Reading books about how to be happy can be a depressing business. Part of this is because one can’t help imagining the sad souls who buy them, hoping to turn around a troubled life for $27.99 or less. Indeed, the how-to manuals are only part of a broad, obsessive and flourishing effort to pursue happiness more directly and systematically than ever before. Courses in “positive psychology” attract thousands of students at elite universities; there is even a Journal of Happiness Studies, which has touted among many startling revelations the discovery that “Positivity was associated [through survey research] with norms about ideal life satisfaction such that countries and individuals who highly valued positive emotions were more likely to display positivity.” It doesn’t take a social scientist to see that a blizzard of how-to books on “positivity” suggests its lack in everyday life. Behind the facade of smiley-faced optimism, American culture seems awash in a pervasive sadness, or at least a restless longing for a sense of fulfillment that remains just out of reach.
Whether such discontent is more intense or pervasive now than it was fifty or 150 years ago is an unanswerable question. “There have been periods happier and others more desperate than ours,” the conservative cultural critic Ernest van den Haag observed in 1956. “But we don’t know which.” Samuel Beckett put the matter more sweepingly and poetically: “The tears of the world are a constant quantity,” he wrote, and “the same is true of the laugh.” But while it is impossible to chart the ebb and flow of emotions historically, to identify some epochs as happier or sadder than others, it is possible to explore the ways that dominant notions of happiness reflect the changing needs and desires of the culturally powerful at various historical moments. One can write the history of ideas about happiness, if not of happiness itself.
And that is another reason the current spate of happiness manuals is so depressing: their ideas of happiness embody the conventional wisdom of our time, which can best be characterized as scientism—a concept not to be confused with science, as Steven Pinker did in a recent New Republic polemic that attempted to bridge the seeming divide between the humanities and the sciences. The vast majority of practicing scientists (except for a few propagandists like Pinker) probably do not embrace scientism, but it is the idiom journalists use to popularize scientific findings for a nonscientific audience. It is not, to be sure, an outlook based on the scientific method—the patient weighing of experimental results, the reframing of questions in response to contrary evidence, the willingness to live with epistemological uncertainty. Quite the contrary: scientism is a revival of the nineteenth-century positivist faith that a reified “science” has discovered (or is about to discover) all the important truths about human life. Precise measurement and rigorous calculation, in this view, are the basis for finally settling enduring metaphysical and moral controversies—explaining consciousness and choice, replacing ambiguity with certainty. The most problematic applications of scientism have usually arisen in the behavioral sciences, where the varieties and perversities of experience have often been reduced to quantitative data that are alleged to reveal an enduring “human nature.”
The scientism on display in the happiness manuals offers a strikingly vacuous worldview, one devoid of history, culture or political economy. Its chief method is self-reported survey research; its twin conceptual pillars are pop evolutionary psychology, based on just-so stories about what human life was like on the African savannah 100,000 years ago, and pop neuroscience, based on sweeping, unsubstantiated claims about brain function gleaned from fragments of contemporary research. The worldview of the happiness manuals, like that in other self-help literature, epitomizes “the triumph of the therapeutic” described some decades ago by the sociologist Philip Rieff: the creation of a world where all overarching structures of meaning have collapsed, and there is “nothing at stake beyond a manipulatable sense of well-being.” With good reason, Rieff attributed the triumph of the therapeutic to the shrinking authority of Christianity in the West. But because he did not see the connections between therapeutic and capitalist worldviews, he could not foresee their convergence in late twentieth-century neoliberalism. For Margaret Thatcher as for the happiness industry, “There is no such thing as society.” There are only individuals, regulating their inner and outer lives in order to sustain and increase personal satisfaction.
* * *
That outlook isn’t new. The assumptions central to the current happiness boom—that happiness consists in pleasurable experiences, and that human life can be organized to maximize those experiences—stem from the utilitarian creed developed by Jeremy Bentham and supposedly committed to promoting “the greatest happiness of the greatest number.” With respect to political economy, the utilitarian outlook could underwrite everything from laissez-faire capitalism to Soviet communism. The delivery systems for happiness varied, but the promised goal was always the same: physical comfort and material abundance for all (or at least as many as might be willing to work for it, in the productivist formulation that tended to dominate this tradition). Happiness, from the utilitarian view, was “our being’s end and aim,” as Thomas Carlyle wrote in 1843, quoting Alexander Pope. But Carlyle was not amused: “Every pitifulest whipster that walks within a skin has had his head filled with the notion that he is, shall be, or by all human and divine laws ought to be, ‘happy.’ The prophets preach to us, Thou shalt be happy; thou shalt love pleasant things, and find them. The people clamour, Why have we not found pleasant things?” This is the dialectic that has dominated modern political discourse for more than two centuries.
Still, the idioms have varied. In the United States, the “pursuit of happiness” was enshrined in the nation’s founding document. The phrase marked a decisive departure from traditional notions that happiness—derived from the Old Norse hap, or “chance”—was a gift of fate. Now it was a goal to be actively sought. But the definition of happiness was very much up for grabs. Jefferson’s phrase combined a liberal zeal for private gain with republican commitments to the public good. This balance of tensions epitomized what Tocqueville believed was the force that kept democracy in America from flying into anarchic fragments. It was “self-interest rightly understood”—self-interest tamed and chastened by commitments to family, community and polity. For Tocqueville, happiness was partly a manifestation of reciprocity. But in the emerging market society of the nineteenth century, the notion of public good was increasingly privatized as the sum of individual self-interests. If the good life was no longer publicly debated or collectively defined, the pursuit of happiness became a personal quest, usually with a monetary measure of success.
