Our duty to be grumpy

5 Feb

Christopher Kaczor’s assertion that we’re under a moral obligation to be happy really got up my nose (this blog, 1 Feb 2019). But as usual, when I explored a bit further, I had some second thoughts. Kaczor argues that our emotions have an effect on other people, so when we’re down people around us are more likely to get down as well. Everyone we meet might be a bit better off if we were only prepared to work on our individual happiness. 

This made sense to me.  Picture an evening in February. It’s pouring with rain, and I’m stumbling into Tesco’s while trying to wrestle my umbrella into a manageable shape. Someone pushes past me and snarls. I’m already feeling quite low – I’m struggling with an article I’m writing, Camden Council is digging up all the roads round our way, just getting to the shops takes quite an effort, that rude git has just knocked me out of his path – so now I definitely want to go home and shoot myself. If only the git had been kinder – if only everyone I came across were far less grumpy and whiny and selfish –  then maybe I wouldn’t right now be sinking into the existential morass …

Or vice versa, of course. If I’d been a bit more pleasant myself then perhaps the other shopper might be smiling now instead of snarling. Maybe what the world needs after all is a whole load of people who are trying their hardest to be happy … 

On reflection, I think what I want is just for people to be a bit kinder to each other, rather than being happy.  Insisting on the latter seems to me to take us into the territory of the happiness Czars, like the ones who are apparently running Pret a Manger at the moment (this blog, 1 August 2018).

I was thinkJeremy Hardying about all of this when I heard the news that Jeremy Hardy had just died, at the desperately early age of 57. Hardy wouldn’t have achieved anything if he’d concentrated on being cheerful and upbeat all of the time. Being grumpy and whiny and angry were his hallmarks as a comedian and political activist. (And God knows, there’s a lot to be angry about: I’ve just been reading about Shoshana Zuboff’s new book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, which tells us that the activities of the big tech companies are far far worse than we even imagined.)  But everyone who knew Hardy says that he was an extremely kind and generous man. That’s vital, it seems to me. Being kind on the personal level, and grumpy and challenging in the public arena, that’s maybe the way to go. And trying not to worry too much about being happy as well. 

As a mere listener – someone who enjoyed and profited from his wonderful political rants – I’m going to miss Jeremy Hardy enormously. 

 

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Aristotle meets the Dalai Lama

1 Feb

Aristotle-Face1 Dalai Lama 2

Generally speaking, in spite of the fuss we make about its onset, January is not a month for happiness. Personally I’m not sorry it’s over. However, its early stages are often marked by discourses on the happiness theme, and one of them was provided by Mark Tully in Something Understood, broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on January 6. This is the date when Christians celebrate the festival of the epiphany – meaning revelation or ‘bringing to the light’.

epiphany

According to Tully the Dalai Lama (not himself a Christian, of course) believes that  the purpose of our life is to seek happiness – that the whole motion of our life is towards it. But is this a reasonable goal? Yes, the Dalai Lama replies. We can attain happiness by training our minds. Inner discipline helps us to transform our attitudes – our approach to living. We need to identify the factors in our lives that lead to happiness and those that lead to suffering, and then gradually eliminate the latter, and cultivate the former. 

Although I’m not in general a fan of the ‘pursuit of happiness’ idea, I’m really not disagreeing with any of this. I do want to be happy, and unlike some of the friends I talk to I believe that happiness is something we can work at. Some people have made the decision not to aim at happiness, and I respect them for this – it’s a reasonable and I think in some ways a moral point of view.  But most of us seek it, and this is probably a necessary thing, and possibly even a good one, provided it doesn’t lead to complacency (which I suspect is not something we can accuse the Dalai Lama of). But I do feel strongly that the pursuit of happiness is a personal endeavour – a product of the principle of individualism – and that it isn’t going to change the world. As a species we might even be better off without it. 

