestowed them upon us. So too we should recall the boundaries He Himself has set for the enjoyment of the pleasures that He created, and not chase after those wants that in the words of James Martineau, God "wilt never bless."

This leads on to a point that was made during the radio debate, most specifically by Claire Fox. She correctly pointed out that many people who actively seek to promote happiness often have other, value based world-views that they are seeking to transmit or even impose. Matthew Taylor himself made the argument that it is the "moral duty" of our political leaders to point out to us the "systematic errors" we hoi polloi make when it comes to our own happiness. Apparently we only think we are happy, and we need the state to come along and tell us how to actually be happy! Also despite studies indicating that religious people are by far happier than their secular counterparts, few in the Action for Happiness brigade actually advocate religion! Instead they search for secular alternatives. This patronising attitude is not new for even that powerful and intelligent advocate of utilitarianism John Stuart Mill himself believed that the simple pleasures and happiness of the uneducated majority were lesser than the supreme pleasures and happiness of those people....well those people much like himself. The same argument of course is used by religious advocates themselves, who often preach a message that suggests that "you are not really happy it is an illusion, but convert to our faith and you will be blissfully happy forever" often accompanied with personal testimonies about how life became so happy with the embracing of the faith. What many of these secular and religious advocates of happiness have in common is that they are not actually seeking and promoting happiness for its own sake, and really they should be more honest about their motivations.

It seems to me that there are many things that make people happy. The idea that there is only one type of happiness and that the rest is illusory or of temporary duration is simply wrong. There are many people living lifestyles which if I were to embrace would cause me not a small amount of misery and yet they are brimming with happiness. Can the libertine who lives a life of happiness and pleasure really be happy living the strict and demanding life of your average Plymouth Brethren or Amish? Could many people in those said religious communities really enjoy the almost meaningless excesses of hedonistic libertarianism? Most certainly not. And yet both exist, the hedonist and those that sacrifice much of temporal life for God, and many in both camps live happily. We are told that more and more education is a guarantee of happiness, yes to many it is, but not to all. Some live completely happy lives with a simple naiveté, did not Solomon himself say that:

"For in much wisdom is much grief. And he who increases knowledge increases sorrow" Ecclesiastes 1:18

Some people yearn to go to work and get depressed as bank holiday follows bank holiday so eager are they to return to the office. Others find the greatest happiness in not working, but having a day or week or year why not, free to enjoy a long walk, a quiet meal or even a sit-down in front of the telly.

However I, as many readers may already know from my previous posts, am not a relativist. I do believe that there is an ideal sort of happiness. Upon what is this ideal based? On that which to me is more important than happiness itself, goodness. Righteousness and virtue are to me the foundations of a life well lived, and the happiness that living a life of righteousness and virtue creates is supported by these pillars whose only support is the Creator who's will gives them existence.

This is one of the problems (but not the main one) I have with the idea of government using surveys of happiness to decide public policy. Does the fact that something makes people happy make it correct? Does the fact that something makes people unhappy make something wrong? In our own lives we know that not to be the case. We know that often we become incredibly unhappy (and a few of us even become grumpy, sulky and downright mean on occasion) at others even when they did nothing wrong, and the fault lay with our selfishness, arrogance or simple stupidity. Feeling upset does not mean someone wronged you.(A lesson fast disappearing from our blame society). Also we know that people, ourselves included, have garnered great pleasure and happiness when doing something we know to be wrong, such as when a person succeeds in revenging themselves, when a person is enjoying the thrill of marital betrayal, or when a person sits gossiping and mocking. Many people in our own country would have been awash with happiness if they had succeeded in lynching the children who murdered Jamie Bulger, but would that have been right?

Policy should be decided on two grounds: ethical/moral legitimacy and efficacy. A government should work at constructing policies that are good and just, and that work, and if these bring happiness then that is a very welcome bonus.

