Sartre: unencumbered by stuff

10 Jan


Three months ago I’d never even heard the expression ‘the experience economy’.  Now it seems that every other journalist is talking about it. Of course, there’s nothing like Christmas for persuading people to angst about Stuff, how much we desire it, and what a waste of money, space and resources it is. Shouldn’t we be opting for experiences instead?

The week before last , the whole of the Radio 4 programme ‘You and Yours’ was devoted to the question of whether, in the west, we’ve reached a state of Peak Stuff. Some people phoned in to say that they were addicted to buying things. Others told us in detail how little new stuff they needed.

One lovely woman informed us that the only non-food item that she doesn’t buy from charity shops is her underwear.  Another made the sensible point that the problem is in part a generational one. As you get beyond middle age you may well find that you’ve got most of the stuff you want, and in any case you can’t find room for any more. The young are generally in a less fortunate position.

A psychologist on the programme reflected on the trend towards experiences rather than things.  On Facebook, he said, a photo of you and your friends having fun will nowadays get far more ‘likes’ than a picture of your new shoes.

I’m still not convinced that telling the rest of the world about your fabulous experiences is any more charming or worthwhile than bragging about your new acquisitions (see this blog, 11 November 2017). But I’m interested to discover that the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre preferred to spend whatever money he had on the experience aspect of human life (as I might have expected from an existentialist, come to think of it).

Sartre’s aim was to pass through life unencumbered. He gave away books after he’d read them; the only objects he tried to hang on to were his pipe and his pen.  Most of the money he earned was redistributed to others. If he did keep any for himself, he preferred not to spend it on stuff,  ‘but on an evening out: going to some dancehall, spending big, going everywhere by taxi, etc etc – and in short, nothing must remain in place of the money but a memory, sometimes less than a memory.’  He was, apparently, a legendary tipper (War Diaries, p.244, 251).

I learned this from the excellent book, At the Existentialist Café, by Sarah Bakewell (p.119-20). The inclination described is of course very much in line with the existentialist aspiration towards freedom – from possessions as well as from preconceived ideas.


A self-help tip from GBS …

9 Jan


‘The way to have a happy life is to be too busy doing what you like all the time, having no time left to you to consider whether you are happy or not.’ This practical piece of advice from Bernard Shaw echoes much of the guidance which is nowadays offered by self-help gurus. He passed it on to us in a BBC film made at his home in Ayot St.Lawrence in 1946 , to celebrate his 90th birthday.  

Some of Shaw’s plays make it clear that he was mistrustful of the whole idea of  pursuing happiness (see this blog, 14 May 2015), and what he says here certainly makes a lot of sense. I’m not sure that it would work all that well if you were too depressed to keep busy. But it does occur to me from time to time that writing a blog about happiness is a good prescription for not worrying about it all that much. Ironically enough.

I discovered the quote, incidentally, in an excellent programme about Shaw presented by the actor Gabriel Byrne on BBC4 last night. 



The experience economy – is it making us happy?

11 Nov

eating and shopping

Peak stuff is in the news again (see this blog, 31 March 2016). Market research and retail organisations tell us that the UK’s ‘experience economy’ is on the rise, with people spending more on meals in restaurants, days out and holidays, and less on tangible possessions. Retailers are in trouble, apparently. BHS, for example, has gone dramatically bust, and – more surprisingly – Apple recently reported its first revenue decline in 13 years.  At the same time spending on recreation and culture has gone up by 8%.

The reasons for this trend were discussed on Radio 4’s ‘World at One’ last Tuesday by presenter Martha Kearney and an academic specialising in consumerism. Rising inflation, the academic argued, means that these days people want to save their hard-won cash for essentials like food, rather than spending it on superfluous consumer durables. But what about the ‘experiences’ we’re opting for nowadays? Kearney asked. Don‘t they cost money too? Maybe it’s a question of compensation, the academic suggested. Pressures at work and school mean that families are spending less time in each other’s company, so when they do get a chance to be together they want to do something  a bit more interesting than slog round shopping centres. They’re compensating themselves for not seeing more of each other.

