Miércoles 13 de Agosto de 2008, Ip nº 242

The up side of down
Por Stephen Cave

We are all chasing happiness. We talk of it as if it were real, a place the budget airlines will surely soon be flying to, or a new product – iPhoria? – that will hit the shelves any day. We sniff at mere contentment. Disgruntlement we see as aberration. And being down in the dumps is a certifiable disease.

But what would happen if we all finally found happiness? Imagine if life’s little flaws – the way the car grumbles on the motorway, the fact that Tuscany is becoming too touristy – stopped nagging away at us, and we realised that things are fine just as they are? For a start, if we thought life already blissful, we might do without the even fancier iPod; if we had already found paradise, we probably wouldn’t need to upgrade our patio furniture; and if we were more at ease with ourselves, we might not bother with the new hairstyle or the botox.

Within weeks, the high-tech industry, which feeds on the creation of new and unfulfilled desires, would be in difficulties; the fashion world, which survives by persuading us that our perfectly good jeans are either too baggy or too tight, would start to flounder. The luxury goods industry would surely follow; new cars would be next. Before long, we’d be in a full-blown recession. Give it a decade and we’d be back in the Dark Ages.

So we should be careful what we wish for. Contrary to the enormous and growing literature on how to be happy, perhaps there’s something to say for dissatisfaction. Three writers who have had enough of our ecstasy-obsessed culture certainly think so. They make the case for the dethroning of happiness from its place as the only worthy state of mind, and argue we should instead celebrate our grouchier sides.

There are two good reasons to appreciate emotions other than happiness. The first is that few of us are likely to live our lives in bliss. By making happiness holy, we dismiss the overwhelming majority of human experience as nothing more than an also-ran. The second is that dissatisfaction is the driver of human endeavour – and not just in the luxury goods industry.

In Enough: Breaking Free From the World of More, journalist John Naish picks up both these themes. “If you look at our evolutionary wiring, we have to conclude that we are not designed to have happiness as our natural default state,” he writes. “Nor can happiness be grown beyond its natural proportions, like some weird-looking specialised insect mandible.” Instead, we’ve evolved to receive a happiness kick when we do certain things that optimise our chances of surviving and reproducing. If you are hungry and kill a wild boar, or, in modern terms, stumble across an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet, the good-time feeling kicks in. But when afterwards you feel like there’s a bowling ball sitting in your stomach, that fug of felicity is likely to pass.

Or, as my mum used to say, we’re not put on this earth to be happy. But today many of us refuse to accept this. And by believing that happiness is the only emotion worth having, we dismiss the value of subtler, darker feelings. As Eric G Wilson puts it in Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy, we demonstrate “a craven disregard for the value of sadness”. Wilson, a professor of English literature and self-confessed melancholic, argues that we deceive ourselves into believing there can be positive without negative, up without down. “In a world undoubtedly tragic”, to seek only jollity is, he writes, “to become inauthentic.”

Melancholy, on the other hand, “connects us to our fundamental being” and allows us to see the world as it really is, with what Wilson calls its “vital polarity between agony and ecstasy, dejection and ebullience.” As witnesses, he calls on a host of similarly sorrowful characters, from John Lennon and Bruce Springsteen to Vincent van Gogh and Herman Melville. All of these, he says, have “endured the limbo” and “created out of this insight original products”. But now the melancholic is an endangered species, Wilson believes, under pressure to pop pills and engage in positive thinking until he achieves the “psychological rigor mortis” of bland old happiness.

Wilson’s book is proving to be controversial in his native US, where the right to happiness is famously enshrined in the founding deed, the Declaration of Independence. In the land where well-being is serious business, Wilson has been accused of making light of depression, and romanticising a debilitating illness. Though little could be described as “light” in this book, he does overshoot his paean to despondency. This is forgivable in the passages where his prose is close to poetry; less so where he wallows in wordy faux-profundity.

Wilson is strongest when he details the creative power of gloom. He is right to recognise that melancholy is “the muse behind much art and poetry and music”, but also that “this treasure comes at a serious price”. Without sullenness, “what we see as culture in general, that empyreal realm of straining ideas, might never have arisen”. Like Naish, he sees an evolved role for malaise – as the wellspring of innovation, “a turbulence of heart that results in an active questioning of the status quo”. The dissatisfied soul would be dreaming up new and better ways of meeting life’s challenges, while, in Naish’s words, “constantly cheerful Stone Agers would have lolled about grinning while their wounds festered, their crops died and bears devoured their children.”

