We need a new way of thinking about happiness — one that embraces uncertainty rather than checklists and perfection, argues philosopher Sam Wren-Lewis in his new book. In the extract below, he traces the origins of the distinctively modern conception of happiness which focuses on ‘getting everything right’
Happiness has not always been about getting everything right. The idea that ‘if only we had ___ then we’d be happy’ is a relatively recent one in human history.
According to the historian Darrin McMahon, there have been three major turning points, or ‘revolutions’ in thinking about happiness through recorded history. The first was the agricultural revolution, which began around 10,000 years ago, taking us out of our hunter-gathering lifestyles and into more ‘civilized’ forms of living. The second was what McMahon calls the ‘Axial Age’, which began around 2,500 years ago, and where our brief story will begin.
This was a time in which illness and strife were common. Life was considered to be so predestined and out of people’s control that any kind of happiness must be fleeting by default. Lasting happiness was thought of as something in the hands of the gods, and therefore in the realm of good fortune.
In fact, the word happiness comes from the old German word happ, which translates as ‘luck’. In Spanish and Italian, the words felicidad and felicità derive from ‘fortune’; similarly, the French word bonheur translates as ‘good fortune’. And the ancient Greek word for happiness, eudaimonia, translates as having a good daemon. Any kind of lasting happiness was generally considered to be the result of some divine influence – a god or daemon on someone’s side, rather than anything down to that person’s own actions.
This is well illustrated by the following quote from the philosopher Herodotus, in the 6th century BCE:
“Short as [the human life] is, there is not a man in the world, either here or elsewhere, who is happy enough not to wish – not once only but again and again – to be dead rather than alive. Troubles come, diseases afflict us, and this makes life, despite its brevity, seem all too long.”
The picture Herodotus paints is grim, reflecting a view of the world as at once hostile and unpredictable, governed by forces beyond people’s control.
McMahon shows how the major religions of the Axial Age tried to make sense of the pursuit of happiness within these conditions. According to most religious teachings, happiness was not a matter of getting all the things we want in life, including basic conditions such as food, shelter, good health and safety from violence. Instead, people were encouraged to think of ‘true happiness’ as something only available to them beyond the material world.
Although true happiness was something that people could only attain in the afterlife, most religious teachings emphasised how they could nonetheless prepare for it, and catch glimpses of it, throughout their lives. With a focus on moral virtue – doing the right thing at the right time, in harmony with the natural order – people could be at peace with their circumstances.
For instance, according to Daoism, ‘genuine happiness’ required devotion to the Dao or Way, the true order and harmony of the universe that transcended the self. Similarly, Confucius taught that living well went far beyond ordinary pleasures and comforts. It was from being well aligned – between the individual and the transcendent, between right conduct and right order – that true harmony, peace and joy could be found.
This all changed with the advent of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution – the third major turning point in happiness, which McMahon calls the ‘Revolution in Human Expectations’. With the opportunities created by modern capitalism, happiness suddenly became something under our control.
By 1776, happiness was enshrined in the United States Declaration of Independence, with US citizens entitled to ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’. Happiness was no longer something that required either good fortune or virtuous activity. Instead, most individuals could now pursue happiness by satisfying their desires and achieving their goals – something that we largely take for granted in our definitions of happiness today.
With these opportunities for individual achievement came the idea that happiness was about maximising satisfaction and pleasure. The Enlightenment philosopher, jurist and social reformer Jeremy Bentham created the ‘hedonic calculus’ as a way of measuring how pleasurable people’s lives were – the more pleasure, the better. The philosophy of utilitarianism was created, with the explicit aim of producing the ‘most happiness for the greatest number’.
This was a big shift in the way people started to see their lives and what they could make of them. For the first time in human history, the kind of happiness we now pursue – which includes fulfilling our values, getting the things we want, and achieving our life plans – became a widespread goal. From the Enlightenment to the modern day, this way of thinking about happiness has been built on. We now hold happiness as one of our primary values, reflected in common phrases such as, ‘I want a career that makes me happy’, ‘I want a happy relationship’ or ‘I just want my children to be happy’.
This way of thinking has not just changed how individuals pursue happiness. As a society, we also cherish and promote institutions that help us avoid as much suffering as possible. Modern medicine has helped to prevent and avoid various diseases and illnesses, including delaying death as long as is currently possible. Modern technologies have helped to solve many of the inconveniences involved in social life, such as slow communications and transport, as well as more personal inconveniences such as cooking and cleaning.
Social and technological progress has resulted in almost every part of our lives becoming under individual control. We can now arrange our lives to our liking. We can achieve success in our financial and material lives, our relational and social lives, and in our physical and mental lives. As individuals, we are encouraged to do what we are passionate about and follow our dreams – to be our most ‘authentic selves’. This is the logical implication of modern liberalism – the ‘revolution in human expectations’ – where individuals have gained multiple opportunities to maximise their happiness and minimise their suffering.
The question is: have all these freedoms and opportunities to make our lives better made us lastingly happier? It would seem foolish to suggest otherwise. However, it’s not obvious that having greater control over our lives always creates greater happiness.
For instance, according to the well-known ‘Easterlin Paradox’ from the study of happiness literature, average national happiness levels have stayed relatively constant over the second half of the 20th century, despite huge increases in GDP (which increased threefold in the UK and US since 1950). More recently, happiness researchers have found that people’s subjective wellbeing has been decreasing since 2010, despite continued economic growth.
Adapted from The Happiness Problem by Sam Wren-Lewis (Policy Press, £12.99). Buy a copy here and get 20% off.