Existential angst? So what!

Happiness is a recurrent topic in the blogosphere, not least at Troppo where several of us have  posted about it more than once. There’s even a strand of economics that focuses on studying happiness.

In part that’s why it struck me as a bit strange that Australian writer David Malouf appears to have written an entire essay on the subject for The Monthly without engaging with the economics literature on happiness, or for that matter philosophical discourse about it. Nevertheless Malouf seems to have reached by intuitive and literary means a conclusion fairly similar to the economists: money doesn’t buy happiness, or at least not as much or for as long as some may have hoped and imagined. We tend to revert to a mean that’s significantly less than constant ecstasy. As Malouf observes:

We do complain, of course, but our complaints are trivial, mostly ritual. Our politicians lack vision, interest rates are too high, the pace of modern living is too hectic; the young have no sense of duty, family values are in decline. The good life, it seems, is not enough. We have nothing to complain of, we are “happy enough”; but we are not quite happy. We are still, somehow, unsatisfied, and this dissatisfaction, however vaguely conceived, is deeply felt.

If pressed, our friends or neighbours will probably tell us that what they are suffering from is “stress”; a sense, again vaguely conceived, that in the world about them, as they feel it and as it touches their lives, all is not well. They do not, in the end, feel secure or safe.

We know too much about the world these days, Malouf thinks, and that results in our substituting wider foci of unease and anxiety that we wouldn’t even have perceived let alone had time to worry about when life was an unrelenting struggle for subsistence.

No doubt Malouf is right as far as he goes, but these aren’t new thoughts or even especially profound ones.  I reckon it’s hard to go past what Immanuel Kant had to say about happiness about 250 years ago:

First, getting what one wants might mean preventing others from getting what they want, so it seems to be difficult, if not impossible, for everyone to be happy. Thus, if morality is defined in terms of happiness, not everyone can be moral, which seems wrong. This problem arises whenever one seeks to define morality in terms of happiness. The fact that not everyone could be moral if not everyone could be happy follows from the contrapositive of the conditional statement, “If you are moral, you are happy,” which is what happiness-based moral systems like Eudaimonism profess.

There is another problem with basing morality on happiness: it appears that people do not know for certain what will make them happy. Kant writes, “The concept of happiness is such an indeterminate concept that, although every human being wishes to attain this, he can still never say determinately and consistently with himself what he really wishes and wills.”

Kant gives the example of someone who seeks after riches because he thinks it will make him happy, only to find that his pursuit actually results in unhappiness, because of the anxiety, envy, and intrigue that come with it. Another example is someone who seeks after knowledge, only to discover many dreadful things that had previously been concealed from him.

As finite beings, we cannot know which actions will result in happiness, for this would require omniscience. The best one can do is to live by words of wisdom extracted from one’s experience, such as “frugality, courtesy, reserve and so forth,” in an attempt to be happy.

Kant bluntly states, “The problem of determining surely and universally which action would promote the happiness of a rational being is completely insoluble.” This is the case because “happiness is not an ideal of reason but of imagination.”

This inability to choose actions that will undoubtedly result in happiness leads Kant to the following: “The more a cultivated reason purposely occupies itself with the enjoyment of life and with happiness, so much the further does one get away from true satisfaction.” That is, seeking for happiness will not result in finding happiness. For this reason, Kant says that happiness cannot be the moral purpose of rational beings with wills.

If it were, instinct would be more efficient than reason in bringing happiness about, because we use instinct to fulfill our inclinations. In this scenario, reason would have no practical use, but would only be used to contemplate and delight in the happiness that instinct was able to attain.

However, Kant claims that “the true vocation of reason must be to produce a will that is good.” And producing a good will, in fact, limits the attainment of happiness in many ways.