As Jill Lepore observes in her clever but chaotic The Mansion of Happiness, religious definitions of happiness persisted throughout the nineteenth century (although she doesn’t mention it, they have carried on into the present as well). “O Lord! deliver us from sin, and when we shall have finished our earthly course, admit us to the mansion of bliss and happiness,” an evangelical preacher intoned in 1814. The original Mansion of Happiness was a pious, popular board game; revised from an English version for an American audience in 1843, it sold briskly for decades. According to its rules, the game
shows (while vice destruction brings)
That good from every virtue springs.
Be virtuous then and forward press,
To gain the seat of happiness.
No believing Christian could doubt that abiding happiness was reserved for the afterlife, while this earthly realm remained dominated by struggle and sorrow. But by 1860, signs of slippage from this orthodoxy were apparent, even in such didactic board games as Milton Bradley’s Checkered Game of Life, which ended (if you were lucky) in Happy Old Age. In 1960, to commemorate the centennial of the Checkered Game, the Milton Bradley Company issued another version, the Game of Life. Instead of virtue rewarded by heavenly happiness, Lepore writes, the Game of Life offered “a lesson in consumer conformity, a two-dimensional Levittown, complete with paychecks and retirement homes and medical bills.” Players who successfully navigated their tiny station wagons along the Highway of Life could retire, at length, in Millionaire Acres.
* * *
One is tempted to chart American attitudes toward happiness by contrasting these two board games, but cultural change is never that straightforward. Many people in the contemporary United States (to say nothing of the rest of the world) continue to invest their most fervent hopes for happiness in the next world rather than this one; many more (believers and unbelievers alike) conceive happiness in more capacious and complex terms than arrival at Millionaire Acres. In the United States between the 1860s and the 1960s, various populist and progressive challenges to laissez-faire liberalism arose and reasserted the claims of commonwealth against wealth, often in Christian language. Wealth has always co-existed, sometimes uneasily, with other criteria of happiness—an unstable compound of objective and subjective states.
By the early twentieth century, the subjective side of happiness was acquiring more demanding dimensions. For Americans, the discovery (or invention) of the unconscious mind endowed the human subject with a new and practically bottomless reservoir of mental powers to be cultivated, called upon in times of stress, and pressed into the service of the pursuit of happiness. In a flood of self-help literature, a discourse of positive thinking emerged. Popular magazine articles advised readers “How You Can Do More and Be More,” and even thinkers as sophisticated as William James became fascinated by phenomena such as the “second wind” that seemed to promise access to abundant psychic energy. Visions of psychic abundance proliferated alongside visions of economic abundance in a society increasingly driven by the mass consumption of mass-produced goods. Personal growth somehow would accompany economic growth. The self-made hero of the Horatio Alger tale, the sign of whose success was an appointment as a bank clerk, gave way to the pop-Nietzschean titans of Theodore Dreiser’s novels—men like Frank Cowperwood of The Financier (1912), whose motto was “I satisfy myself,” and who proceeded to live up to it by flouting conventional norms at every turn. An obsession with Energy and Force (always capitalized) characterized much of the literature and social thought of the decades just before World War I, accelerating an active pursuit of happiness by associating contentment with stasis and stasis with death. To be sure, the progressive muckraker Ray Stannard Baker (under the pen name David Grayson) produced a popular series of essays called Adventures in Contentment. But they were largely exercises in nostalgic pastoralism, with Baker pitting himself against the spirit of the age. The dominant impulse, at least among the literate white men who shaped much of the conventional wisdom, was to recoil from stillness and celebrate an endlessly renewable vitality.
This vitalism was erotic at its core. Some vitalists, including the psychologist G. Stanley Hall, endowed sexual intercourse with a sacred significance. “In the most unitary of all acts, which is the epitome and pleroma of life, we have the most intense of all affirmations of the will to live and realize that the only true God is love, and the center of life is worship,” Hall wrote in Adolescence (1904). “Now the race is incarnated in the individual and remembers its lost paradise.” From this view, Lepore observes, sex was “a mansion of happiness, regained.” But vitalism was erotic in a more than sexual sense. It recaptured the original meaning of eros as pursuit rather than fulfillment. “How dull it is to pause, to make an end,” cried Tennyson’s Ulysses, a line that Theodore Roosevelt used as the epigraph to The Strenuous Life. For Progressive-era vitalists, happiness was always in process, always becoming, never being. It was as if American men—and increasingly, American women—were being urged to emulate Goethe’s Faust, never saying “to the passing moment, ‘stay.’”
The vitalist psychology of abundance was primarily self-referential; through the 1920s, it fit well with the emerging ideology of national advertising. These two streams of thought converged to create an enduring aesthetic of corporate-sponsored normality and desire, an outlook that strove to be on the cutting edge of technological and cultural change. It was conventionally chic and even luxurious, but grounded in a bourgeois ethos of sensible striving—Arrow-collared men smoking Camels, feet propped on the running boards of their Jordan convertibles.
* * *
All of this changed with the Depression and the war, when dominant definitions of the pursuit of happiness—at least as produced by major media—shifted emphases from the individual to the collective. A desire to immerse oneself in a larger identity—the People, the Nation, the American Way of Life—pervaded the culture of the 1930s. In a time of deep emotional as well as economic insecurity, happiness became a matter of being accepted, of fitting in (How to Win Friends and Influence People, as Dale Carnegie advised in 1936). On this issue, we have direct testimony from unemployed workers, interviewed by sociologists at the time and by Studs Terkel later: when people were out of work, or in danger of being put out of work, they felt fear and shame—feelings that provoked a yearning for acceptance, a longing to belong. This desire led people in various directions, from the Popular Front to populist cultural nationalism to fascism. World War II offered the fulfillment of those longings—a national crusade (an opportunity to belong) that ended with the United States poised to become the richest nation in the world.
The broad middle-class prosperity of the postwar decades (however uneven), the “two-dimensional Levittown” of Bradley’s 1960 Game of Life, may well have realized some of the deepest longings of the Depression years. For many observers, the postwar United States was also the closest thing yet to a fulfillment of Bentham’s utilitarian vision—a well-fed, complacent suburban society where “Nobody Is Mad at Nobody,” as the title of a Life magazine feature put it in 1955, and knobby-kneed husbands flipped backyard burgers nightly.
