A few weeks’ ago, a contestant on The X Factor pronounced that their aim in life was to be happy every day; Simon Cowell commended this as, and I quote: ‘a wonderful ambition’.
And this view is largely shared. Pharell Williams’ scored a global hit last year with his song, ‘Happy’; older readers will recall Ken Dodds’ success 50 years earlier with his song ‘Happiness’ and those who recall hearing ‘I want to be happy’ on its first release have lived through a century in which happiness has been seen as the over-riding aim of our lives.
To be unhappy is to be denied if possible, explained if necessary; a source of shame and a cue for condemnation; acceptable only for the grieving, the sick and this week, for Sunderland fans. If the rest of us are not happy then the self-help industry and the pharmaceutical companies are always just around the corner offering to solve our problems.
Politicians agree. America’s Founding fathers saw the pursuit of happiness as standing alongside life and liberty as fundamental rights. Both David Cameron and Nick Clegg justify tax cuts on the grounds that people know better than governments what will make them happy. The left argues that unequal societies make us unhappy, that government should act for the happiness ‘of the many, not the few’. But as so often, the apparent difference between left and right conceals a much more basic agreement. Both agree that happiness should be pursued; they disagree merely on who should pursue it.
But happiness is a relatively recent concept. In the King James Version of the Bible the word does not appear at all. In modern translations it stands for the Greek for ‘joy’ (chara) or for ‘blessedness’ (makarios); words that have very different meanings. In old English to be happy meant to be lucky, a meaning still evident in the sense of bad luck in ‘hapless’.
But what of today? There are at least four senses in which the word is used. The first refers to the experience of the moment; joy.
A second measures how well one’s life is going; the kind of happiness to which we refer when recalling that we never knew how happy we were.
A third sense is about something we might want – to be happy with this meal or unhappy with that Christmas gift. Finally we say that people are ‘happy’ or ‘unhappy’.
Three points are worth noting - first none of these senses implies any of the others. I can be happy about a particular outcome whilst unhappy with my life or I can experience joy whilst possessing a generally unhappy demeanour and so on.
Second, it is only in the sense of happiness as joy that someone’s claim to be happy must go unchallenged. So we might simply not believe the person who describes a litany of problems – they have lost their home due to gambling debts, they no longer see their family and so on, but who then claims to be happy. “Despite everything I am happy” they say. “No you are not” we think.
Or my claim to be happy when Sunderland get a point at home might be countered by another fan who suggests I should only be happy with a win.
A third problem is this. It is only if I can move beyond desire, even the desire for happiness, as a reason for action that I can make judgments about which desires I should try to satisfy, which I should ignore, and which I should actively try to diminish.
Any parent faced with the screaming toddler’s assertion that they want it, whatever it is, knows just as much. What the toddler needs to learn, and what we all need to reminded of, is not just that some desires are worth pursuing and others not, but about what it is that justifies the pursuit of this desire, here and now; other desires then and later and others not at all. In other words we need to learn what it is to have good reasons for action.
Happiness doesn’t provide such reasons and this is why Simon Cowell was wrong. But he is not alone. For the last 300 years the West has seen the pursuit of happiness as the aim of life. But all the evidence we have shows that the last thing most of us are is happy. Perhaps we have been looking in the wrong place.
Ron Beadle is Professor of Organisation and Business Ethics at Northumbria University