I wonder how Troppo readers rate themselves on the happiness scale?  Denizens of the blogosphere appear on average to exhibit greater tendencies towards complaint, nitpicking and pointscoring than most.  Does that make us less happy than the average?  I tend to oscillate between Peggy Lee and Louis Armstrong, fortunately with a marked skew towards Satchmo.  And I identify with this aphorism from Richard Dawkins, even though I dislike his strident atheism:

After sleeping through a hundred million centuries we have finally opened our eyes on a sumptuous planet, sparkling with color, bountiful with life. Within decades we must close our eyes again. Isn’t it a noble, an enlightened way of spending our brief time in the sun, to work at understanding the universe and how we have come to wake up in it? This is how I answer when I am asked—as I am surprisingly often—why I bother to get up in the mornings.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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13 Responses to Existential angst? So what!

  1. Simon says:

    I’ve never taken the lyrics to “What a Wonderful World” at face value. It’s always seemed a terribly sad song to me.

  2. paul walter says:

    Nothing “ritual” about saying our politicians have no imagination, are bent and so forth. People just keep pointing out fresh examples and are mistaken as people recounting past incidents.

  3. pointy says:

    Today’s challenge: Is it possible to mention Richard Dawkins, even in passing or with a positive reference, without using the words “strident” or “shrill”? Bonus points to those who can manage it without “fanatical” creeping in somewhere.

  4. derrida derider says:

    I think that passage from Kant overstates the case. Yes, of course we live with uncertainty as to the consequences of our actions. That uncertainty provides a motive for heuristic rules of morality – we cannot predict with any confidence whether a given act of courtesy will cause happiness in either ourselves or others, but both theory and observation (ie deduction and induction) lead us to believe that it is more likely to than not. So the rule of thumb is “be courteous”.

    As Keynes put it:

    Burke ever held, and held rightly, that it can seldom be right… to sacrifice a present benefit for a doubtful advantage in the future… It is not wise to look too far ahead; our powers of prediction are slight, our command over results infinitesimal. It is therefore the happiness of our own contemporaries that is our main concern.

    But “uncertain” is not the same as “purely random”. In modern terms, happiness is best sought through a stochastic process. And we should use reason where we can be moderately certain of effects, and morality where we cannot.

    On Malouf, it really is amazing how so many authors don’t bother to take any sort of glance at what is already known before scribbling on a topic – given Wikipedia, etc there is no excuse for it these days. OTOH I suppose that’s why I’ve never written a book – for fear that where I am correct I am not original, and where I am original I am not correct :-) .

  5. Incurious and Unread (aka Dave) says:

    I thought that Ross Gittins assessed it well in his “happiness” book. He says that, instinctively, we seek to acquire things we desire (money, power, a new ipad etc) not things we like (a lazy day at the beach etc). The latter makes us happy, but not the former.

    This instinct arises from an evolutionary “imperative” to go forth and multiply.

  6. Geoff Honnor says:

    I’m quite happy.

  7. Tom N. says:

    I’m slightly happier than Geoff.

  8. paul walter says:

    well, I’m not.
    Where’s my Aston Martin, that I’m entitled to, as the world’s formost victim? And I’d like a blonde to go with it, too.
    Pronto, that is…
    chop, chop.. lazy gesture with outstretched forehand..

  9. murph the surf. says:

    Did some one mention frugality?
    How quaint.
    I spend most days at the beach-surfing is a funny recreation- there is a lot of hassling and relationships to be managed in the surf!
    More recreation is one way to change our consumptions and possibly derive more pleasure from our time but all circumstances come with some sort of stress- it just might not appear so at first glance.

  10. Geoff Honnor says:

    “well, I’m not.
    Where’s my Aston Martin, that I’m entitled to, as the world’s formost victim? And I’d like a blonde to go with it, too.
    Pronto, that is…”

    Well I’m happy for you and your aspirations, Paul. Less so about your spelling.

  11. derrida derider says:

    A mate of mine defines happiness as “Earning $10k more a year than your brother-in-law”. The paleolithic struggle for resources made us competitive beasts.

  12. DD – Rather similar to Mencken’s definition of wealth:” Any income that is at least $100 more a year than the income of one’s wife’s sister’s husband. ” Adjusted for inflation, of course.

  13. Nicholas Gruen says:

    I’m a huge fan of Malouf’s essays – his Boyer Lectures were a revelation to me. Always interesting and full of insights. The extract of this essay in The Age bored me to tears and I gave up on it. Completely mystified as to why he wrote it.

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