This discussion put me in mind of Daniel Kahneman’s distinction between the experiencing self, who lives in the present, and the remembering self, who maintains the on-going story of our lives (this blog, 9 Oct and 11 Dec 2013). Maybe these days we’re investing more in moment-by-moment experiences, as Kahneman suggests we ought to be doing if we want to be happy.  We’re focussing more on living and less on remembering . 

But there again, maybe we’re not. We still want to tell stories about our experiences, both to ourselves and to each other. In other words, we still want to furnish our remembering selves with material. One thing Kearney and the academic agreed on was that experiences provide just as many opportunities for showing off as stuff does. Rather than displaying our new scatter cushions to our friends we’re deluging them with photos of our meals out and our holidays in Provence. Social media provide us with so many arenas in which to compete with each other on the experience front. And this, we’re beginning to learn, can actually make other people miserable. ‘Why aren’t I as happy as my friends A and B?’ is one of the most common reactions to postings on Facebook, we’re told. This, indeed, was probably one of Facebook’s original underlying purposes. ‘Get booking that holiday now!’ it screams at us. And it seems that we do, in ever increasing numbers.





More and more satisfied … unless you’re in Wolverhampton

4 Oct


uk happinessThe UK’s Office for National Statistics has just published the well-being figures for  April 2016/March 2017, based on responses to the ‘life-satisfaction’ and ‘happy or anxious?’ questions I’ve been discussing in recent blogs. Life satisfaction, we’re told, is at its highest level since 2011, when the questions were first included in the Integrated Household Survey. It’s gone up to 7.7 out of 10, compared with 7.6 in the previous year.

So during a period when the UK began grappling with the fallout from the 2016 Brexit vote, people apparently felt more rather than less satisfied with their lives. They were also a little bit happier. Scores under this heading had levelled off between 2015 and 2016 – having risen steadily in earlier years – but now they’re up from 7.48 to 7.51. We’re apparently just as anxious as we were in the previous year, however  – the average rating here was 2.9 out of 10. And  we’re no more inclined to view what we do in our lives as worthwhile: here the score remains static at 7.9.      UKMap

Many of us feel that we’ve being going through a good deal of political uncertainty recently. But the ONS points out that in spite of this, employment rates rose during the period covered by the report, and in other surveys respondents have reported an improvement in their financial situations. This could be the reason for the increased sense of life satisfaction.

As usual the media are fascinated by the regional variations in these survey results. Of all the countries making up the UK, Northern Ireland, as in previous years, recorded the best average ratings across all four measures. And when you get down to local authority districts, Craven in the Yorkshire Dales emerged as the happiest area in Britain, and also had the highest levels of life satisfaction and the lowest anxiety levels. Wolverhampton, sadly, remained the least satisfied of all our districts.

Kant: virtue before happiness

30 Sep

Being in touch with our feelings may be important if we want to know whether we’re happy or not. But when it comes to distinguishing right from wrong, we have to rely on reason rather than feelings. This, at least, is what the  eighteenth century German philosopher Immanuel Kant argued.

According to Kant, happiness cannot form a basis for morality. Experience tells us that doing the right thing doesn’t always produce happiness – quite the contrary in some cases. Conversely, pursuing happiness may fly in  the face of virtue: the principle of happiness tells ‘viImmanuel_Kantrtue to her face that it is not her beauty but only our advantage that attaches us to her’ (The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant: Practical Philosophy  91). If we base our values on personal happiness, then we are only virtuous when we think we have something to gain from it. A shopkeeper, for example, may be honest because he thinks a reputation for honesty will be good for his business. If he believed he could get away with it, the same consideration – his own advantage – would tell him to be dishonest and screw as much money as he could out of his customers. So morality and happiness are very uneasy bedfellows.

