On Happiness

Siobhan Lyons argues that contemporary culture’s obsession with happiness is unhealthy in a variety of ways.

“There is no true love save in suffering, and in this world we have to choose either love, which is suffering, or happiness. Man is the more man – that is, the more divine – the greater his capacity for suffering, or rather, for anguish.”
– Miguel de Unamuno, Spanish author and philosopher

“Happiness is beneficial for the body, but it is grief that develops the powers of the mind.”
– Marcel Proust

“To love is to suffer. To avoid suffering one must not love. But then one suffers from not loving. Therefore, to love is to suffer; not to love is to suffer; to suffer is to suffer. To be happy is to love. To be happy, then, is to suffer, but suffering makes one unhappy. Therefore, to be happy one must love or love to suffer or suffer from too much happiness.”
– Woody Allen

“In fact, as intelligence goes up, happiness often goes down.”
– Lisa Simpson

In Issue 82 of Philosophy NowChristopher Norris defended philosophy in light of Stephen Hawking’s claim that ‘philosophy is dead’. Nevertheless, countless detractors (and even many supporters of philosophy), have argued that philosophy, by which I mean, the genuine interrogation of thought in everyday life, has indeed met its demise. This article will address this problem in relation to society’s continuing obsession with happiness, as evident in various fields, including relationships, work, and through diets. In light of the work of philosophers such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Alain Badiou, Simon Critchley and others, I will argue that the growth of this ‘happiness industry’, as it has come to be known, has had a significant adverse effect on humankind’s critical self-enquiry.

Happiness & Personal Growth

Are there any great philosophers alive today? That is, are there any living thinkers who could bear comparison with the philosophical giants of past centuries, incidentally, injecting charisma into our own times, and removing the ‘historical envy’ from which we could be said to suffer? We desire our times to have intellectual significance, and moreover take pleasure in the thought that there may be significant minds among us. Many think the answer is ‘no’, and in fact, philosophy is not the critical imperative it once was; rather, amongst the heightened plurality caused by our increasing digitisation and globalisation, philosophy struggles to defy obscurity amidst the crowd.

Yet I believe that there is another reason why philosophy has regressed into or has been resigned to the academic institutions. Allow me to submit that philosophy ceased being important to global society when society collectively decided to pursue happiness and avoid unhappiness as an absolute value. By ‘happiness’, I mean an ongoing state of contentment and joy in life, or more basically, an experience of pleasure and absence of pain. The message and doctrine of happiness is everywhere, even in cosmetics, in products such as Nivea’s “Touch of Happiness” cream and L’Oreal’s “Happyderm”, said to boost endorphins. It is near impossible to even consider the benefits of, if not misery, then at least partial discomfort in our lives when we are, as Baudrillard articulates, bombarded by images that compel us to believe that happiness is the norm. In advertisements, and not only for skin creams, the key message is that if we only purchase these products or eat these foods we will achieve what we dutifully must: contentment. And these are just some of the many ways in which the happiness message is infused throughout society. We are living in an era in which the Happiness Industry invades and permeates society and every unpleasant aspect of life is frowned upon, and dismissed as an unnecessary social ill. Rather than learning to cope with or contemplate certain aspects of life – fear, sadness, loneliness and boredom – we avoid them, gradually removing our ability to tolerate even the most mundane of the difficult aspects of life. This was the thrust of Dr Russ Harris’s book, The Happiness Trap (2008), in which he argued that the growing influence of happiness ideologies and institutions has created a generation of people unable to cope with or even understand the dynamics of grief, suffering and despair. We have therefore elevated the ideal of happiness to the extent that our capacity for self-growth is stunted – ironically so, given the gamut of self-help books readily available. In a recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald entitled ‘Are we caught in a happiness trap?’, Jill Stark also observes that society has adopted happiness as the ultimate goal, and positive thinking as its means, and that this has subsequently had adverse effects for society. She writes:

“A growing number of psychologists and social researchers now believe that the ‘feel-good, think positive’ mindset of the modern self-help industry has backfired, creating a culture where uncomfortable emotions are seen as abnormal. And they warn that the concurrent rise of the self-esteem movement – encouraging parents to shower their children with praise – may be creating a generation of emotionally fragile narcissists… Some of the world’s leading happiness experts now fear that the self-esteem juggernaut will leave future generations hopelessly ill-equipped to deal with life’s disappointments”
(Sydney Morning Herald, June 16, 2013)

