Where Happiness Lives & Dies

Once I happened upon the World Happiness Report my interest was sparked to learn what I could about the place of happiness in the 21st century human endeavor. My receptivity to this study probably arose from often having my mind in two time periods separated by a couple thousand years at the same time—ancient Greek and Roman philosophy where the idea of living a good life was preeminent as a matter for reflection and embodiment; the other period is the present in which this idea has largely disappeared outside of fatuous and misleading advertising copy. As I followed the trail of references that the Report led to I learned that “Happiness is gaining momentum worldwide due to an increasing belief that the real work of government is to create a happy, healthy and positive society.” As an American this was news to me. It appeared in an announcement from the World Government Summit that it had launched a Global Dialogue for Happiness. According to Wikipedia,

The World Government Summit is a UAE-based international organization that serves as a platform for global dialogue attempting to revolutionize how governments operate and how policies are made. The organization’s vision is to aid humanity at large, it aims to empower governments for the future with the ultimate objective of improving the lives of seven billion people all around the world.

I also learned that every March 20 is the International Day of Happiness and that the UAE had initiated a World Happiness Council. Before the shock of finding all this, the only knowledge I had had that any government took happiness seriously was the well-known Gross National Happiness Report that Bhutan issues each year, its alternative to the much more popular reports on Gross Domestic Product in other countries.

It pleased me to read about these initiatives while doubting they would gain much traction in my own country where happiness is generally considered too squishy a concept for serious public discussion and in any event a distraction from the more important work of growing the economy and channeling a large part of its product into the bottomless maw of our national security apparatus. A few years ago I heard a report about an odd little controversy that erupted in a small New England community. The city council had innocently voted to support the idea of creating a federal government Department of Peace. The citizens rose in horror and forced the council to revoke its support. “It just seemed too wimpy,” was the way one of them put his objection. This would be amusing except for its profundity, its expression of the enduring American zeitgeist, which does not allow for real peace out of fear we’d let down our guard. Thus we are a mostly unquestioned militaristic nation.

I imagine that the wimpiness of peace is paralleled by a similar attitude toward taking happiness seriously as a national concern and aspiration. They’re both just too soft. (I believe a similar dynamic reveals itself in the federal budget, which grudgingly allocates about $3 billion to the National Park Service, the most popular and happily used government program of all [except for Medicare and Social Security, which coincidentally are also under continual assault by those who consider reliable medical care and secure lives appropriate only for the upper class, which is presumed to have earned them], while casually committing hundreds of billions for continued building of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which doesn’t work very well and isn’t needed except by those with a political and/or pecuniary interest in the thing.) Happiness is assumed to follow a growing economy as night follows day despite all evidence to the contrary. The World Happiness Report 2017 again:

In sum, the United States offers a vivid portrait of a country that is looking for happiness ‘in all the wrong places.’ The country is mired in a roiling social crisis that is getting worse. Yet the dominant political discourse is all about raising the rate of economic growth. And the prescriptions for faster growth—mainly deregulation and tax cuts—are likely to exacerbate, not reduce social tensions.

Learning from experience comes hard, and may be next to impossible absent national turmoil and demands when the ruling class can only focus on its own financial and power-centered interests.

I once made a list of what seemed crucial needs for well-lived lives. It was surely incomplete but included: identity, solidarity, meaning, stability, security, respect, dignity, health, effectiveness, goodness, truth. The World Happiness Report identifies and analyzes the following happiness-promoting factors: caring, freedom, generosity, honesty, health, income, good governance. Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness report (“A Compass Towards a Just and Harmonious Society”) considers nine “domains” for evaluation: psychological well-being, health, time use, education, cultural diversity and resilience, community vitality, good governance, ecological diversity and resilience, and living standards. One could summarize or expand as much as you wanted but in the end there would probably be a rough consensus on what thoughtful people believed was needed in order to be happy. That Bhutan, the UAE, and the people involved with the World Government Summit’s Global Dialogue for Happiness are treating happiness as serious business is remarkable in the present world and even hopeful. But those of us in the U.S. and similarly misled countries will have to remove the blinders and learn to ask the right questions before it can matter to us. Too many live like a creature within a maze under the sway of illusory goods and delusionary ideas.

I say again: If happiness is the goal of an individual’s life then it seems reasonable for it also to be significant within our collective lives, as for example our governments and workplaces. What if every significant action had first to answer the question, “How would it affect happiness among the people involved?” Something like an Environmental Impact Statement when actions affecting the environment are proposed.

This might be the appropriate time to speak of how to find more happiness except that that assumes motivation, capacity, and recognition of what actually composes it, and I’m not sure that we in America are up to the task. As something more than a smile and good feeling, happiness is at bottom an ethical choice. It is not the sort of thing that can be seen and aimed at directly but has to arise spontaneously from ground that has been properly prepared for seeds to germinate, and it looks as if those seeds are particular ways of being and the ground a soul that nourishes them—soul referring here to the character of a person and the moral center of his or her society, soul as an integral compound of reciprocating elements. And who can find any of this within the American landscape and mindscape?

I write while the bodies are still being counted in the Las Vegas killing field, October 2017. The casualties are close to 800 with 60 of those dead. Predictably we see the same old responses: moments of silence, prayers for victims and families, questions that focus on the perpetrator (Who was he? Why did he do it? Was it terrorism? Was he emotionally disturbed? How did he pull it off? Etc.), blame for the too easy availability of guns and the impossibility of limiting them, denial of any responsibility but the perpetrator’s, and we move on. This time I read a bit fewer adjurations to do something to stop the carnage (this being the real carnage and not that of the President’s inaugural speech which was unreal) and more resigned sighs of recognition that this is just who we are and it will never end. And the unspoken, “get used to it.” Just another sign of the cultural denial of life’s importance. We are not here to be happy but to endure and to kill those who get in the way.

Happiness is rooted in love of life, love of existence and truth and goodness. Love is a binding together of self and other in care and generosity, where self is found in other. Care wouldn’t ask about the Second Amendment; rather about the effect on happiness and well-being of all those guns floating around. It would ask about why violence thrives, and it would see the straight line between America’s violent birth four hundred years ago into slavery, genocide, and bigotry and its latest parturition in the bodies on the ground in Las Vegas. It would be a deep and heavy and honest reckoning and in that it could never happen here. America doesn’t do deep.

So I predict that we will go on killing one another and dying, go on not facing the perilous changes in the climate and our biological foundations, go on modernizing our nuclear weapons and in time using them, go on imagining that a robust economy is the sign of a robust soul, and before too long in the Universe’s scheme of time we will go extinct and what’s left of life will be relieved. Because we didn’t know how to be happy and didn’t care enough to find out.

This is the 6th part of an 8 part essay.
Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash


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