The problem was that, for some Americans at least, those Depression longings were satisfied too completely. Almost as soon as the paint was dry on the first houses in Levittown, critics of the dominant managerial culture (including many managers themselves) began to worry about the conformist ethos—what, in The Organization Man, William Whyte called “the social ethic”—that lingered over American life during the Eisenhower years, long after the anti-communist witch hunts had spent themselves and their ringleader, Senator Joseph McCarthy, had been censured. The discourse of vitalism, the dream of happiness constantly renewed through peak experience, survived on the outskirts of the collectivist chorus. It turned out one could fit in all too well.
Happiness began to be refigured, at least in mass culture, as an escape from oppressive Others. A host of bad-boy heroes, from James Dean to Jack Kerouac to Steve McQueen, confirmed the popularity of this anti-conformist stance that was initially defined by males but eventually by women as well. In The Feminine Mystique, two of Betty Friedan’s main targets were the cult of domestic ”togetherness” that women’s magazines prescribed for familial well-being, and the functionalist sociology that defined conventional gender roles as the key to a smoothly operating “social system.” This was a straw in the wind: left politics were becoming as much a quest for personal fulfillment as for social or economic equality. The feminist movement, the black freedom struggle, the antiwar counterculture and the gay rights movement all balanced collectivist and individualist definitions of happiness. As the postwar consensus fragmented during the last third of the twentieth century, the balance tipped from social justice to liberated selfhood. Partisans of identity politics celebrated a fragmented, pluralistic and constantly renewable notion of personal happiness; Michel Foucault’s notion of “heterotopia” captured it nicely.
The cultural individualism of the left mirrored the economic individualism of the right. At their extremes, both perspectives shared a common asocial (or antisocial) vision worthy of Thatcher herself. The emerging neoliberal discourse was characterized by the disappearance of “society”—not merely as a reified entity with its own needs and interests (a notion we could bid good riddance), but as a setting for discussing the ends and aims of policy, what once had been called the “public good.” This was the impoverished intellectual atmosphere that prepared the ground for the return of ahistorical and apolitical explanations for human conduct: sociobiology, evolutionary psychology, neoclassical economics, pop neuroscience. This was science for dilettantes and dogmatists: in other words, scientism—a necessary instrument of ideologues who aimed to deny history by returning to nineteenth-century fantasies of “natural law” economics. Scientism, in short, has become the handmaiden of neoliberalism. And nowhere is scientism more flagrant than in the contemporary science of happiness.
It is easy to be snide about this brave new science—the vacuity of its view of human motives, the predictability of its findings, the banality of its prescriptions. But it is important to acknowledge the likelihood that its practitioners (most of them, anyway) are decent people responding to genuine longings in the populace. Their advice is almost always humane and no doubt at least occasionally helpful to their students and readers. The problem is that they oversimplify, overreach and, more often, ignore such a wide swath of human experience (politics, economics, culture, society) that it is difficult to see how their therapeutic advice can be adequate or their empirical claims justified—or if they are justifiable, how they can be significant.
Consider the late Christopher Peterson’s Pursuing the Good Life, a series of one- to two-page reflections culled from the clinical psychologist’s blog. Despite its title, there is nothing in this book about the “good life” in any traditional sense: a way of life that is publicly affirmed and shared with others. Instead, the good life is a series of pleasurable internal states that can be maximized by the right choices. Peterson’s reflections range from the terminally bland (go ahead and act on that idea you had in the shower this morning) to the mildly interesting (lists of objective criteria for happiness are plagued by problems of relativism and idiosyncrasy). But when he looks for examples of these problems, Peterson always lunges for low-hanging fruit: a long commute, he writes, might be on the list of criteria for happiness depending on what you like to do during the commute. It might be your big chance, for example, to learn Spanish or listen to lectures on the rise of the West. Self-improvement is always a part of the happiness agenda. Indeed, Peterson writes, Benjamin Franklin became “America’s first positivist psychologist” when he made a list of virtues and vowed to cultivate them systematically.
The notion of Franklin as positive psychologist is apt and revealing. It evokes D.H. Lawrence’s riposte to Franklin’s moral bookkeeping: “The soul of man is a dark vast forest, with wild life in it. Think of Benjamin fencing it off! He made himself a list of virtues, which he trotted inside like a grey nag in a paddock.” One does not need to worship at Lawrence’s vitalist shrine, nor take Franklin’s prescriptions literally, to understand Lawrence’s point. The contemporary science of happiness is content to skate, like Franklin, on the surface of emotional and moral life.
The overwhelming tone of the happiness manuals is one of professional confidence and calm, even glib self-satisfaction. The authors are economically secure academics, upper-class professionals. They like to reveal their own expertise, en passant, with respect to opera, chamber music or jazz—not to mention blockbuster art exhibits, exotic travel destinations and arcane cuisines. Reading their work is like being at a dull dinner party in a college town or corporate suburb. But the problems run deeper than dullness. The atmosphere of suffocating complacency has methodological consequences. These are people used to making their own choices, and they project that ability onto their audience. Their professional and class blinders are set firmly in place.
