The Pursuit of Happiness, Endlessly

I want to be happy, I guess. Though I would settle, if it is in fact settling, for J.S. Mills definition of that as the absence of pain or suffering. That would do me fine. But I think the great bulk of people who are not me (and that is the great bulk of people) want something more. Not that I would know myself what that might be exactly. I seem to know less and less about that mythical “most people.”

Zygmunt Bauman looks into this business of happiness in his “The Art of Life.” There he argues, pretty definitively, I think, that happiness has little or nothing to do with affluence. Experts have tracked the correlation of the rise in GNP with happiness, and they report, according to Bauman, “that improvements in living standards in such nations as the the United States and Britain are associated with no improvement–indeed a light decline–in subjective well being.” Further: “On the whole, only a few percentage points [on the happiness index] separate countries with an annual income per capita between 20,00 and 35,000 dollars from those below the barrier to 10,000 dollars.” Leading Baumont to assert: “The strategy of making people happier through raising their income does not seem to work.”

Apparently the “advanced” western nations have not only their own physical complaints, like colon cancer, but also their particular spiritual or psychological problems. Along with not being so happy, the people of the “advanced” nations also, according to Baumont suffer from “…an uncomfortable and uneasy sensation of uncertainty, hard to bear, let along live with permanently. Of diffuse and ambient uncertainty, ubiquitous yet seemingly unanchored, unspecified and for that reason all the more vexing and aggravating..”

He’s right about that. Whether or not we are heading to hell in a hand basket, there’s certainly a good deal of uncertainty about where we are heading, and how that direction, whatever it might be, will affect our daily walking around and whether or not we will find what we want in the grocery store or anything there at all. That could be paranoia. But if all the bees die, then more than likely so will we.

Consumer society has sought to salve the wound of this uncertainty by giving us plenty of goods to consume. This, however, has not led, according to Baumont, to happiness but to the endless pursuit of it. Baumont puts it, “One of the most seminal effects of equating happiness with shopping for commodities which are hoped to generate happiness is to stave off the chance that the pursuit of happiness will never end.” As one of my students put it, “I looked in my closet. It was completely full. But I had absolutely nothing to wear.” Her clothes, because of incessant changes in fads, had worn themselves out just hanging there.

Somebody benefits I suppose from this incessant churning of goods. Somebody is making profit, and the endless pursuit itself keeps the wheels of industry world wide churning. If Americans and the members of the other western nations suddenly stopped consuming, the whole damn world economy would collapse.

But we’re not going to find happiness this way, even as the absence of pain. 

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