Are you going to make a dream come true?

March 31, 2006

Happiness lies not in easily quantified pleasure beloved of scientists, but in striving for purpose, says Richard Schoch

We want to know the secrets of happiness, but we're looking in the wrong places. Despite their claims to the contrary, the new generation of scientists and sociologists haven't discovered them. In truth, the secrets don't need to be discovered because they are in plain view, and have been so for millennia. They go by the names of philosophy and religion. The problem is that we have neglected them.

Over the past decade, behavioural scientists, psychologists and economists have measured reported levels of happiness and identified its causes using online surveys and brain scans. What they've learnt seems almost commonsensical.

According to recent works by Richard Layard of the London School of Economics ( Happiness: Lessons from a New Science ); Daniel Nettle of Newcastle University ( Happiness: The Science behind Your Smile ); and Daniel Kahneman, Princeton professor and Nobel laureate ( Well-being: Foundations of Hedonic Psychology ), what makes us happy are sex, friends, job satisfaction and a stable family. A short commute helps, too. Who could argue with that?

But I do want to argue with that. The "new science" of happiness fails to yield insights because it is based on an unsustainable premise. Nearly all researchers, whether hedonic psychologists or neo-Benthamite economists, define happiness as a positive emotional state: as Layard puts it, "feeling good - enjoying life and wanting the feeling to be maintained".

Scientists use such a definition because emotional states can be described, measured objectively and compared across subject groups - which is precisely what scientists like to do. The problem is that the definition is weak, and thus any conclusions based on it will be similarly weak. However impressive on its own (limited) terms, happiness research won't tell you what you actually want to know.

Happiness cannot be reduced to pleasurable feelings that arise from certain activities.JFirst, such emotions are fleeting; they rarely survive the events that prompted them - say, finishing a jigsaw puzzle. Second, such a view means that happiness is just whatever you like. And if what you like is drive-by shootings, then who's to say otherwise?

For all its boldness, the "science of happiness" is deficient in its understanding of happiness. By emphasising enjoyment and general good feeling, it turns the concept into something dangerously selfish: mere accumulation of pleasure, mere avoidance of pain.

So what is the secret of happiness that the scientists have overlooked? True happiness - which is something rather different from transient states of enjoyment - is the active orientation of your life towards meaning, purpose and value. It's a reflection on the quality and the character of your life as a whole. This kind of happiness withstands misfortune and does not depend on good fortune. Sometimes it's called philosophy, sometimes religion; but the label doesn't matter. What is important is that happiness is not about feeling good - it's about being good. The problem is that we mistake the former for the latter.

This is what Aristotle meant when he called happiness, or eudaemonia , a state of "flourishing" or "excellence". For the Greek philosopher, it was no impossible dream. Rather, it was the perfection of our species: we have been created for happiness, and it is the supreme goal of every human life.

But cool rationalist that he was, Aristotle owned up to the fact that it does not come to us easily. Just as one swallow does not make a springtime, he reasoned, one pleasant day does not make a whole life happy. And so in the next breath he called happiness an activity - because it requires skill and focus.

Far from being a state of passive enjoyment, such as relaxing in a bubble bath, happiness is active effort. More dramatically, the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius compared it to wrestling, since being happy means "standing prepared and unshaken to meet what comes and what we did not foresee".

Happiness, then, is something that we resolve to achieve rather than something pleasant that comes our way, like sunshine after a rainstorm. To strive for it means not simply that we'd like to be happy - who doesn't? - but that we regard our life as a journey in which we move purposefully toward that ultimate goal.

So how do we get to happiness? It's like that old joke about the tourist in Manhattan who, realising that he's lost, asks a passer-by: "How do you get to Carnegie Hall?" The answer: "Practise!"

Richard Schoch is professor of the history of culture at Queen Mary, University of London. His book The Secrets of Happiness: Three Thousand Years of Searching for the Good Life is published by Profile, £15.99.

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