* * *
Sonja Lyubomirsky’s The Myths of Happiness is a flagrant example of this. Her intent is benign enough—she wants to debunk the common habit of mind that assumes I’ll be happy when I have the right job/spouse/income/house, and to propose more flexible approaches to happiness—but her book is full of formulations that reveal her class-bound assumptions. In discussing how to keep success from magnifying discontent, she asks: “Do you have a tendency to be short with the people you employ or supervise—your office assistant, perhaps, or your gardener or nanny?” Then “resolve to imagine that the person is your therapist, minister, or boss, and treat them accordingly.” The outlook of the professional/managerial class is even more apparent when Lyubomirsky is summarizing the research of Art Aron, “a leading authority on love.” Describing his efforts to devise a mutually exciting experience for married couples to share in his laboratory, she writes that it is “a sort of wacky exercise that might ring familiar to anyone who’s ever been on company team-building retreats. The activity involved traversing obstacles on a nine-meter gymnasium mat while attached to your partner with Velcro straps at one wrist and one ankle, crawling on your hands and knees the whole time, and carrying a cylindrical pillow that had to be held between your bodies or heads.” As in corporate retreats, darned if the couples don’t begin to show “increased positive behaviors toward each other.”
Lyubomirsky’s silliness would be merely annoying, except that it betrays a fundamentally flawed method, based on the assumption that her audience has unlimited freedom. If you feel trapped in a dead-end job, just “shift your priorities and goals…from running a bank to running a nonprofit, from wealth to philanthropy, from teaching to writing, or from writing to teaching.” And “if there are repetitive or dead spells in your work, perhaps you can take advantage of them by growing in some way.” Indeed, “growth” is her mantra. So you’re divorced? It’s not the end of the world, not nearly as bad as you think. Pull up your socks, “rise to the occasion and push forward.” You will find that “after divorce, you will cope and grow,” and turning the episode into a “growth experience” means you can “bounce back…and even emerge from it stronger than before.” If all this sounds familiar, it is because the creed of “growth” has been therapeutic orthodoxy ever since Abraham Maslow’s notion of a “hierarchy of needs” swept the profession in the 1960s.
As The Myths of Happiness reveals, many therapeutic mantras have remained unchanged for fifty years. There is, for example, the reminder of the importance of “being spontaneous” for keeping a relationship fresh, with the same inattention to the contradiction involved in willed spontaneity. There are also the familiar formulas for avoiding excessive consumption. Beware the “hedonic treadmill”: because we adapt quickly to new pleasures, we are always upping the ante, always turning yesterday’s luxuries into today’s necessities. This is the consumerist dynamic we need to keep in mind as we contemplate our next purchase, even as (the manuals mostly assume) we will make that purchase anyway. “Spend your money on experiences rather than possessions,” Lyubomirsky advises, and turn your things into experiences: “We could take along our family and friends in an adventure in our new car; we could throw a party on our new deck; and we could practice a self-improvement program on our new smartphone.” Ben Franklin would be pleased. So would Teddy Roosevelt: action is all.
What distinguishes Lyubomirsky from Roosevelt (or Maslow) is that she pays the now-obligatory homage to evolutionary psychology and pop neuroscience. She asserts that “we continually escalate our expectations and desires” for good biological reasons. “A ceaseless striving for more is surely evolutionarily adaptive; if realizing our goals left us all feeling entirely complacent and content, our society wouldn’t witness much progress”; and “human beings are programmed to desire, not appreciate, and to strive for more, not be content with what they have.” All of this inherited wiring can have its downside: as Lyubomirsky writes, “divorce is highly heritable”—the genes for it are “linked to particular personalities, like being generally negative and unhappy.” And negativity lasts for generations. “So when we learn that children of divorced parents don’t do as well in certain domains,” she concludes, “the effect may be due to the genes that the children share with their parents and not to the effects of divorce per se.” Here as elsewhere in the science of happiness, complex social conflicts and interpersonal differences (if not personal tragedies) disappear down the rabbit hole of pop genetics.
But not all the evolutionary news is bad. Take parents who discover that raising children is not the delightful experience they had been led to believe it would be. “The expectation that having kids will make us immensely happy is not only rooted in our culture but likely evolutionarily wired as well,” Lyubomirsky announces. So when it doesn’t make us happy, we’re ashamed of our failure to do the normal, natural thing. In fact, she says, we are simply victims of an outdated evolutionary imperative. Feel better?
Scientific findings appear throughout The Myths of Happiness to buttress claims that are so banal as to be virtually meaningless. As Lyubomirsky says, “evolutionary and social psychologists” tell us that “our likelihood of survival and reproduction sometimes depends on being forgiving and sometimes depends on being vengeful, and it’s critical to differentiate situations that warrant one response over the other.” Now what resources would one use to accomplish that critical task? Lyubomirsky does not say, but one might hazard a guess: for example, moral and ethical commitments rooted in various cultural traditions (religious and secular), which in turn have been shaped by historical circumstances—commitments that can be understood only through what the anthropologist Clifford Geertz called the “thick description” of human experience. This is precisely what positive psychology leaves out; its enterprise is nothing if not ”thin description.”
Such thinness allows Lyubomirsky to take an apolitical and ultimately muddled view of money. She begins with the unsurprising announcement that “the higher we are on the economic ladder, the happier we report ourselves to be,” then tries unconvincingly to undermine its impact with the caveat that “those with more money are hardly more likely to have experienced happy feelings” on a daily basis than those with less money. From that murky assertion, she slides into positive thinking: “money buys happiness, but happiness also buys money…several studies have suggested that happier people are relatively more proficient or gifted” at making money. But she cannot leave it at that; she must conclude by asserting that more money has a relatively weak effect on the happiness of the already rich. This is because money can indeed buy happiness, but only up to a point. “Because wealth allows people to experience the best that life has to offer, it can even reduce their capacity to savor life’s small pleasures.” So we are left with an implicitly consumerist paradigm: “the best that life has to offer” is available for purchase, but even in that exalted realm, the hedonic treadmill may kick in and we will forget how much fun it is to play catch with our kids in the backyard. This is the kind of conventional piety that Lyubomirsky and other positive psychologists substitute for any serious grappling with the powerful and conflicting meanings of money in everyday life under capitalism.
