In the June 28, 2012 issue of The New Republic, Deirdre N. McCloskey, who teaches at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Gothenburg, published an article titled “Happyism: The creepy new economics of pleasure.” In it she describes the truly scary social “science” of “hedonics,” the supposed study of what makes people happy, and proscriptions for social and even governmental policy to enforce happiness.
Later she writes, “… nowadays there is a new science of happiness, and some of the psychologists and almost all the economists involved want you to think that happiness is just pleasure. Further, they propose to calculate your happiness, by asking you where you fall on a three-point scale, 1-2-3: “not too happy,” “pretty happy,” “very happy.” They then want to move to technical manipulations of the numbers, showing that you, too, can be “happy,” if you will but let the psychologists and the economists show you (and the government) how.” … Some of the quantitative hedonists have taken to recommending governmental policy for you and me on the basis of their 1-2-3 studies; and some of them are having influence in and on the Obama administration.
She writes, “The knock-down argument against the 1-2-3 studies of happiness comes from the philosopher’s (and the physicist’s) toolbox: a thought experiment. “Happiness” viewed as a self-reported mood is surely not the purpose of a fully human life, because, if you were given, in some brave new world, a drug like Aldous Huxley’s imagined “soma,” you would report a happiness of 3.0 to the researcher every time. Dopamine, an aptly named neurotransmitter in the brain, makes one “happy.” Get more of it, right? Something is deeply awry…
McCloskey’s critique of hedonics is devastating. But how should we understand happiness?
Recall the second line of our country’s founding document, the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
What is it about happiness that got it this prominent placement? Today happiness is usually defined as a feeling of contentment, satisfaction, wellbeing, pleasure; a positive emotional state. Wait, did our country’s founders rebel against the British, putting at risk their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor, for the right to pursue the feelings you get when you eat a chocolate cake, play the harpsichord, or see your child take its first steps? Or perhaps they had a different meaning for the word happiness than we do today, and of course they did. Our country’s founders meant by happiness flourishing, thriving, identifying one’s interests and potentials and realizing them.
A Difficult Life
But before we explore further what is meant by happiness today, let’s look briefly at a difficult life.
One could imagine few people as tormented as Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890). One of his first jobs was working for an art dealer. He was fired for his contempt of commercialism in art, an attitude not appreciated by the gallery’s owner or its customers. He fell in love with his landlady’s daughter, and when she rejected him, became despondent, turning to religion. After several jobs teaching, he studied for the ministry, but flunked the exam. He tried another denomination, and flunked again. He got a temporary position ministering to coal miners, and chose to live with them, but the church dismissed him for the inappropriateness of this behavior, and he returned home. His father inquired about having him committed to an asylum.
Van Gogh always drew, and at the suggestion of his brother, Theo, he took up art in earnest. He fell in love again, was refused, responded by holding his hand in a flame, and again fell out with his father. He took up with an alcoholic prostitute who had two children, and then another she claimed was by him. He left them, and she eventually committed suicide. He returned to stay with his parents, and took up with a neighbor’s daughter, but their marriage was opposed by both of their families, and she took strychnine. Then Van Gogh’s father died of a heart attack.
He moved to Antwerp to work on his art, spent all of the money Theo sent him on art supplies, and lived on coffee and cigarettes. His teeth became lose and he was ill for months at a time. Then he moved in with Theo in Paris and continued to paint, but disagreed with Theo about the importance of the artists Theo represented, including Monet, Degas, and Pissarro, making Theo’s life unbearable. Ill from drinking and smoking, he moved to Arles. He found the place miserable and the people there did not think much of him either, but the light and the landscape animated his paintings and he produced important work.
He developed relationships with other artists, including Gauguin, but that relationship deteriorated, causing him great anxiety. He cut his ear off. He spent a month in the hospital suffering from hallucinations and delusions that he was being poisoned, perhaps a consequence of drinking absinthe. Around this time, he wrote, “Sometimes moods of indescribable anguish, sometimes moments when the veil of time and fatality of circumstances seemed to be torn apart for an instant.
Two months later he had left Arles and entered an asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. There he produced his most important paintings, including The Starry Night. His work was exhibited in Paris where the symbolist poet and critic, Albert Aurier, described him as a genius, and Toulouse-Lautrec, Signac, Monet, and others praised his work. On July 27, 1890 he walked into a field and shot himself in the chest, then walked back into town. Two days later he died. He was thirty-seven. Theo was at his side, and reported his last words as “La tristesse durera toujours.” (The sadness will last forever.) Theo, who had supported van Gogh and never stopped believing in him and his art, died six months later. They are buried side by side.