Australia is said to be high up on the list of countries that have a good institutionally-encouraged sense of well-being. In Sydney, for example, there is something called the Happiness Institute, a place dedicated to making people feel happier; and a ‘Happiness and its Causes’ seminar took place in Melbourne in June. Of course, that such events provide help to those struggling with their unhappiness cannot be decried; and yet the entire philosophy is indicative of society’s persistent removal of unhappiness, and, therefore, of balanced self-growth.

The philosopher most nearly synonymous with happiness is Epicurus, whose philosophy was devoted to privileging pleasure and the avoidance of pain. A hedonistic caricature of Epicurus’s thinking has been eagerly adopted by contemporary society; much more eagerly than that of more critical philosophers such as Karl Marx. Epicurus’s ideas have been absorbed by society to the point that the truth of Socrates’ proclamation that the unexamined life is not worth living has become manifest. For if we privilege happiness and choose to avoid pain to an absolute extent, Socrates’ requirement to question one’s life becomes quite counter-productive, rendering philosophy futile. Moreover, Alain Badiou writes in his work In Praise of Love(2012) that a saturation of hedonism has poisoned relationships and posed a threat to genuine love. He explains:

“the idea [is] that love is only a variant of rampant hedonism and the wide range of possible enjoyment. The aim is to avoid any immediate challenge, any deep and genuine experience of the otherness from which love is woven… Safety-first love, like everything governed by the norm of safety, implies the absence of risks for people who have a good insurance policy, a good army, a good police force, a good psychological take on personal hedonism, and all risks are for those on the opposite side”
(In Praise of Love, pp.8-9)

The avoidance of immediate challenge, as Badiou articulates, fulfils Epicurus’s edict for the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. The relationship industry, continually profiting from this fear of challenge, promotes the belief that we must pursue complete happiness in our relationships, otherwise we have failed in this particular aspect of life. While not advocating a nihilistic or sadistic view of love, it must be noted that society’s constant obsession with people obtaining enduring happiness has infected their ability to (a) function well in solitude, and (b) adequately assess their own values in life.

Happiness & Intellectual Development

The relationship between happiness and the intellect, and whether we must choose between the two, has also been explored extensively. In his most famous work, The Intellectual Life (1873), artist and critic Philip Gilbert Hamerton wrote that in relationships, men often place happiness above intellect, this being reflected in their marriages, which are bereft of intellectual fulfilment. He writes:

“It was remarked to me by a French university professor, that although men in his position had on the whole much more culture than the middle class, they had an extraordinary talent for winning the most vulgar and ignorant wives. The explanation is, that their marriages are not intellectual marriages at all… The marriage begins without the idea of intellectual companionship, and continues as it began… these women are often so good and devoted that their husbands enjoy great happiness; but it is a kind of happiness curiously independent of the lady’s presence… The professor may love his wife… but he passes a more interesting evening with some… friend whose reading is equal to his own” (p.152)

Hamerton’s idea is that this curious situation in which men (and undoubtedly women) marry an intellectually unsuitable partner, is a result of prioritising happiness over intellectual fulfilment, and subsequently ends ironically in the spouses’ equal contentment and discontent, through security with a lack of and craving for intellectual companionship. Conversely then, in this sense, the pursuit of intellectual companionship must to some extent be to the detriment of happiness.

Friedrich Nietzsche affirms this in even stronger terms in his Untimely Meditations (1876), writing that the pursuit of happiness is synonymous with mere animality:

“Yet let us reflect: where does the animal cease, where does man begin? – man, who is nature’s sole concern! As long as anyone… desires happiness he has not yet raised his eyes above the horizon of the animal, for he only desires more consciously what the animal seeks through blind impulse. But that is what we all do for the greater part of our lives: usually we fail to emerge out of animality; we ourselves are the animals whose suffering seems to be senseless” (pp.157-158)

It is those who abandon the quest for happiness who are, for Nietzsche, the greatest humans, for their appreciation of intellectual and personal development through their suffering. In his book The Dawn, orDaybreak (1881), in which his philosophy begins to mature, he writes:

“our drive to knowledge has become too strong for us to be able to want happiness without knowledge or the happiness of a strong, firmly rooted delusion; even to imagine such a state of things is painful to us! Restless discovering and diving has such an attraction for us, and has grown as indispensable to us as is to the lover his unrequited love, which he would at no price relinquish for a state of indifference” (p.428)

Art & Unrequited Love

For many novelists, philosophers and film directors, the tragic phenomenon of unrequited love – that love which remains unreturned – is itself the pinnacle of suffering. In Woody Allen’s film Vicky Cristina Barcelona(2008), Penelope Cruz’s character Maria Elena proclaims that only unrequited love is the truest love, for it is incomplete. But the idea that unrequited love is the most authentic form of love, since it is a love which in its very inability to be reciprocated is illuminated as great and virtuous, or poignant in its ability to render for the inflicted an exemplar of human despair, is not new.

Nietzsche’s belief was that the suffering of unrequited love is indispensable to human growth. Yet although he is perhaps the most poignant and intriguing figure on the subject, Nietzsche is not the only philosopher to see the benefits of the kind of suffering unrequited love elicits. In ‘Sick to Death?’, way back inPhilosophy Now Issue 20, Justin Busch writes, “Unrequited love, on the other hand, is not presently seen as a disease because it occasionally results in great art, or finds another object. It also enriches the purveyors of insipid and vapid pop music.” However, contrary to Busch’s idea that unrequited love is not linked to disease, in recent years it has been acknowledged as a contributing factor in some very real diseases, such as takotsubo-cardiomyopathy, or broken-heart syndrome, in which the sufferer may die from their suffering. Any adverse effects on health in turn tend to elevate the suffering to even more gargantuan heights, in which to suffer becomes a bitterly poetic, if not Romantic, ailment, that inspires a unique kind of art.

WertherYoung Werther taking rejection dramatically

Johannes von Goethe is the most pivotal example of how the torment of unreciprocated love has been utilised for the purposes of great art. His The Sorrows of Young Werther(1774), a terribly tragic story of a young man’s unreturned affection, has been heralded as the defining work of unrequited love, and is notorious also for inspiring a swathe of copycat suicides provoked by the story, in which the protagonist committed suicide. It remains a classic of German Romantic literature, in spite of Goethe’s subsequent rejection of the novel as a great work when the author became frustrated with its revealing of his unrequited love for Charlotte Buff. Later he would claim that the work ‘haunted’ him.

The notion that great art often has its source in unrequited love is indeed acute and significant. Mary Ward writes in a similar vein to Busch: “Rejection, apparent or real, may be the catalyst for inspired literary creation” (The Literature of Love, pp.45-46, 2009). Eric Berne goes so far as to elevate the sufferer to superior, almost divine heights: “The man who is loved by a woman is lucky indeed, but the one who [is] to be envied is he who loves, however little he gets in return. How much greater is Dante gazing at Beatrice than Beatrice walking by him in apparent disdain?” (Sex in Human Loving, p.238, 1970). In this respect, the suffering from unrequited love is rendered relatively trivial compared to the lover’s capacity for great love. The absence of happiness too becomes comparatively irrelevant as the fact of loving, and loving well, becomes a virtue in and of itself, and indeed, a Kantian end-in-itself. Here the one who loves least is revealed as the loser, due to their inability to possess great love, whereas the sufferer is revealed as the victor. Yet arguably this is a hollow victory indeed for the sufferer.

Further Suffering For The Sake Of Art

It is no surprise that suffering has been linked to Romanticism. In Nietzsche’s The Gay Science (1882) the philosopher writes that Romanticism, like all kinds of art, lends itself to suffering, claiming it to “presuppose suffering and sufferers” (p.234). We may argue that truly great art requires the element of suffering in order to be great. Happiness, while evidently being sometimes linked to art, is nevertheless comparatively flawed in relation to creative production.