* * *
Shimon Edelman, a psychology professor at Cornell University, is equally adept at evading engagement with complexity. He begins The Happiness of Pursuit with a straightforward reductionist claim. The mind is not merely a computer in metaphor, he announces, but in fact. The mind is what the brain does: “bundles of computations” promote forethought and allow us to make the choices that carry us forward into the future. Everything is in constant motion: neurons send signals down neural pathways, networking with other neurons, brains responding to neural activity by moving the mind to move the body. The centrality of motion accounts for the elephantine whimsy of his book’s title. We are never happy when we’re at rest; our brains have programmed us to be endlessly restless. That’s the only way we can be happy.
Not everyone will accept the universality of his “we.” Time magazine recently published a cover story insisting that the happiness of pursuit is peculiarly American, that from colonial times to the present, “American happiness would never be about savor-the-moment contentment. That way lay the reflective café culture of the Old World—fine for Europe, not for Jamestown. Our happiness would be bred, instead, of an almost adolescent restlessness, an itch to do the Next Big Thing.” Those assertions, despite their inane exceptionalist aura, carry as much or more explanatory power than the neuroscientists’ universalism: cultural differences and historical circumstances really do make a difference in how people define happiness. Lyubomirsky and Edelman provide apt examples.
As with Lyubomirsky, Edelman has undertaken an argument that is little more than an extended projective fantasy; his “we” sounds like no one so much as a typical busy professor like himself, multitasking professional and personal obligations, racing from the lecture hall to yoga class to rock-climbing lessons. Indeed, Edelman admits that he wrote the book because he wondered why he was always eager to move on, even when he’d reached the wilderness summit he’d been hiking to for days. So he turned to his own discipline for enlightenment, and one can’t help but admire the efficiency of his method. No cumbersome surveys hobbled by self-reporting, no crawling around on gym mats with your spouse—just the neuroscientific facts. They alone are the basis for Edelman’s assertion (quoting the science fiction writers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky) that “The goal [the summit, the end of the trail] is only a means…. Happiness is not in happiness itself, but in running toward happiness.” Many people may find this to be true; many others may find themselves more responsive to William Faulkner’s alternative perspective. “I’m inclined to think that the only peace man knows is—he says, ‘Why good gracious, yesterday I was happy.’ That at the moment he’s too busy,” Faulkner wrote. “Maybe peace is not ‘is,’ but ‘was.’” Blanket pronouncements about happiness are usually too sweeping to be persuasive, and neither Faulkner’s nor Edelman’s is an exception. But Faulkner’s uses the power of “maybe” to suggest that busyness might be an obstacle as well as a path to personal satisfaction.
Edelman, by contrast, is ill at ease with ambiguity. His minimalist model of mind leads him to a “radically minimalistic” notion of happiness. It is, writes Edelman, simply another word for choice: “whenever you find yourself motivated (that is, being moved) to do one thing rather than another—a predicament that incorporates what we perceive as choice—happiness is the prime mover.” This vacuous definition leads to some extraordinary statements. Edelman writes: “if you are after happiness, change is good, even if, for the moment, it is change to the worse—unless, of course, one is trapped inside a Shakespearean tragedy in which everyone is doomed to die before their luck turns to the better.” The notion that Shakespearean tragedy is concerned with unrepresentative human figures, that it makes no universal claims on our imagination, gets points for chutzpah but not for accuracy. Still, who needs Shakespeare when we have “evolution”? As Edelman says, “the most valuable lesson that evolution offers, to all who would listen, is that the world is inconstant but learnable and that a good living can be made by those who can learn faster than it changes.” This is the sort of wisdom offered by corporate team-building retreats and bank advertisements in airport terminals.
Despite its resolute avoidance of social questions, The Happiness of Pursuit implicitly endorses a neoliberal vision of gradual self-betterment through personal choice. This involves, Edelman claims, giving up old and no longer scientifically viable notions of a separate self, engaged in the pursuit of happiness through some version of heroic struggle—either against its own baser impulses or against a recalcitrant world (or both). Away with this self-dramatization, Edelman advises. “Cognitive science’s discovery that minds are in fact not sealed black boxes but open, intermingled societies of computational processes gives one hope that a person wishing for a happier life can attain it through gradual, cognitively transparent change…it should be possible for people to strive for happiness without resorting to any kind of ‘conquest.’” And indeed, things are getting better. Moral progress moves forward from the judicial murder of John Brown to the election of Barack Obama, going hand in hand with cognitive betterment—“which, unsurprisingly, brings about also increased individual well-being.” We are becoming smarter and more moral. Like other complacent centrists, Edelman overlooks (among other things) the global environmental and social ravages of neo-liberalism, as well as Obama’s stunning failure of leadership, his embrace of finance capital and the national security state. Who cares about such matters, as long as “we” can keep “running toward happiness”?
Like other practitioners of positive psychology, Edelman is simply bowled over with just how good his version of the good life can be—and how firmly founded it is in “evolution.” He concludes that “the urge to explore, accrue information about the world, and use it to dodge the ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ (or catch such stuff as looks good) makes evolutionary sense.” The bottom line is that “feeling good is the means, but the end is happiness. Could you imagine it any better than that?” Well, yes, I think I could.
Oliver Burkeman tries to grapple with the subject more imaginatively in The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking. He recognizes the absurdity inherent in the notion of willed happiness (which is much like willed spontaneity). Despite his disdain for positive thinking, he shares two important assumptions with the positive psychologists—but he takes them in more interesting directions.
Like Lyubomirsky and Edelman, Burkeman looks to neuroscience to reject the idea of autonomous selfhood, of a clear and bounded identity. “Modern neuroscience has provided strong support for the suspicion that the self is not the ‘thing’ that we imagine it to be.” So “stop taking your thoughts to be you…. You are not your mind.” We should use the mind, not the other way around. One way to do this is to detach yourself from your conscious thoughts, as in Buddhist meditation. You do not identify with them, as in positive thinking (“I will sell this house today!”); you allow yourself to treat them as transient phenomena. This, according to Burkeman, frees the mind from looking for happiness in the future and allows it to focus on the only place it can be found, the present.