One reason why I’m inclined to favour the Dalai Lama’s views is that they seem to be quite close to those of Aristotle, although I do find Aristotle a bit more convincing. In the Nicomachean Ethics the philosopher argues that what distinguishes us humans from other animals is that we have a rational soul: our capacity to guide ourselves by using reason is our distinguishing feature – our ‘telos’ or end. So if we use our reason well, we are living well as human beings, and this is what our happiness (our ‘eudaimonia’) consists of.  Living well means doing something, not just being in a particular condition – it means pursuing those lifelong activities which will satisfy the rational part of our being. But Aristotle also makes it clear that in order to be happy we need other things as well – such as friends, money, and political power –  because our capacity to live in accordance with reason will be diminished if we lack these advantages.

“This gives rise to the question, can happiness be learnt, or acquired by training? … or is it bestowed by some divine dispensation or even by fortune?  Well, if anything that humans have is a gift from the gods, it is reasonable to suppose that happiness is divinely given … Still, even if happiness isn’t sent to us from heaven, but is gained by virtue and by some kind of study or practice, it does nevertheless seem to be one of the most divine things that exists.”    

(Nicomachean Ethics 1097b-1099b ). 

Does this mean that we also have a duty to be happy, as one of Tully’s other contributors – theologian Christopher Kaczor – was arguing? I’m afraid that it might, but for the time being I’m resisting the idea.  When you’re feeling depressed, the last thing you need is someone standing over you, saying, ‘Come on, snap out of it! You’re under a moral obligation to be happy, don’t you realise that?’ This approach, I find, isn’t remotely helpful. 

 

Brexit … and happiness

13 Jan

dominic-cummings-benedict-cumberbatch-brexit

I’ve never wanted to use this blog as a repository for banal ‘oh and here’s another thing that makes me happy’ observations. And I certainly wouldn’t want, God forbid, to suggest that Brexit is an issue that has made me happy. But one thing the current furor has managed to achieve is a 1000-fold increase in my interest in political debate and – mirabile dictu – parliamentary procedure.

And to break my blog-rule just this once, as an ingredient for my personal happiness there’s nothing to beat a good drama. James Graham is one of my favourite playwrights, and his piece Brexit – the Uncivil War, which aired last Monday on Channel 4, was very good. It featured Benedict Cumberbatch (above right) as Dominic Cummings, the campaign director of Vote Leave (above left). 

I have many thoughts about the extent to which it’s permissible to tinker with history in a political play (remembering here that everything that happened up to about five minutes ago is history). I won’t go into that now, but I tend to be quite hard line: if you want to alter the facts, then why don’t you just invent your own bloody story instead of filching one from history? But I’ve just read a review of the Graham play which has made me think again. Perhaps every political play should be allowed one completely made-up meeting between important characters. In Schiller’s Mary Stuart it’s a meeting between Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots that never happened. Peter Morgan’s Frost/Nixon has, not exactly a meeting, but a late-night phone-call in which Richard Nixon admits his guilt to David Frost. And Brexit – the Uncivil War contains an encounter in a pub between Cummings and spin doctor and Remain campaigner Craig Oliver which is, it seems, entirely fictional. 

Just one, mind. That’s my maximum. I’ve already broken two of my rules in this blog, and the rot has to stop somewhere. 

Happy old year

12 Jan

2019 is well under way, and it’s high time I reported on the UK happiness stats for April 2017 to March 2018, which were published last September by the Office of National Statistics. There’s nothing to get hugely excited about, however. The averages remain the same as the ones for 2017/16. ‘How happy yesterday?’ stays at 7.5, ‘how anxious’ is at 2.9, life satisfaction 7.7 and ‘things you do in your life worthwhile’ is at 7.9.

Northern Ireland remains the happiest of the countries making up the UK, in spite of having no sitting parliament and being in the front line of political skirmishing for quite some time now. And Rushmoor in Hampshire has overtaken Craven in North Yorkshire as our happiest district – ialdershot buddhist centrets ‘happy yesterday?’ rating shot up from 7.8 to 8.4. One of the towns in the Rushmoor district is Aldershot, which has a large training camp on its fringes and advertises itself as ‘the Home of the British Army’. It seems laughable to some of us that  it should be the happiest town in Britain, but that’s just prejudice – I have to admit that I’ve never actually been there. It’s an affluent area, and that probably helps. But more intriguing is the information that Aldershot has the largest Nepalese population and the largest Buddhist community in the UK. Surely that in itself contributes to its happiness quotient?

