Ending the pursuit of happiness?

Stephen Stanley was recently asked to provide an introduction to a screening of the documentary ‘Happy‘ (trailer below). Here’s what he had to say…

Apparently a ‘turn to happiness’ – or perhaps a near-obsession with happiness – is happening across government, science, therapy and popular culture.

The general idea is that: the purpose of life is to be happy, we all want to be happy, and that to be happy, be need to do certain things. Furthermore, we have a right to be happy, and a moral obligation or duty to be happy, for ourselves and others. As one psychiatrist remarks, “Happy people seem to wish to force their condition on their unhappy companions and relatives” (Bentall, 1991, p. 94). If we fail to find happiness, we have failed in life.

This idea is historically recent. We have lost the connection with the Middle English word ‘happ’ which means chance, luck or fortune. The idea that happiness is what happens to us, and is beyond our control, goes against the grain of contemporary understanding.

This ‘turn to happiness’ has taken place across at least three domains.

(i) Economics of Happiness

Within some nation states, there has been a shift from measures of economic growth (Gross Domestic Product, GDP) to happiness, wellbeing and life satisfaction (Genuine Progress Indicator, GPI).

The Easterlin paradox states that after amassing a certain amount of wealth, happiness does not continue to increase.

In the UK, Richard Layard (Happiness Tsar or Professor Lord Layard at LSE) argue in Happiness: Lessons from a New Science (2005) that “the best society is the happiest society”, defining happiness as ‘feeling good’ and misery as ‘feeling bad’.

Happiness is connected to social ideals about the good life: being married and having a family. We can save money on social welfare by increasing happiness. Depressed people should access CBT and then return to work.

David Cameron uses these ideas to fund £2m of research to find out how happy we are as a nation, whilst at the same time overseeing cuts to health, education, welfare and benefits.

The economics of happiness are complex. Wealthy people tend to be happier than the less affluent and those unemployed, divorced, or ill (varying geographically). But the happiness of the rich depends on how rich they are compared to others. As the gap between rich and poor has expanded over the last 30 years, the rates of clinical misery have increased.

(ii) Positive Psychology

Or the ‘Science of Happiness’ is a US-based movement led by Martin Seligman. It seeks to make people happy by studying ‘positive’ emotions, individual traits and institutions. It opposes the early Psychology focussing on ‘negative’ things like anxiety, depression and stress.

Seligman has recently argued that positive psychologists shift from happiness to the Ancient Greek ‘eudaimonia’ (good spirit). For Aristotle, this is not a fleeting feeling, but a way of living a virtuous ‘life-well lived’ through reason.

One problem is that positive psychologists adopt a culturally specific notion of an isolated self who seeks the American Dream: wealth and success are equally available to everyone, you just have to work and regulate yourself in particular ways (Becker & Maracek, 2008).

Another is that positive psychologists cannot agree on what emotions are, how many there are, where they are, and how they should be studied. Let alone happiness. While some say it is a ‘universal’ emotion, there are diverse cultural display rules for the expression of emotion.

Thirdly, happiness research uses self-report questionnaires to ask people ‘Overall, how satisfied are you with your life nowadays?’ Such measures have a number of difficulties. They are powerfully skewed by cultural norms of self-presentation, conformity and social desirability. We need to be cautious when we find out that ‘life satisfaction’ in Wales is currently at 7.3/10 (DEFRA cited in Allin, 2007).

(iii) Buddhism

Is often incorporated into our pursuit of happiness.

The most striking headline claimed to have found the ‘happiest man in the world’ – Mathieu Ricard, a French-born Tibetan monk with virtuoso meditation abilities who participated in a neuroscientific study of his brain. His happiness levels were higher than the researchers had ever seen.

But is this happiness?

The Dalai Lama’s internationally best-selling The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living is more a book about eudaimonia than happiness: developing ‘good human qualities – warmth, kindness, compassion. Then our life becomes more meaningful and peaceful – happier’ (p. 64).

One problem for psychologists and neuroscientists is that eudaimonia is not in the head: it is in your compassionate actions in the world.

The usual story is that what Buddhist do is meditate, meditation changes your brain, and makes you feel happy. But Buddhist ‘happiness’ is more like serenity or contentment rather than happy-clappy Hollywood happiness. To ‘be happy’ is certainly not the goal of practice.


The pursuit of happiness seems to assume that we all want to ‘feel good’ more often, or all of the time, by living our lives in particular ways. But happiness is a fleeting, momentary feeling which comes and goes depending on conditions – social, historical, cultural.

Perhaps the pursuit of happiness may be a barrier to happiness because we find it harder to accept our misery and that our miseries might be an indication that something is wrong – not necessarily inside us, but within the world?

Maybe we need to question the taken-for-granted idea that the purpose of life is to be happy, as well as the taken for granted norms and ideals about what you need to do to be happy?

I will leave you with my favourite quote from the happiness literature: happiness “meets all reasonable criteria for a psychiatric disorder” (Bentall, 1991). Bentall looks forward to the introduction of ‘happiness clinics’ and ‘anti-happiness medications’.

Do we need to end the pursuit of happiness? Or become Anti-Happy?

On that note, enjoy Happy!

One response to “Ending the pursuit of happiness?

  1. Pingback: Happy! « Rewriting The Rules