This statement points toward the other assumption shared by Burkeman and the positive philosophers: the advice to de-emphasize goal-setting. The problem, says Burkeman, is the interconnectedness of all life: “you can never change only one thing,” because (as the pioneering environmentalist John Muir put it) everything in the universe is “hitched to everything else.” This is a novel turn toward the social and decisively away from the happiness industry’s obsessive focus on the inner dynamics of the choosing individual. For the positive psychologists, change is a product of restless human choice—the recognition of impermanence reinforces a commitment to constant “personal growth.” For Burkeman, change is a consequence of cosmic conditions beyond human control; “real happiness,” he writes, “might be dependent on being willing to face, and to tolerate, insecurity and vulnerability.” Indeed, “acceptance of impermanence” is a condition for connections with others. He quotes C.S. Lewis: “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung, and possibly broken.” Ultimately, Burkeman recommends cultivating what Keats called “negative capability,” the state of mind that occurs “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” With this book, we have finally moved beyond the formulations of utilitarian individualism.
But they haven’t been abandoned completely. Burkeman’s ringing conclusion—“This, then, is the deep truth about insecurity: it is another word for life”—is a little too open-ended. By identifying all forms of insecurity with “life,” he depoliticizes it. The experience of economic insecurity, from this view, cannot be mitigated (or exacerbated) by particular public policies. Indeed, the equation of insecurity and “life,” while it does contain a “deep truth,” in the end blends all too easily with the neoliberal celebration of risk-taking as an end in itself—a celebration conducted by political and media elites who are themselves well insulated from risk. Burkeman’s notion of happiness, like the positive psychologists’, needs a thicker sense of the ways that social and economic circumstances can promote or undermine possibilities for a satisfying life.
* * *
Until very recently, most writers on happiness shared a common assumption. Happiness was more than a series of internal states; it was way of being in the world, including the public world. It was, in short, about living the good life. We need to recover that way of thinking. The father-and-son team of Robert and Edward Skidelsky have made a significant start in How Much is Enough?
The good life has always had much to do with politics—not because societies can be organized to promote personal happiness by “maximizing utility,” but because they can be organized to reduce unnecessary suffering. The Skidelskys recognize the inevitability of insecurity in human life, not to mention the impossibility and even potential undesirability of eliminating it from human society. They remember, perhaps too vividly, how easily visions of abundance for all succumbed to the totalitarian temptation throughout the twentieth century. Still, they also recognize the possibility of easing certain kinds of economic insecurity through enlightened public policy. A society that frees people from anxiety about basic necessities might not make them happier (“The tears of the world are a constant quantity”), but it might provide them a better shot at the good life. This is where John Maynard Keynes comes in.
Keynes’s influence on public policy has been profound and, on the whole, useful—one could say necessary. He formulated the monetary and fiscal policies that, in the decades following World War II, allowed welfare states on both sides of the Atlantic to flatten the curves in the business cycle and move societies closer to full employment. For a variety of complicated reasons (which the Skidelskys explore), the wheels came off the Keynesian bus in the late 1970s. But that doesn’t mean his policy recommendations are no longer relevant; on the contrary, as Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz and other economists have argued, Keynesian policies of underwriting aggregate demand are precisely what is needed in this era of Great Recession. The Skidelskys endorse Keynes’s policy relevance (indeed, Robert has done so at book length in Keynes: The Return of the Master). But in this book, they are more interested in Keynes as philosopher of the good life than as economist.
The Skidelskys begin with Keynes’s 1930 essay, “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren,” which argued that the material basis for the good life was taking shape. The Skidelskys summarize: “As technological progress made possible an increase in the output of goods per hour worked, people would have to work less and less to satisfy their needs, until in the end they would have to work hardly at all. Then, Keynes wrote, ‘for the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem—how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.’” This could well happen, Keynes believed, by 2030.
All indications are that it won’t. Since the 1980s, in Britain and the United States, working hours have been rising steadily among all classes—including the wealthy, the traditional cultivators of leisure. The rich world is four or five times wealthier than in 1930, but average hours of work have fallen only 20 percent since then. The utopia of abundance and leisure is nowhere in sight. And so the Skidelskys want to know: “Why did Keynes’s prophecy fail?”
Posing that question is a good way to illuminate the impact of economic imperatives on cultural values during the decades since Keynes wrote. Though his policy prescriptions remain vital to our time, his philosophical assumptions seem charmingly archaic in the contemporary world of go-go capitalism. He believed that people had a finite quantity of material needs and that once those needs were met, they would kick back and cultivate genuine leisure. This expectation depended on a distinction between needs (which were material) and wants (which were merely psychic). What Keynes did not foresee is that wants have turned out to be infinitely expansive and easily mistaken for needs. The distinction between needs and wants has all but disappeared from the academy—not only from economics departments, but from the social sciences and humanities as well. The discovery that wants could be recast as needs, that luxuries could be transformed into necessities, has allowed the engines of economic growth to run endlessly. They can slow or stop, the Skidelskys write, only if “people choose not to want more than they need.”
This emphasis on the sovereignty of choice is uncharacteristically single-minded, but in general the Skidelskys are admirably open to multiple interpretations of consumer insatiability. How does one explain this “continuous, unsatisfied craving for more than one has”? Answers, they acknowledge, are no doubt rooted in the dim recesses of “human nature,” but one does not have to be a Marxist (and the Skidelskys are as determined as Keynes to distance themselves from Marx) to acknowledge that capitalism might have something to do with it. For two centuries or more, capitalist institutions have been manipulating wants, stoking status anxiety, rejecting sufficiency. (There is no such thing as “enough” for the hero of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, the go-getter acting on his natural instincts.) We have learned that under capitalism, everything can be monetized. The enlargement of the sphere of monetary value allows the direct comparison of goods previously considered incommensurable. “Education, for instance, is increasingly seen not as a preparation for the good life but as a means to increase the value of ‘human capital,’” the Skidelskys write. The monetary standard dissolves familiar notions of the real: “Traders in futures, derivatives and other rarefied financial products need know nothing at all of the actual goods that lie at the end of their transactions.” The obsession with money, far from promoting “materialism,” actually devalues certain forms of material life. Even as money remains a means for acquiring material goods to fashion a self, the goods themselves (like the self) become mobile and disposable, more and more ephemeral.