Of course if government is going to have at its heart a desire to advance the good and discourage the bad, then surely these two concepts also need defining. In theocratic societies or in those in which there is one dominant religion this answer is often easy. Good is what God says is good as was revealed and bad is what God says is bad. In muscled secular societies this answer can also be quite easy. Good is what a small yet powerfully influential clique of people define and promulgate as good and bad is what they define as bad. In a society where there is a mixture of faiths, both religious and secular, such as ours, the definition of good and bad is not quite as neat. While I think it is good and necessary for individuals to hold onto clearly understood principles of good and bad (preferably rooted in the transcendence of God) no one individual or group can or should impose his views on everybody else. So clearly the best option is for each political party to put out their own understanding of what constitutes a good and moral society, and let the public decide, while remembering as much as possible the hard won rights of dissenters to disagree. To our misfortune, our political parties tend to shy away from any moral issues as much as possible until after they win if at all, and these decisions are instead often foisted onto a nation by the courts of the European Union or by politically motivated unelected judges at home. This is not good for democracy or society.

My second and main problem with this government involvement in the happiness of the nation is more of an ideological one. I simply do not believe it is the duty of the government to involve itself in those areas which are the provenance of the informal and personal structure called society, and especially into the private emotional lives of individuals. I see the state as having the role of protector of society by doing its best to prevent those anti-social elements from harming society and the individuals of whom it is made up. I also see its role as restricted to ensuring that those institutions set up for the benefit of society are run effectively and fair. Its final role is to ensure (not necessarily to provide) every individual with the basic requirements to live a productive and safe life. The highly emotional and subjective personal reality of happiness, is best left to the individual alone, and those people and institutions in society which he/she cares to voluntarily attach him/herself too. I have to agree with those who feel that they are not at all that willing to take lessons in good living or happiness from our political leaders some of whom are hardly the best models for either!

Again, could this be yet another example of the failure of our churches, both the established one, and all the others, to address a widespread yearning for guidance and happiness? Would our political masters have even considered entering into the happiness agenda if the churches were addressing this issue in a coherent and passionate manner? Who knows?

There is a great deal on unhappiness in our society, and we should all be playing our part in alleviating it.

It should spur us on as people of faith to reach out to others and to demonstrate by example the happiness that living a life devoted to the Almighty can bring. Without falling into the trap of falsehood in promoting our happiness as the only real happiness, we can certainly provide people with an alternative to the choices that are so often sold as panaceas to permanent happiness. As Unitarians we are wonderfully placed to allow people to explore in supportive atmospheres, what indeed makes them happy and what changes can be made to their lives to increase their share of happiness. We can be there for people when the inevitable unhappiness of life come upon them, we can shy away from the approach of Job's friends and instead seek only to empathise with them and to alleviate their unhappiness. We can also as so many of our Unitarian forebears did allow the sadness we feel when we look at the injustice, cruelty, indifference and yes immorality of our society and world, spur us on to instigate changes that will increase the happiness of the nation while keeping it rooted in what we believe to be truth.

For me happiness can be found in a life entrusted into the hands of the Almighty, reliant and grateful of His compassion and goodness. On an eye focused on the good of any situation and a heart rejoicing in even the smallest pleasure. And on an eye focused on the needs and feelings of others.

We should walk in the footsteps of our teacher Jesus who spent very little time in talking about happiness and instead went out and strove to remove the causes of people's unhappiness by healing them and turning them away from sin back into the arms of their ever awaiting Father in heaven.

"Those who are well have no need for a physician, but those who are sick. I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance" Mark 2:17

Our approach can be summed up so concisely by the hymn inspired by the words of the prayer of Francis of Assisi.

Make me a channel of your peace,
Where there is hatred let me bring your love,
Where there is injury your pardon Lord,
And where there's doubt true faith in you.
Make me a channel of your peace,
Where there's despair in life, let me bring hope,
Where there is darkness, only light,
And where there's sadness, ever joy.
O Master grant that I may never seek,
So much to be consoled as to console,
To be understood as to understand,
To be loved as to love with all my soul.
Make me a channel of your peace,
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
In giving to all men that we receive
And in dying that we are born to eternal life.

1 comment:

Jacqueline Johns - Your Happy Life Mentor said...

Happiness is snuggled up in a quiet spot within you.
You need only be still and silent and allow it to unfold until it eventually engulfs you.

Live Life Happy!