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Living intensely

10 Oct

‘When was the last time you did something for the first time?’ the American singer Darius Rucker asks us.  I’d like to reply, ‘Well yesterday I read a new review of a new book, The Life Intense: a Modern Obsession, by Tristan Garcia. Does that count?’ 

bungy jumping

Most people, I suspect, would say, ‘No.’  Reading isn’t actually doing anything, is it?  A few years ago, after a pleasant lunch in a King’s Cross pub, I was preparing to toddle back to my researches. ‘You’re going to drop dead one day in the British Library,’ my friend Richard commented. Just for a moment I thought he was conjuring up for me a vision of the ideal demise. Then I realised he was having a go at me – telling me that I wasn’t living life to the full. This, as far as he was concerned, involved three hour lunches, laughter, and another glass of red wine.  Lovely in its way – meeting up with friends has always been one of my greatest pleasures.  Still, I don’t want to spend all of my time doing it. And keeling over in the British Library still feels like my idea of a Good Death – provided it doesn’t happen for a while yet.

But a lifetime of reading probably doesn’t constitute most people’s image of a life lived to the full. In his review of The Life Intense (The Observer, 23 September 2018) Tim Adam refers to Alvin and Heidi Toffler’s 1970 book Future Shock, in which they predict that once society has met most people’s basic needs and provided them with a certain level of comfort, the economy will be increasingly directed, in the absence of organised religion, toward ‘psychic gratification’. In Chapter 10 ,’The Experience Makers’, they argue that manufacturers of goods will be striving to add a ‘psychic load’ to basic products (you’re not just drinking a cup of coffee, you’re doing an imaginary whirlwind circuit of Rome on a Vespa), and that we’ll see the emergence of ‘experience industries’ aimed at supplying us with a taste of adventure … danger … sexual thrills.  Anything to create the illusion that we’re really living. 

In his new book, Tristan Garcia maintains that the quality underpinning this culture and economy is the desire for intensity.  Desperate to escape from routine and mundanity,  we go racing after novel sensations and pastimes. ‘Status is increasingly measured not by what we earn, or what we contribute, but what we experience … The idea of intensity, of living to the limit, has become another way to fill the God-shaped hole, to prove to ourselves that we are fully alive.’  Garcia traces this yearning back to the Enlightenment, which reduced our world to gravity and atoms, and to the subsequent backlash against scientific rationalism during the Romantic Age, when feeling and sensation, wonder and awe, became the watchwords of a full-blooded existence.  Sensibility was taking over from sense. 

Reviewer Tim Adams thinks that the present-day craving for intensity may also be infecting our politics. ‘The electorate … is drawn to the purity of extremes rather than the pragmatism of compromise.’ Votes for Trump and for Brexit – the urge to rip up the rule book – are just two of the results. 

According to Garcia, we’re missing a lot if we continually go chasing after intense experiences. We’re missing out on subtlety, self-questioning, reflection.  This, for me, is an endorsement of a life spent reading.  Thinking, trying to understand,  are surely more sustainable as activities – both personally and environmentally – than the quest for novel sensations. Novelty, after all, is a word that can also be used to mean frippery and trivia.  And nothing under the sun would ever have induced me to take up bungee-jumping.

This, I think, is my cue to return to the British Library.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The three senses of happiness. Or is Donald Trump a happy man?

9 Jul

Over the last  twelve months I’ve been using this blog to examine a range of philosophical ideas about happiness. How do we define it? … do we need it? … and is it achievable? I’ve looked at hedonism, desire theories, and objective list theories. At the end of this process I’m inclined to go with the objective list as the best way to describe my own personal pursuit of happiness. But for me what has been far more striking is my growing scepticism about the morality of pursuing happiness in the first place. It seems almost inevitably to foster individualism and self-absorption. 

Donald Trump

I’m still not clear about the overall distinction between happiness and well-being, but I’m reassured to find that at least one person writing for ‘Plato’ – Stanford’s online encyclopedia of philosophy – sees the two terms as being  to a certain extent interchangeable. In one sense, according to the author of  Stanford’s ‘happiness’ entry, the discussion of ‘happiness’ concerns itself with what benefits a person and serves her interests; on this level it has the same meaning as ‘well-being’.

If you describe someone as happy in this sense, then you are making a value judgement (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/happiness/  1.1.1: Two senses of ‘happiness’). Somebody with different values might disagree with you. Donald Trump – my example, not Stanford’s – might seem like a happy man to many people. He’s acquired  a lot of the things which he desires, including wealth and power. But others would certainly raise objections. A man who does so many bad things, they’d argue, can’t possibly be considered happy. Even if you’re convinced that most of what Trump does is good, and this is why he’s a happy man, you’re still expressing a value judgement about what constitutes ‘happiness’.

So ‘happiness’ in this sense denotes a life that, in your opinion, is going well for the person who is leading it. But the term can also be used to describe a state of mind, and here we move into the realm of psychology . If we refer to someone as being happy, what are we saying about his or her mental state?  In my next few entries, I’m going to be looking at this question, courtesy of the ‘Plato’ article.

There’s a third sense in which the word ‘happiness’ is used, and this is probably the one that we encounter most frequently. Happiness is …being with someone you love? a long lazy Sunday? a good cup of coffee?  It could be millions of things. The reason I’ve not written this blog for some time is that I’ve been working on two plays which were performed recently at a local festival. Right now I’m tempted to say that happiness is having completed a big project and feeling that it went pretty well. But how useful is that?

In ‘happiness is …’ statements we’re not talking about the nature of happiness, but about  some of its many possible sources. From a philosophical point of view these statements aren’t very interesting. To raise them to the level of philosophical enquiry you’d have to argue that the acquisition of things that people desire – coffee, Sundays, projects – is what makes people happy. Or you’d have to add  these items to an ‘objective list’ of the things that contribute to happiness. ‘You may not want a scary and demanding project to work on, but I’m here to tell you that it will make you happy in the long run.’  Well, so might a lot of things. Objective lists can’t possibly encompass all the myriad experiences or entities which have been identified over the years as representing the essence of happiness.

So of the three senses of ‘happiness’, I think probably only two  need to be taken seriously.