The absence of happiness has proved useful in the creation of art in many ways. For example, thought and artistic creativity is theorised by Gilles Deleuze to have a direct correlation to violence or violent confrontation, in order that those thoughts otherwise suppressed by conventionality may emerge. As Christine Halse explains, for Deleuze, “thinking involves the violent confrontation with reality” (Biopolitics and the Obesity Epidemic, p.57, 2009), while Bouchard argues that for both Nietzsche and Deleuze, “thought is violence done to things, and, furthermore, a rupture of established categories” (Hemingway: So Far from Simple, p.188, 2010). In light of this we can see how simplistic happiness can prove useless in producing genuine, creative thought: art cannot emerge from such restrictions of emotion, but must be provoked through those elements of experience currently considered socially undesirable – depression, violence, suffering – again provoking the argument that happiness is not conducive to great art.

cowA happy cow, probably not philosophising

Many philosophers have discussed the virtues of pain and suffering, deeming them to be nourishing to the soul and mind, and several authors address this strange equation. For instance, in Albert Camus’ semi-autobiographical novel A Happy Death, posthumously published in 1971, the character Mersault engages with the idea of happiness in death, through murder, and finally his own death. Camus writes: “All his life – the office on the docks, his room and his nights of sleep there, the restaurant he went to, his mistress – he had pursued single-mindedly a happiness which in his heart he believed was impossible. In this he was no different from anyone else.” For Somerset Maugham’s Philip Carey in Of Human Bondage (1915), however, meaning comes from the banal, mundane aspects of life that illuminate human fragility: “the simplest pattern, that in which a man was born, worked, married, had children and died, was likewise the most perfect” (p.653).

Unhappiness Necessary For Philosophy

But contentment, Simon Critchley observes, is useless to philosophy. As he states:

“If atheism produced contentment, then philosophy would be at an end. Contented atheists have no reason to bother themselves with philosophy, other than as a cultural distraction or a technical means of sharpening their common sense. However, in my view, atheism does not provide contentment, but rather unease. It is from this mood of unease that philosophy begins its anxious and aphoretic dialectics, its tail-biting paradoxes”
(Very Little… Almost Nothing: Death, Philosophy, Literature, p.3, 1997)

It is from a sense of unease that philosophy is not only created, but flourishes to its ultimate capacity. No philosophical endeavour can truly flourish – nothing substantial in any case – in the realm of contentment, since, as Critchley says, philosophy then becomes nothing more than a cultural distraction, confined to classrooms and lecture halls, as it has in contemporary society.

Interestingly, Chinese philosopher Lin Yutang similarly advocates the virtues of discontentment, writing that a philosopher requires discontentment to philosophise:

“Discontent, they say, is divine; I am quite sure, anyway, that discontent is human. The monkey was the first morose animal, for I have never seen a truly sad face in animals except in the chimpanzee. And I have often thought such a one a philosopher, because sadness and thoughtfulness are so akin. There is something in such a face which tells me that he is thinking. Cows don’t seem to think, at least they don’t seem to philosophise, because they look always so contented.”
(The Importance of Living, p.78, 1937)

So alongside Hamerton and Nietzsche, Yutang establishes a link between thought and sadness, or between intellect and suffering. Thus in opposition to the happiness industry, which continuously preaches the virtues of harmony, happiness and satisfaction, it can be argued that unhappiness is in fact the antidote to existence purely because it opens facets of human psychology and thought otherwise neglected as unnecessary. I submit therefore that to avoid being condemned to conventionality, misery, or at least unhappiness, is an invaluable element of life, and must be embraced as a catalyst of human triumph, insight and critical self-reflection. As I mentioned earlier, utter bliss or contentment removes the need to critically explore ourselves and life, and thus disrupts the very foundation on which our humanity is built, on which our cultural existence is based.

Philosophy has degenerated into something of a gimmick, or as Critchley articulates it, a cultural distraction, precisely because of the warped priorities of modern day ethics, in which the greatest moral value is marketed as being complete contentment, and its lack as being the greatest antisocial disservice. In opposition to this flawed modern ‘wisdom’, if we allow this ‘disservice’ back into our lives, and give up the happiness ideal, then perhaps the philosophical enquiry that is so crucial to our everyday existence will re-emerge to prominence, since, as I’ve argued, happiness is quite useless to the philosopher, and to the practice of philosophy.

© Siobhan Lyons 2014

Siobhan Lyons is completing a PhD at Macquarie University, Sydney.


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