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Can we teach happiness (and is it worthwhile)?

23 Sep

Dalai Lama     A couple of days ago the Dalai Lama’s endorsement of an Action for Happiness course which offers training in how to be happy made the headlines. ‘Can happiness really be taught?’ the media were asking.

Personally I’m not knocking such courses. I’m sure lots of people find them helpful. At one time I would probably have got quite a lot out of one myself; and they certainly provide a cheaper alternative to psychotherapy or psychoanalysis. But I’d like to make a couple of observations. 

Firstly, on the individual level if we want to achieve something we generally have to suffer a bit, or even quite a lot. We have to work and worry and deal with self-doubt and stay at our desks or in our workshops instead of going out to the pub with our friends. And secondly, for me, the happiness of the individual is not the main point. I found an excellent illustration of this in a comment made by one of the previous participants in a happiness course. ‘I’ve not got a lot of money,’ the young woman said. ‘But I’ve learnt to get pleasure from some very simple things, like buying a homeless person a sandwich and a cup of coffee. Something like that makes me feel so much better.’ 

Good on her. It’s more than I ever do for a homeless person, and I bet the recipient as well as the giver felt better for a while too. But we mustn’t believe that the homeless person’s prospects are going to be fundamentally changed by her action. The point as far as the homeless person is concerned is that the rest of us ought to be struggling to change the world, not just making it a little bit nicer for the one on the streets. For the individual who takes on such a burden on a full-time basis this may well mean the end of happiness, not its beginning, because it will be hard and exhausting and soul-destroying and certainly in the short term a failure. I’m not brave enough to do it myself, but I do hope that there are people out there who will make that sacrifice, because there’s an awful lot that needs to be done.  

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Hope springs eternal – how absurd is that?

10 Dec

exit the king

      Since I find Camus’ absurdist approach to the subject of happiness very compelling   (this blog, 17 and 29 May 2014), it’s not at all surprising that I  should  have really enjoyed a play by one of   the great exponents of the Theatre of the Absurd, Eugene Ionesco. The weekend before last we saw his Exit the King, first produced in 1962, at the Theatre Royal Bath.

Broadly, the play deals with the themes of mortality and impending death, both for the individual and for human civilisation. Berenger, the king of a nameless country, is now 400 years old. At an early stage in the action his two wives, Marguerite, the elder of the two, and the younger, more fun-loving Marie, learn that the King has got to die by the end of the play.

 MARGUERITE:         It’s the normal course of events, isn’t it?  You were expecting it. Or had you stopped expecting it?

MARIE:                        You’ve been waiting for it.

MARGUERITE:         That way everything’s in order.

MARIE:                        I was still hoping …

MARGUERITE:         You’re wasting your time … Nothing but hope on their lips and tears in their eyes. What a way  to behave…. It’s your fault if he’s not prepared. It’s your fault if it takes him by surprise. … Life was very sweet, with your fun and games, your dances, your processions … ‘We’ve got to live,’ you used to say. But one must never forget …

MARIE:                        He’s so fond of parties …

MARGUERITE:         People know, and carry on as if they didn’t. They know, and they forget …

 When Marguerite volunteers to tell the King that his death is imminent, Marie warns her, ‘Tell him gently… take your time,’ but Marguerite responds, ‘We haven’t the time to take our time… This is the end of your happy days, your high jinks, your bean-feasts … We’ve got a few moments left to do all the things we ought to have done years ago.’

Berenger soon learns the truth, and is distraught. Marie wants him to be allowed more time, but the king’s doctor tells her that an hour will give him all the time he needs. In what I see as a kind of preview of Daniel Kahneman’s views on the value of an ending (this blog, 11 December 2013), he continues:

DOCTOR:               A well-spent hour is better than whole centuries of neglect and failure. Five minutes are enough … ten fully conscious seconds. We’re giving him an hour, three thousand and six hundred seconds. He’s in luck.

 ‘So live for the moment,’ Marie advises her unhappy husband:

MARIE:                   My darling King, there is no past, there is no future.  Remember, there’s only a present that goes   right on to the end, everything is present ..

KING:                    Alas, I’m only present in the past.

Mindfulness is not much help to Berenger, it seems, when he is on the verge of death. He is so attached to the idea of life that when for the first time he begins to question Juliette, the palace’s downtrodden factotum, about the kind of  existence she leads, envy of her ability to carry on living prompts him to play the cock-eyed optimist and  find every dreary aspect of it enchanting. When she tells him about the toothache and the shopping and the endless washing-up, he says, ‘All this is magical, like some celebration …’.  

This kind of senseless mindfulness is the equivalent of telling the poor and oppressed to count their blessings, they’re lucky to be alive. The opium of the masses, in other words. 

Berenger, I think, resembles Admetus, the king in Euripides’  tragedy Alcestis who is told that he can be saved from death if he finds someone to take his place on the journey to Hades. (His young wife Alcestis volunteers, and Admetus allows this to happen). Leaning from the window of his room, Berenger shouts to anyone who can hear him, ‘Who will give me his life? Who will give his life for the King’s? His life for the good old King’s?’

All the other characters gradually leave the stage, and it is Marguerite who finally steers the King towards his end, persuading him to give up all the things that tie him to his existence and make his load a heavy one. ‘It was a lot of fuss about nothing, wasn’t it?’ she says to him when he finally relaxes his grip on life.

