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’.

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 a bit of information gleaned from a review of the Graham play 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 in Brexit – the Uncivil War a climactic encounter in a pub between Cummings and the spin doctor and Remain campaigner Craig Oliver is, I now learn, 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

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

FOMO and the looking-glass

3 Sep

FOMOThinking about mirror neurons – the cells that make us want what others want – led me to consider the form of anxiety known as FOMO. This has been defined as ‘a pervasive apprehension that others might be having rewarding experiences from which one is absent’ (Przybylski, Murayama, DeHaan, and Gladwell, ‘Motivational, emotional, and behavioral correlates of fear of missing out’,  Computers in Human Behavior 29: 1841–1848.).  FOMO produces a desperate need to stay in touch with what the people around us are experiencing, be it a party (‘Why wasn’t I invited?), a film, a holiday activity, or a whole lifestyle.

The term was invented in the late 1990s in the world of business studies, and its close cousin is FOBO, or the fear of better options – the phenomenon I refer to myself as ‘the conviction that other queues at the supermarket always move more quickly than mine’. Both FOMO and FOBO are increasingly fuelled, needless to say, by our engagement with social media. They’re the reason we try (and fail) to handle two or three media at the same time – watching the telly while texting while reading our emails, for instance. 

The supermarket queue is a pertinent example as far as I’m concerned, because my own FOBO is closely linked to a frantic desire to save time, the flip-side of the horror I experience when I realise that I’ve made a bad decision about how to use my time. This is why I get very agitated when, for example, I find myself sitting in a cinema watching a rubbish film. I seem to imagine that during these precious two hours I could be writing a masterpiece, or at any rate composing an entry for my happiness blog.

So in my case FOWT – fear of wasting time – could be added to the list of anxieties. This hang-up wouldn’t arise if we lived forever, of course. We’d have plenty of time for everything. But I’m probably not the only person who would never even bother getting out of bed if I wasn’t operating under strict time constraints. So immortality isn’t really very desirable – which is just as well.

The Greeks had a number of myths that hammered home this message. One was about Eos, the goddess of the dawn, who fell in love with a beautiful mortal youth named Tithonus.  When she begged Zeus, the ruler of the gods, to grant her a wish and make her sweetheart immortal, she forgot to add the supplementary request for eternal youth. Tithonus did indeed live forever, but he also grew older and older, till eventually, when ‘he could not move nor lift his limbs, this seemed to her in her heart the best counsel: she laid him in a room and locked the shining doors. There he babbles endlessly, and has no more strength at all …’ (Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite 5.235). 

A similar fate befell Sibylla, a young virgin who promised the god Apollo that she’d sleep with him – at this point she dug her hands into the  beach she was sitting on – if he let her live as many years as the number of grains of sand she held in her hands. But Sibylla was a cock-teaser. At the last minute she changed her mind, and pushed Apollo out of bed. The god granted her wish, but he failed to point out that without eternal youth it might not prove a very happy outcome. Do be careful what you wish for. Sibylla became a prophetess at the shrine of Apollo at Cumae, near Naples. Before long she was a tiny bent old lady, and when petitioners visited her and asked her what she wanted, she cried in reply, ‘Apothanein thelo’ – ‘I want to die!’

Which just goes to show … being mortal is important if we want to enjoy a meaningful and fulfilling life. FOMO, FOBO and FOWT are the unfortunate but controllable by-products of the transience which defines our human existence. 

Happiness through the looking-glass

20 Aug

Here’s another interesting fact I gleaned from Leo Johnson’s ‘Hacking Happiness’ series:  our brains, according to Italian neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni, contain a small circuit ofmirror cells called mirror neurons.  These are activated when we perform particular actions – such as smiling or shouting  or when we observe other people performing the same actions.  Mirror neurons wire us up to want what other people want.  Your friend smiles, you smile. In this way we develop what are termed mimetic desires: we don’t want things because they give us simple pleasure, but because lots of other people seem to find them desirable.  This, Iacoboni says, becomes a mighty force when it operates in the realm of social media.

I can well believe this. Mirror neurons help to explain a number of familiar responses. Such as why a few years ago I was willing to queue for five hours to see a play which I was only mildly interested in until I discovered that all the tickets were sold and people were talking about it … or  why everyone throngs to the same beaches … or why individuals get so fired up when they come together in crowds.

The lesson for happiness-pursuers, I suppose, is that it’s always a good idea to closely examine our desires and try to decide what we really really want – as Epicurus nearly said.

What we really want is not always fathomable, of course. The play I queued five hours to see was pretty good, but it was impossible for me to judge it rationally, because it would have had to be bloody brilliant to justify sitting for that long on the stairs at the Royal Court theatre. On the other hand, I did meet someone in the queue who became a friend. I learned something worth knowing  too – that well-off people send their au pairs and cleaners to queue for return tickets, which is one of the reasons why this system is so unfair. And above all the experience was worthwhile because it satisfied one of my deeply rooted Protestant principles: I suffered, and eventually I was rewarded.

Are we pursuing happiness … or is happiness pursuing us?

1 Aug

More specifically – in the words of Leo Johnson – is the happiness industry pursuing us?

Johnson’s series ‘Hacking happiness’ (BBC radio 4, July 16-20) is one the best explorations of happiness issues I’ve come across recently. A central theme of the first programme was the corporate happiness agenda. Companies are now appointing CHO’s, or Chief Happiness Officers, Johnson tells us. The idea is to make workers happy, not because happiness is a desirable end in itself, but because it’s a good way of boosting productivity. People will work harder if they’re happy.

This agenda sounds pretty sinister, and I think Johnson is right to be sceptical about its objectives. But I wouldn’t want to go overboard in condemning it. We could just as easily point out that people will work harder if they get higher pay and longer holidays: should we therefore condemn these measures as part of a capitalist plot to grind the faces of the workers and exploit them all the more thoroughly?  If trying to make employees happy is part of an overall package that includes decent pay and better employment rights, then I’m certainly not going to argue against it. 

eating a sandwich in the street

 Much more sinister, in my view, is the appalling pressure which is sometimes placed on workers to assume the appearance of happiness, as a way of pleasing their customers. This doesn’t just involve training them to smile inanely and cry, ‘No problem!’ and ‘Enjoy the rest of your day!’ at every available opportunity. The sandwich company Pret a Manger, for example, seems to be notorious for insisting that its workers have a sense of fun, and for giving them the push or docking their wages if they display ‘latent sadness.’ This while paying them, needless to say, rather less than the living wage (Wikipedia, ‘Pret a Manger’).

Oh for the happy days of yesteryear, when diners used to flock to the German restaurant Schmidt’s on London’s Charlotte Street, just for the privilege of being insulted by its surly waiters. Sadly, waiters and waitresses nowadays are compelled to work their socks off for very little money AND be nice to the customers while doing it. It’s one of the joys of living in a service economy.