* * *
Keynes disdained neoclassical orthodoxies and acknowledged the play of “animal spirits” in the business cycle, the visceral impulses that shaped economic life more decisively than rational calculation ever could. But he remained a genteel aristocrat with respect to consumer culture. He “did not understand that capitalism would set up a new dynamic of want creation that would overwhelm traditional restraints of custom and good sense,” the Skidelskys observe. “Capitalism has achieved incomparable progress in the creation of wealth, but has left us incapable of putting that wealth to civilized use.” Keynes must have known that this disappointing outcome was at least a possibility. He realized that capitalism had declared “fair is foul and foul is fair; for foul is useful and fair is not.” In a Faustian bargain with the forces of darkness, capitalism licensed motives and practices previously considered “foul” (avarice, usury) in exchange for the prospect of a future utopia—a world delivered from scarcity and toil. Keynes, like other thinkers, “tried to envisage an end state, a point at which humanity could say ‘enough’”; he did not live long enough to join those who found “that the machine [capitalists] had created was out of control, a Frankenstein’s monster that now programmed the game of progress according to its own insane logic.” The Skidelskys are among these critics of capitalist progress.
They trace the rise of the Faustian bargain in economic thought, as early modern thinkers from Machiavelli to Mandeville redefined avarice as “self-interest.” For Adam Smith, who assumed that humans were driven by a desire for self-improvement, classical virtues became vices—extravagance and generosity (not to mention sex) were forms of recklessly scattering one’s seed instead of prudently saving it. In his Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith balanced this emphasis on calculating prudence with an emphasis on the sympathy (or “moral sense”) inherent in man. But later economists ironed out any such complexities. “The study of man as he ‘really is’ rather than as he ‘ought to be’ turned into an unassailable fortress of mathematics, bewitching its acolytes and reducing everyone else to futile protest,” the Skidelskys write. “The value-neutral language of ‘utility’ and ‘preferences’ renders capitalism’s Faustian bargain necessarily invisible” in the contemporary world.
The consequences for the good life—and the conceptions of happiness associated with it—were incalculable. “Acquisitiveness was licensed on condition it serve the social good,” the Skidelskys observe.
What was lost was the idea of the social good as a collective achievement. It became a result of individuals pursuing their self-interest in markets. The logic of contract was sundered from the logic of reciprocity, which in most human cultures and societies has been an integral part of the economy. As economics developed, it became increasingly difficult to distinguish wants from needs.
All these tendencies were well under way before Keynes made his hopeful predictions in 1930. He was swimming against the tide. Even during the Keynesian moment at midcentury, when his ideas had some influence on public policy, his social-democratic vision was concealed by the apparatus of value neutrality. After the revival of neoclassical economics in the 1970s and ’80s, what had occurred in the discipline of economics began happening in the larger world as well. By the late twentieth century, in public discourse on both sides of the Atlantic, capitalism was no longer an economic system that could be changed or challenged; it was simply reality, the Way Things Are.
This is the neoliberal world that gave birth to the happiness industry, which is inspired by the laudable desire to define happiness as something more than per capita GDP, but which wants to do so without ever challenging the economic system that produces the GDP. It is a thankless and futile task, as the Skidelskys make clear. The contemporary science of happiness, they write, “rests far too much faith on the accuracy of the survey data. More disturbingly, it treats happiness as a simple, unconditional good, measurable along a single dimension. The sources or objects of happiness are disregarded. All that matters is whether you have more or less of the stuff. These are false and dangerous ideas,” not least because they systematically ignore the larger interactions of the self and the world. According to the Skidelskys, “self-reports cannot be the ultimate criterion of happiness, however useful they might be as supplementary evidence…. Happiness…is not an item in the mind’s inner theatre, visible only to its owner; it is essentially manifest in acts and happenings.” Happiness, in short, is about being in the world with others.
Distinctions must be made—between happiness and pleasure, for example. Pleasure inheres in experience, not beliefs; a virtual woman might give a man pleasure but cannot make him happy. “Either happiness is understood in the pre-modern sense, as a condition of being, in which case it is not the kind of thing that could be measured by happiness surveys, or it is understood in the modern sense, as a state of mind, in which case it is not the supreme good,” the Skidelskys conclude. They have clearly opted for the pre-modern sense: “A happy life is not just a string of agreeable mental states but one that embodies certain basic human goods.” They devote the rest of the book to trying to show what those goods are.
It is, of course, easier to say why things are wrong than how they can be made right. The closest we have come to realizing Keynes’s vision of the good life was during the midcentury period, from the late 1930s through the early 1970s, when Western Europe and the United States developed social-democratic institutions to counteract unfettered capitalism—strong labor unions, flourishing systems of public education, social insurance and welfare programs for the elderly, sick, disabled and unemployed. As the Skidelskys observe, “the political economy of the period was admirably tailored to realizing our basic goods. The problem was that it lost the language for describing itself in these terms.” As social democrats began justifying the maintenance of a well-paid, healthy working population on utilitarian grounds of efficient productivity, moral arguments for the good life faded from view. When fiscal crises surfaced in the 1970s, social democrats had no cogent response to the neoliberal charge that unions and government largesse were undermining the capacity to compete in the world marketplace. The failure of institutions was at bottom a failure of moral imagination and political nerve.