Van Gogh experienced the world in a religious vision of swirling energies, presciently seeing the modern stage on which we would all eventually live. He attempted to convey that experience in his painting, which are today among the world’s most recognizable and most valued works of art.
Now let’s ask, was Van Gogh happy? We could look in similar terms at the lives of Alexander Pope, who was stunted and deformed as a result of tuberculosis of the bone, and who, as a Catholic was forbidden to attend college or live near London; at Ludwig van Beethoven, who composed his most important music while deaf; at Friedrich Nietzsche, who suffered horrendous health problems during his short life; or at Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who spent eleven years in slave labor camps, and ask, were they happy?
Recall our brief definition of happiness—a feeling of contentment, satisfaction, wellbeing, pleasure; a positive emotional state. This stuff is actually taken seriously. An article in an otherwise serious science magazine stated:
Feeling good has also been shown to improve people’s creativity and ability to solve problems. In one experiment, subjects were shown a video of comedy bloopers to lighten their mood, before being presented with a practical problem involving a box of matches, a box of tacks and a candle. … experimenters found that people who had viewed the comedy clips were more likely to solve the problem.
How unfortunate that Pope, Beethoven, Nietzsche, van Gogh, and Solzhenitsyn didn’t know about this.
There are academic happiness journals, books are written about happiness, there are happiness studies departments in universities, tools are being developed to measure happiness in individuals and in communities, and we now have a measure of a country’s gross national happiness (GNH) as an alternative to gross domestic product (GDP). Given that GDP includes all economic activity, so that an auto wreck can increase the GDP, you can see how an alternative that would give positive or negative weight to various activities would be tempting. But you can also see how one’s biases could affect one’s choice of which activities to assign positive and negative values to. For example if one’s bias is communitarian, one might assign a negative value to working in isolation to write a novel. And sure enough, a ranking put out by a British group places the United States 150th in happiness among the world’s countries, with Vanuatu, Columbia, Costa Rica, and Dominica as the top four. Dominica also has the word’s highest murder rate. And happiness is now being used to promote social policies. If people are unhappy, we are justified in promoting policies that will eliminate the causes of that unhappiness. Never mind that most studies show that happiness is usually an innate quality in people and, except in extremes, not a response to external circumstances.
The question is, of course, what kind of world do those conducting these happiness studies and proposing hedonic policies want for us? Apparently a world rich with social support, but also a static world without risk, a world that shuns the unknown. One without creativity? Their happy person? An apathetic creature with no passion or commitment, unable to dream, who just earns his living, keeps warm, and uses compact florescent light bulbs? A somnambulant conformist couch potato, perhaps?
This is no exaggeration. In an editorial in the June 27 Wall Street Journal, we read: “In what league does Iraq beat Britain, Haiti beat the United States, and Afghanistan beat Denmark? Political corruption? Violent crime? Temperature? No, welcome to the weird and wonderful world of the Happy Planet Index.” The Happy Planet Index is produced by a high-powered British think tank that obviously want to very much remake us.
The Creative and Joy
The cultural and political commentator, Arthur Brooks, presents an alternative concept of happiness, describing it as coming from earned success:
“Earned success involves the ability to create value honestly—not by inheriting a fortune, not by picking up a welfare check. It doesn’t mean making money in and of itself. Earned success is the creation of value in our lives or in the lives of others. Earned success is the stuff of entrepreneurs who seek value through innovation, hard work and passion. Earned success is what parents feel when their children do wonderful things, what social innovators feel when they change lives, what artists feel when they create something of beauty.”
Since the term “happiness” has been hijacked by the advocates of somnambulism, I will use the term “joy.” Joy comes from earned success at something about which one is passionate. Joy comes from achieving excellence. Joy comes from accomplishment. Joy comes from unleashing inner drives so frightening to policy makers and academics that they do not even want to acknowledge they exist.