There’s another reason why the pursuit of happiness is so unsatisfactory when it comes to moral values. Although almost everyone feels that he or she wants to be happy, very few people know how to attain this state. For example, a person who imagines that knowledge is the thing that will make her happy may discover so many horrible things in the course of her studies that  on the contrary she becomes deeply miserable. Or take the example of wealth –  this is  notorious for its inability to make people happy. So how can something as unstable as the quest for happiness provide a sure foundation for morality?

Happiness for Kant means getting what we want (Cambridge Edition 240), and this is the reason why it is such a difficult project. We don’t really know what we want. In order to find this out we would need to be omniscient – but sadly we aren’t. ‘The problem of determining surely and universally which action would promote the happiness of a rational being is completely insoluble’ (Cambridge Edition 71).

So at a time when British utilitarian philosophers like Bentham were advocating ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number’, Kant  was maintaining that this was a hopeless goal.  Even benevolence – giving other people what they want  – doesn’t work. Let’s imagine we’re dealing with a drunkard. We give him lots of wine – but that isn’t a good thing to do. Clearly, then, securing either for ourselves or for others what we or they want cannot be the basis for an unchanging and universal morality.

Kant has to admit that human beings do, naturally, seek happiness. And in certain circumstances achieving it is not inconsistent with leading a moral life. We must all the time try to do our duty, accepting that this will often prevent us from being happy. But sometimes happiness and duty will coincide. ‘When a thoughtful human being has overcome incentives to vice and is aware of having done his often bitter duty, he finds himself in a state that could well be called happiness, a state of contentment and peace of soul in which virtue is its own reward’ (Cambridge Edition  510-11). This doesn’t inevitably happen. If we think that virtue is the surest route to happiness,  there’s a good chance that we will be disappointed. But if virtue and happiness do coincide, this is the best thing that can possibly happen to us. ‘Virtue and happiness together constitute the position of the highest good in the person’ (Cambridge Edition 229).

None of this means that Kant saw God as the fount of moral law. We cannot possibly know whether God exists or not – such knowledge is too hard for us. To find virtue we must look, not to a higher authority, but to an inner authority –  to our own rationality. Reason is something that we share with all other human beings, and it is the sole source for our knowledge of what is right.

Are we addicted to pleasure?

11 Sep


It looks very much like it, at least in Britain and the US. According to Robert Lustig, in an article which appeared in yesterday’s Observer, addiction is very much on the increase.  Heroin use in particular has sky-rocketed: although the UK has only 8% of Europe’s population, a third of all European overdoses happen in this country.  Overall death rates are also rising, for the first time in over 20 years. At the same time the incidence of depression has more than doubled. In the UK prescriptions for anti-depressants have gone up by 108% in the last ten years.

Lustig, an American endocrinologist and anti-sugar campaigner, thinks that these phenomena are linked. The things unhappy people do in order to feel better – smoke, drink, take drugs and eat sweet stuff – are killing them. 

 “What’s the connection?” asks Lustig. “Elementary, my dear Watson. Too much dopamine and not enough serotonin, the neurotransmitters of the brain’s “pleasure” and “happiness” pathways, respectively. Despite what the telly and social media say, pleasure and happiness are not the same thing. Dopamine is the “reward” neurotransmitter that tells our brains: “This feels good, I want more.” Yet too much dopamine leads to addiction. Serotonin is the “contentment” neurotransmitter that tells our brains: “This feels good. I have enough. I don’t want or need any more … Chronic dopamine from your favourite ‘fix’ reduces serotonin and happiness.”

In our society sugar, tobacco, alcohol, pornography and even drugs are all tolerated. The use of social media – which in itself is addictive, and can lead to cyberbullying – is positively encouraged. Combine this with constant stress, the product of the pressure both to spend and to achieve, and the result is an “unprecedented epidemic of addiction, anxiety, depression and chronic disease.” It’s a vicious cycle. “The more pleasure you seek, the more unhappy you get and the more likelihood you will slide into addiction or depression.”