In Ionesco’s play, as in Camus’ Sisyphus, the dismissal of the idea of hope represents a refusal to cling on to a sense of purpose and meaning in our absurd lives. Neither author sees this rejection of hope as a counsel of despair. We can still live our lives to the full – in fact the notion that emerges very strongly from Exit the King  is that  we are much more likely to lead fulfilling and useful lives if we accept the inevitability of death at an early stage. Hope is seen by both Camus and Ionesco as a ridiculous and fruitless ploy to evade the all-encompassing Absurd.

 

Living in the moment

18 Aug

Turgenev

In Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons (1862), the beautiful, dissatisfied landowner Odintsova says, “Tell me, why is it that even when we are enjoying music, for example, or a beautiful evening, or a conversation with people we like – why does it all seem to be a hint of limitless happiness existing somewhere else, rather than genuine happiness, the kind, that is, we possess ourselves?  Why is it?” (chap.18)

“You know the saying,” the young radical Bazarov replies. “Happiness is where we are not.”

I know just what Odintsova means. Her dissatisfaction speaks of a nagging perfectionism, a feeling that any snatches of  happiness we manage to experience are offering us mere glimpses into a seamlessly  happy existence that is always going to be beyond our reach.

It is this sort of mentality which the disciples of mindfulness  are attempting to combat when they advise us to live in the moment, without  being always on the look-out for the worm in the bud or the future fall from grace.  Whenever I’m feeling particularly at ease with the world I often find that I have to suppress the urge to stop and write down the recipe. “This is how I ought to be conducting things all the time,” I say to myself. More strolling, more music, less talking, fewer glasses of wine. It’s as if I’m trying to make a rule for life out of the moment rather than just experiencing it. And that is probably not a good idea.

But  there must be limits to our enjoyment of the happiness of the moment, surely. If our sense of present well-being is bolstered by an awareness of the suffering of others (‘We’re so much better off than ….’), then it probably should  be resisted. The Ukrainian/Russian writer Vasily Grossman gives an outline of just such a moment in his story ‘The Old Teacher’, first published in 1943. It’s an exceptionally grim counter-example, an episode in which the mass execution of Jews is presented as a ploy to make other races feel that their sufferings could be a great deal worse.  In the story, an old Jewish scholar in a small town in the Ukrainian part of the Soviet Union is analysing the tactics pursued during the wartime invasion by German forces. “‘The Fascists have created an All-European system of  forced labour, and to keep the prisoners obedient they have constructed a huge ladder of oppression. The Dutch are worse off than the Danes; the French are worse off than the Dutch; the Czechs are worse off than the French. Things are still worse for the Greeks and the Serbs, worse still for the Poles, and last of all come the Ukrainians and Russians. … The further down you go the more blood, the more sweat, the more slavery. And then, at the very bottom of this huge, many-storeyed prison is the abyss to which the Germans have condemned the Jews. Their fate has to terrify all the forced labourers of Europe, so that even the most terrible fate will seem like happiness in comparison with that of the Jews. … The Germans will say, ‘Don’t grumble! Be happy and proud, be glad that you are not Jews!’”

This was not of course the right moment for Ukrainians and Russians to be feeling happy or proud. It was a moment when the very notion of happiness had to be rejected, and general suffering embraced.

So there have to be limits to living in the moment. But knowing where those limits are to be set in our own world isn’t easy.  Staying in the moment and resisting the yearning for a more complete happiness  is probably good for our individual peace of mind.  But that doesn’t mean we ought also to be resisting the intimations of unhappiness which the prospect of other people’s suffering evokes in us. We shouldn’t  be staying in the moment if that means shutting our eyes to painful or unjust events taking place beyond our immediate horizons.

Suzanne Moore, I find, has similar reservations about the value of mindfulness. In The Guardian recently (Aug 6 2014) she announced, with deliberate irony, “Most of what is wrong in the modern world can be cured by not thinking too much.”  Clearly, Moore believes that the problem is too little thinking, not too much. Mindfulness, in my view, has a lot to offer stressed or depressed individuals. But, as Moore argues, it would be  a mistake to see it as the ultimate panacea for the world’s ills.

 

let’s be cynical

15 Jul

Last week in ‘The Guardian’ (Thursday July 11, 2013) the philosopher Julian Baggini celebrated the virtues of maintaining a healthy cynicism. At the same time he had a swipe at those peddlers of ‘sun-kissed fantasies’, the gurus of positive thinking. At its best, Baggini argues, cynicism is a greater force for progress than optimism. Why should we mindlessly try to convince ourselves that the world and everything in it are wonderful, when clearly they aren’t. That’s hardly rational, and isn’t going to promote worthwhile change. ‘We can’t make things better unless we see quite how bad they are, or do our best unless we guard against the worst.’

I agree with Baggini almost entirely. But I have just one reservation.  While it’s right to maintain a critical attitude towards institutions, groups and ideas in the world at large, perhaps we can be a little kinder towards the individuals with whom we come into personal contact (including perhaps ourselves). Being tolerant and forgiving as well as critical seems like another good rule for a healthy and intelligent approach to life.