As the Skidelskys argue, “our continuing addiction to consumption and work is due, above all, to the disappearance from public discussion of any idea of the good life.” And discussion is what it takes, not “counting heads or going around with a questionnaire.” Elements of the good life include “health, respect, security, relationships of trust and love.” These are not simply means to the good life; they are the good life. Such basic goods are universal (“they belong to the good life as such, not just some particular, local conception of it”), absolute (“good in themselves, and not just as a means to some other good”), sui generis and indispensable. And they are all threatened by the corrosive impact of contemporary capitalism. Consider health, surely an item on anyone’s list of basic goods. In our neoliberal era, the Skidelskys argue, health has been redefined from a state of being in “tip-top condition” to a project of “perpetual improvement” that, in the absence of a larger purpose, becomes an end in itself. The cultural consequences are profound. “If every state of the body can be seen as defective relative to some other, preferred state, then we are all in a sense perpetually ill,” they observe. “The world becomes, as Goethe said it would, a vast hospital, in which everyone is nurse to everyone else.” The cultures of therapy and capitalism coincide. The promise of health is available for purchase, but health itself is a fluid and ever-receding goal, part of the universe of “personal growth” imagined by the positive psychologists. Demand for health is insatiable; there can never be enough to go around. The Skidelskys urge a return from this consumer-driven model to the older notion of health as a state of being rather than a self-improvement project.
* * *
Here as elsewhere, the authors reveal an uncommon sensitivity to the abrasive impact of capitalist culture on human relationships. They prefer to focus on friendship rather than community as a nodule of the good life (claiming persuasively that “community” is too easily reified into a collective ideal that somehow transcends the welfare of its individual members). And they note the difficulties of sustaining friendship in a culture obsessed with mobility, autonomy and utility, where the speed-up is a way of life. “You need to rid your life of Leeches and replace them with Energizers,” says American lifestyle coach Robert Pagliarini. It is one of those quotations that, in its very banality and predictability, encapsulates the depth of our moral predicament. Free-market fundamentalists, the Skidelskys argue, “get things precisely backwards. It is not human beings who need adapting to the market; it is the market that needs adapting to human beings.” You cannot find a more succinct and compelling indictment of neoliberalism than that.
The Skidelskys’ alternative is modest and deeply humane, and involves no posturing or jargon. They are social democrats, not socialists, and they want to retrieve the ethical language of social democracy—on the assumption that if we start talking seriously about the good life again, we can begin re-creating the institutions to sustain it. They believe personal autonomy is one good among others, without giving it special preference. They believe that the cultivation of personality is a good as well, and that people need “a room behind the shop,” a protected place apart from commercial transactions to pursue that cultivation. They believe in the importance of property as a base for cultivating one’s tastes and ideals—one’s personality. But they like their property small; they are drawn to the traditions of Catholic personalism and distributionism—the localist communitarianism embraced by figures as diverse as G.K. Chesterton and Dorothy Day. They know, with William Morris, that the precondition for leisure is the reduction of toil. (That would include, for starters, the relaxing of demands for increased productivity, the slowing down of the speeding up.) They also know there are links between social Catholicism, the sociological liberalism of Tocqueville, and Burkean conservatism; with the thinkers in these traditions, they share an enthusiasm for mutual-aid societies and employee cooperatives—for voluntary associations that provide a meeting ground between the remote organization and the isolated individual. They might have mentioned the Protestant Social Gospel, and the need to recover and reassert it against the cult of prosperity that for several decades has commanded center stage in contemporary evangelicalism. An enlarged Protestant ethic—one that prizes commonwealth over wealth—could enrich their vision of the good life as well.
In the Skidelskys’ vision of the good society, noncoercive paternalism would be balanced by localism. The state would bear responsibility for promoting basic goods, would ensure that the fruits of productivity are shared more evenly, and would reduce the pressure to consume—perhaps through a progressive expenditure tax like the one proposed by the economist Robert Frank. This would restrain what he calls the “runaway spending at the top,” which belies the myth that the 1 percent is the “investing class” and has “spawned a luxury fever,” Frank writes, that “has us all in its grip.” To that same end—the dampening of consumption—the Skidelskys propose eliminating advertising as a deductible business expense. They are also refreshingly resistant to free-market globaloney. The good life, they make clear, is not (and cannot be) dependent on globalization: “Developed countries will have to rely more on domestic sources of production to satisfy their needs; developing market economies will need to abandon export-growth models that rely on ever-increasing consumption demand in developed countries.” Scaling back consumption means scaling down international trade. This is not an ascetic agenda—the charge so often leveled against critics of consumer culture, as if consumption is the only imaginable form of leisure. On the contrary: How Much Is Enough? is an effort to imagine possibilities for a satisfying life beyond market discipline.
The Skidelskys want to revive a more capacious sense of leisure, and they conclude their book by underscoring the material basis for it: a “long-term decrease in the demand for labor resulting from continuous improvements in labor productivity.” This has already happened, but the fruits of increased productivity have gone to CEOs and shareholders. Were those gains to be redirected to the workers themselves, the results would be startling: reductions in working hours, early retirements, experiments in work sharing, the thirty-five-hour week and the like. Who knows? People might even be happier.
This vision is timely, a crucial contribution to contemporary political debate. But what gives it arresting force is the commitment behind it. The Skidelskys deploy a tone of moral seriousness that few on the left seem willing to risk today—at least with respect to imagining the good life. Moral seriousness is always a tricky business; no one likes a scold. But after all the Skidelskys’ apt examples and patient arguments, they have established the authority to make this claim: “At the core of our system is a moral decay that is tolerated only because the cleansing of its Augean stables is too traumatic to contemplate.” How Much Is Enough? gets it right. Reading its bracing criticism and humane proposals, I felt a sense, however fleeting, of real happiness.