I can only assume that Lustig is right about the science of pleasure versus ‘happiness’. And it’s interesting that his conclusions mirror more speculative ideas about the limits of hedonism and of desire-satisfaction.  It’s a grim picture he’s painting, although we can perhaps comfort ourselves with the thought that withdrawing from the ceaseless round of pleasure-seeking may well make us feel a bit better.  

But that may be quite difficult. “Our ability to perceive happiness has been sabotaged by our modern incessant quest for pleasure, which our consumer culture has made all too easy to satisfy. Those who abdicate happiness for pleasure will end up with neither. Go ahead, pick your drug or device. Pick your poison. Your brain can’t tell the difference. But please be advised – it will kill you sooner or later, one way or another.”


Happy in the centre of your being?

8 Sep

How happy did you feel yesterday?  Conversely, how anxious did you feel yesterday? These two questions, posed by the Office for National Statistics in its annual population survey, are a kind of thermometer employed by the ONS to check the British population’s emotional temperature. We’re not being asked how much pleasure or pain we experienced yesterday, or how many of our desires we managed to satisfy. Just how happy or anxious we felt. 

Dartmoor pic

Most people will have little difficulty in recognising anxiety, but it’s hard to predict how respondents are going to interpret the word ‘happy’. The underlying implication is that feeling happy is the opposite of feeling anxious, and if we respond in that vein, then as Daniel Haybron suggests (‘Happiness and its Discontents’, New York Times 13 April, 2014), we’re telling  the ONS about our emotional well-being. How ‘untroubled, confident, comfortable in our own skins’ were we feeling yesterday? In other words, what was our overall emotional condition? ‘To be happy,’ writes Haybron, ‘is to inhabit a favourable emotional state.’

Pleasure and pain aren’t the issue here. We may have had tremendous fun yesterday – an enjoyable meal, some great sex. Or we may have had some unpleasant experiences, like a bout of toothache, or an argument with a colleague. But did these episodes affect our basic feelings?  Perhaps we felt anxious in spite of the sex, or happy in spite of the toothache. Pleasure and pain aren’t necessarily tied into our emotional well-being, and it’s the latter that the ONS is trying to gauge.

“‘I have a headache.’ Well, don’t say, ‘Oh no!’ ‘I’ve got earache.’  Again, don’t say, ‘Oh no!’ I’m not suggesting that you’re not allowed to groan, just that you shouldn’t groan in the centre of your being.” This is a quote from the Discourses of the Stoic philosopher Epictetus (1.18.19). How you’re feeling in the centre of your being is what interests this thinker, and it’s probably what the ‘happy’ and ‘anxious’ queries are getting at too.

Haybron thinks that it’s worth posing these questions because ‘our emotional conditions may provide the single best indicator of how, in general, our lives are going.’ So the ONS gets some useful data from our answers. But thinking about these things may be good for us as well, for the respondents as well as the questioners. Instead of scrutinising the day’s events, one by one, we should try looking at the bigger picture. Does the way we are living make sense? ‘Often, the signals of the emotional self can set us on the path to better ways of living – and a happiness worthy of the name.’

Considering these questions doesn’t necessarily tell us anything about the ingredients which contribute to our emotional well-being. To think about these we probably need to go back to the theories which I’ve discussed in earlier blogs. According to Haybron, as well as physical needs – food, clothing shelter – we also have needs as emotional beings. ‘Among the most important sources of happiness are: a sense of security, a good outlook, autonomy or control over our lives, good relationships, and skilled and meaningful activity. If you’re unhappy, then there’s a good chance that it’s for want of something on this list.’

Aha, there’s a definite sighting of a theory here – it’s the objective list idea (this blog, 20 October, 2016). I’m keen on this strategy myself, so I’m not going to disagree. If only someone could tell me how to acquire the good outlook, then I might be as happy as Larry. This simile, I discover from the internet, may have its origins in the Cornish and later Australian expression ‘happy as a larrikin’.  So give me a better outlook, and I might be as happy as a rowdy and careless young person who’s always larking about. Or possibly … as happy as someone who’s hugging a menhir on Dartmoor, which is what I’m doing in the picture above.