This means first identifying one’s temperament and one’s deepest interest—one’s passion. Recall the types of people we listed at the beginning of this book: leader, nurturer, producer, active, scholar, mystic, somnambulist. A leader might find joy heading a corporation or taking a university department to another level. A nurturer might find joy in seeing a children grow up healthy and go on to flourish, or teaching and opening up opportunities for others. A producer might find joy in organizing the manufacturing process for a new mobile communications device or making a violin. An active might find joy in climbing a mountain or fighting a fire. A scholar might find joy in pursuing a scientific insight or researching a book. A mystic might find joy in meditation or experiencing oneness. A somnambulist might find happiness in achieving a feeling of wellbeing. For the creative, joy comes from bringing into being something new that was not previously obvious, and that exhibits beauty or utility.
Once one identifies one’s passion, the next step is entering the fray of life, participating, having dreams, desires, and goals, and striving to achieve them. One might not be successful, but if one earns success at something about which one is passionate, one will find joy. And if one never enters the fray, one can still be supportive of those who do. Or, in a negative vein, one can practice resentment (or ressentiment) of those who do.
For creatives, joy comes from swimming in their cultures, interacting with those on the cutting edge who are redefining reality, arguing with them, collaborating with them, experiencing their creations. And producing works that manifest the spirit of their age and make apparent to others what is obvious to the creative, that our world is no longer what it had been.
So, were Pope, Beethoven, Nietzsche, van Gogh, and Solzhenitsyn happy? Would they have thought the question inane? As they seldom experienced feelings of contentment, wellbeing, or positive emotional states, no, they were not happy. But they were able to pursue their passions, were able to swim in the spirits of their ages and create works that changed the world and at times they received recognition for what they accomplished. They were joyful.
The Flow of Energy
Certainly no one would want to suffer what Pope, Beethoven, Nietzsche, van Gogh, and Solzhenitsyn suffered. Especially what van Gogh suffered. What an unhappy life in every respect. But let’s imagine we could ask each of them if he would trade his life for one of feelings of contentment, satisfaction, wellbeing, pleasure; a positive emotional state. We know how Nietzsche would answer. I suspect van Gogh might answer the same way, declaring himself with William Blake:
“As I was walking among the fires of Hell,
delighted with the enjoyments of Genius;
which to Angels look like torment and insanity.”
And we can imagine van Gogh reflecting on Nietzsche’s admonition, to participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world.
Vincent and the Doctor
Doctor Who is a long running British television science fiction series about a Time Lord, Doctor Who, who travels through time in a phone booth. In an episode titled “Vincent and the Doctor,” Doctor Who and his companion, Amy, travel to Provence in the south of France in 1890 to enlist van Gogh’s aid in fighting a space monster.
They form an affection for van Gogh and in an attempt to relieve him of his despair, take him to our present to see an exhibit of his work in Paris. Van Gogh is overwhelmed by the enthusiastic reception for his paintings. Then, within earshot of van Gogh, Doctor Who asks the exhibit’s curator, “Where do you think van Gogh rates in the history of art?” The curator, played with British solemnity by Bill Nighy, replies, “Well, big question. But to me, van Gogh is the finest painter of them all. Certainly the most popular great painter of all time, the most beloved. His command of color the most magnificent. He transformed the pain of his tormented life into ecstatic beauty. Pain is easy to portray, but to use your passion and pain to portray the ecstasy and joy and magnificence of our world—no one had ever done it before. Perhaps no one ever will do it again. To my mind that strange wild man who roamed the fields of Provence was not only the world’s greatest artist, but also one of the greatest men who ever lived.”
Van Gogh never heard words like that, and of course it would have been wonderful if he could have. But did he need to? He wrote to Theo, “Wings, wings to fly above life! Wings to fly above the grave and death! That is what we want, and I am beginning to understand that we can get them.” We see from van Gogh’s letters that his greatest despair was not his misfortunes, but his inability to fully convey in his paintings the luminous world he experienced. As much as we admire what he accomplished, he had wanted to accomplish so much more.
What were the joys of van Gogh and others who had horrendous lives, as well as of Picasso and others who had largely pleasant lives? What did they experience? We might think in terms of the spirit of ones age, or Ortega’s notion of the energies of the cosmos flowing into the world. Joseph Campbell writes, “Myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into cultural manifestations.” It is through engagement in the art, science, technology, business, that the Visionary Creative directly experiences this spirit of the age, directly experiences these inexhaustible energies that others can only hope to understand. And in response to this spirit and this energy they produce works that are conduits for their flow into our world and at the same time are vehicles for the remaking of our world. What greater satisfaction, what greater joy for a creative could there be?