The positive power of displeasure is also the focus of Julian Baggini’s new book Complaint, which is a robust defence of the importance of disgruntlement. “Human beings did not get where they are today by being sanguine about imperfection,” he states, “the meek would have no world to inherit if the more petulant did not set about building one fit to last.”

Baggini aims to rescue the reputation of grumbling. He believes that dissatisfaction is the motor not only of our consumerist economy but of progress itself: “All major social advances have started with a complaint,” he writes. If the barons had been content with their lot, there would have been no Magna Carta; if the suffragettes had been more happy-go-lucky, there would be no women’s rights.

Baggini’s arch-enemy is religion, all the major variants of which teach us to accept our miserable fate as God’s will. Christianity, for example, tells us to turn the other cheek. Its success lies in reconciling people to life’s injustices in return for the promise of eternal bliss in another world. Rejecting this reassurance is to rebel against God. “Complaint is a secular, humanist act. It is resistance against the idea ... that suffering is our divinely ordained lot and that we can do no more than put up with it piously.”

Ironically, the largest section of the book – on misguided complaint – is itself a long lament. In it, Baggini rages against a vast range of what he sees as wrong-headed whingers, from campaigning journalist John Pilger to Kent’s Lydd Airport Action Group (who, in case you were wondering, oppose said airport’s expansion, and are therefore guilty of Nimbyism). Complaining may be crucial to our humanity, but misguided gripes – about things that either cannot or should not be changed – just get us down all the more.

By far the most egregious repeat offenders of spurious grumbling are, in Baggini’s view, the middle classes. They move about in search of the best schools and jobs, then complain at the loss of traditional community; travel to the top of Machu Picchu in Peru only to complain about all the tourists; and expect other cultures to be authentic while patronising the local Starbucks “like a libertine who wants his innumerable conquests to be chaste virgins”. Worst of all, they find ever new ways to channel their “visceral abhorrence of the proletariat”, such as by joining the Jamie Oliver bandwagon in order to carp on about the state of school dinners.

There are many insights in this neat (and short) book – indeed, Complaint is a work of popular philosophy of the best kind: it doesn’t dumb down the ideas of the greats, but employs the tools and training of the philosopher to explore the deeper significance of everyday life. The questions Baggini poses – how much imperfection should we accept, and how much should we strive to change? – are ones we face every day and determine the course of our lives perhaps more than any others.

The consideration of when enough is enough also preoccupies John Naish. Though he opposes the happiness cult as much as Wilson and Baggini, he is also concerned that our disgruntlement doesn’t get out of hand. The modern malaise, he believes, which the happiness fanatics are trying to cure, often has a simple evolutionary explanation: the instinct that was naturally selected through millennia in the wilds is to strive for ever more – calories, stuff, options. But in this time of plenty, we quickly end up with far more than is good for us. Like the Ghost of Christmas Present, Naish takes us on a tour of our modern-day excesses. These range from food to information – did you know that we tend to overeat when in crowded environments, or that, according to a recent study, prolonged exposure to e-mail can temporarily knock 10 points off your IQ?

The worries these authors express are not wholly new. Many a literary dystopian has warned us what we stand to lose as a society of drugged-up happy zombies. Utilitarianism, the idea that the highest good is the maximisation of happiness, has heavily influenced modern politics and economics. Yet its critics have long been aware of the so-called paradox of hedonism: that true contentment can only be approached indirectly – like being spontaneous, trying too hard is the surest way not to achieve it.

But Naish, in his witty, self-deprecating style, takes the argument against the happy set one step further: could it be that the pressure to be constantly buoyant is actually adding to our woes; that our inability to attain nirvana is making us feel like failures? Most psychological research, he claims, shows that once we reach the age of 25, neither winning the lottery nor losing both legs is likely to have much long-term effect on our happiness. We are stuck with ourselves as we are. Yet the golden carrot of continual joy is dangled before us as if rapture were just one step away. These unrealistic expectations are themselves an obstacle to self-fulfillment.

“The price we pay for our advance in civilisation is a loss of happiness,” wrote Sigmund Freud in 1930. Happiness and progress simply do not make for cosy bedfellows. So perhaps it is time to stop chasing the will-o’-the-wisp of continual good cheer and instead take ownership of our discontented side. Who knows, it’s just possible that by lifting the intense pressure to be unremittingly joyous, we might find it that little bit easier to smile.


Enough: Breaking Free From the World of More
By John Naish

Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy
By Eric G Wilson

Complaint: From Minor Moans to Principled Protests
By Julian Baggini


  09/08/2008. FT.com.


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