A culture is guided by its concept of happiness, and how that is located in the overall grammar of human existence – and our society is one that is focused on living a happy life. A result of that is that we often ask ourselves if we are happy – whether consciously or not. We compare our level of happiness with others, and then translate it into a basket of variables like wealth, relationships, autonomy, where we live and what that looks like et cetera.
The grammar of happiness is weighted towards new and exciting events, so we seek vacations that will create the memories that we can put in the basket to increase our happiness (even if we may not enjoy the actual vacation as much as pointed out by Kahneman) and we document only those moments that qualify. You could, in a sense, read the grammar of happiness from the pattern of social media updates and photos we share, and we can perhaps back out our own concepts of happiness from which such posts and images we like.
I don’t think that is fake or wrong, by the way. The idea that we only show our best lives in social media and that this creates a plastic and inauthentic culture has it the wrong way around — it assumes that social media is a cause and not just an expression of our overall culture. It is ”the internet made me do it”-thinking, a special version of psychological repression of our own agency, a repression that is easier than accepting responsibility for who we are and what our society has thus become – but that is another discussion.
Neither do I think it is given, in the sense that we cannot change who we are and what society then becomes. But it is not about making sure the algorithms are transparent or that advertising is prohibited – it is about how we think about the core concepts in our lives. The somewhat disappointing and often bitter hypothesis that things are the way they are because things are the way they are, and not because of our actions is what I think Socrates had in mind when he noted that the unexamined life is not worth living.
If we examine life, our core organizing concepts – justice, happiness, fairness – we live a life that is open to change and direction, if we do not we end up stuck in concepts that have a logic of their own and will guide us down paths that are in a sense pretermined. It could be correct to say language made me do it! At least much more correct than blaming any other extraneous cause.
With that we can return to the question of how the concept of happiness guides us, and ask if there are patterns in there that we should care about, and if we do so I think there is one dimension in this concept that is interesting to look at – and that is the tension between the everyday life and the adventure or project.
When are you most happy? When you are having coffee in the morning, in a quiet room or with the family around or when you are lounging on a balcony in a nice hotel at a small island in the Mediterranean? I am only partially kidding! These two dimensions in happiness are interesting because of how they seem to guide us into two different paths.
It is a cliché to point out that near death experiences shift the center of gravity in happiness towards the smaller things – towards the experience of everyday moments and their mysteries. But what happens when an entire culture has had a near death experience? What happens after a war or … a pandemic?
So here is the hypothesis: after the pandemic we will see a shift in the grammar of happiness towards smaller things, simpler moments – less career, less wealth, less trips. More simple things – like a dinner with friends, a party, a beautiful morning with a cup of coffee.
This is not all good – and some would say that it could be disastrous. Tyler Cowen has pointed out that the lack of ambition and the complacency of the Western world is the real cause behind the perceived slowdown in innovation and progress that he claims we have seen in productivity growth and real technological change the last couple of decades — we have become a civilisation celebrates its own accomplishments, blind to the possible improvements. If the hypothesis is correct our interest in progress and big, mission-like economic projects or technological projects may be waning.
And worse: a culture that enjoys the little moments will see its horizons shrink and time become more focused on the now – and that at a time when we really need to think long term and deal with issues like climate change! So a contented, small things happiness may actually be a myopic enjoyment of the music at the deck of the Titanic as she plunges towards the dark, cold depths of the ocean.
When our sense of urgency shifts from the adventure to our everyday things we become weaker in the aggregate, as a culture. Perhaps.
These things are not meant to be simple. Happiness is for better or worse a powerful concept, and one that we have to keep under close scrutiny – to paraphrase; the limits of our happiness are the limits of our futures – personal and societal. And there is an argument for abandoning happiness as the organizational concept for human experience (Nietzsche noted that happiness was, at the time he wrote, not a very big thing outside of the English world – and perhaps one of the larger, hidden, changes in our collective mentality in the last centuries is this slow colonization of our thinking by the idea that we should be happy – that thesis is not new, but remains an interesting line of exploration).
If not happiness, then what? One answer would be that we need to move from a mono-conceptual organization of life to a pluralistic one, where more than one single concept structures our reality. Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics notes that no man should be judged – or can be judged – happy before the end of his life. In that, admittedly alien to our time, framework happiness is a summing up of a life well lived through the balancing of virtues and actions that make us human, not happy – and develop us in different ways. A life of learning, perhaps.
It will be interesting to track our overall mentality over the coming decade – the possible return to the roaring 20s, or the slow refocusing on the everyday experiences, and perhaps the abandonment of happiness as a conceptual framework for how we live.
If nothing else recognizing when we act under the logic of happiness is a helpful way to live a perhaps more examined life.