So … by the end of March 2018 our Brexit woes Aldershotmilitarytown.jpghadn’t apparently had any impact at all on our happiness scores. We do have to bear in mind of course that the majority of people in the UK voted in favour of Brexit, so by no means everyone is pissed off by it (something that we Remainers are often inclined to forget – democracy is OK as long as it’s going your way). Still, a lot has happened in the last nine months, so we’ll just have to wait to see what the crop of statistics for 2019 yields. 

Happiness and the craving for knowledge

12 Nov

Last week I came across a new word that I love – epistemophilia.  It was employed by psychoanalysts Sigmund Freud and Melanie Klein, and although it means basically ‘love of knowledge’ it isn’t necessarily a positive term. 

Klein’s student Wilfred Bion in particular developed the use of the word.  He saw the drive to know as essential to our psychic health. If we find someone, generally in early life, who is willing and able to contain the unbearable feelings which we all experience as infants,  and hand them back to us in a manageable form, then we can generally learn to control those feelings ourselves. In the process we acquire knowledge about ourselves and our interactions with the outside world. We become able to think.

But if we fail to find anyone who fulfils this function, an inability to know can result, and we may suffer from an uncontained ‘nameless dread’.  In later life some of us feel the urge to displace this dread by filling ourselves up with intellectual content.  This version of epistemophilia may make us feel a bit more secure for a while, but we’ll find as time goes on that we need more and more of the stuff.  Hence the desperate and indiscriminate craving for knowledge which I mentioned in my earlier blog (October 15).

readingIncidentally, while searching for a picture to illustrate this piece, I googled ‘reading’.  Most of the images that came up were of women, children and animals (teddy bears and Snoopy do love to read, apparently). When I googled ‘looking at computer screens’, most of the images that came up were of men. This bloke on the left is an exception, perhaps because he isn’t just curling up with a book – he’s really getting on top of  this reading business. He may, indeed, be suffering from epistemophilia. 

Sexual stereotyping is alive and well, it seems. In fact, it could be getting worse. 

 

 

 

 

More stuff on stuff

9 Nov

The debate about whether stuff can make you happy has been intensified recently by the latest terrifying predictions on climate change. Greenhouse gas emissions must be cut by almost fifty percent by 2030  if we’re to avert global environmental catastrophe, including the loss of every single coral reef, the disappearance of  Arctic ice, and the destruction of small island states (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/oct/08/global-warming-must-not-exceed-15c-warns-landmark-un-report)

People of my generation have got used to thinking (guiltily) that this level of catastrophe isn’t going to happen in our lifetimes.  But if we’ve only got twelve years, then it’s quite possible that it will. 

not buying clothesThe slightly-less-than- appalling news is that we can all do a bit to try to make things better.  Eat less meat, drive our cars less, insulate our homes.  Rather more challenging from my point of view is the advice sent in by one Guardian reader:  never buy anything new until the old one breaks, including clothes. 

My clothes hardly ever break. And I’ve certainly got more than enough to last me the rest of my life. Does that mean I can’t buy any more, ever?  Not a happy thought as far as I’m concerned. 

What is thinking for?

15 Oct

A footnote to my last blog: I realise that reading doesn’t always lead to thinking, nor should it. Just after I’d posted my blog I heard a discussion on the Radio 4 arts review programme Front Row (10 October – World Mental Health Day) about the part reading novels can play in combating depression.  For this exercise you need to choose novels which aren’t too taxing. Marian Keyes, herself a novelist, favoured Margery Allingham, while the presenter Stig Abbell was an enthusiastic champion of P.G. Wodehouse. ‘I never go anywhere without a book,’ Keyes told us – she refers to it as her ‘emergency novel’. Once she’s feeling a bit better then she can move on to something more challenging. Continue reading