Should we really make people happy? Is it a viable goal for society? To some it may come off as an unnecessary question, “of course we should make people happy!”, but a lot of people tend to be annoyed about the notion of happiness as a societal goal and often argue that there are higher and nobler objectives than mere happiness. That seems to stem from the failure to properly make the distinction between hedonic happiness (pleasure, enjoyment, fun) and eudemonic happiness (meaning, purpose in life, and peace of mind). But the thing is that neither should be favored over the other and both of these can be supported for the long-term development of each person as well as society as a whole.
The following is a slightly edited extract from Hanzi Freinacht’s book ‘The Listening Society: A Metamodern Guide to Politics, Book One’. This is the first book in a series on metamodern thought, a work of popular philosophy that investigates the nature of psychological development and its political implications. What you will read below is from the chapter about political metamodernism “in a nutshell” that investigates how a deeper kind of welfare, beyond the confines of material welfare and medical security, can be achieved.
Supporting happiness means relieving suffering, which also means improving the quality of human relationships. Negative emotions such as sadness and frustration are, in manageable quantities, an integral part of a happy, productive life – but they must be effectively learned from and surmounted. And that requires happiness, or mental health, or at least some goddamn peace of mind. Happiness not, then, as the opposite of sadness – but as the opposite of suffocating misery and degradation.
To seek to develop and improve the psycho-social environment in which we live our lives does not (I repeat: not, read that word again, because I find a lot of people misread this sentence) mean that people should be protected from all challenges, difficulties or pains in the name of a superficial, immediate “happiness”. We’re not going to induce people to burst into loud, empty, hysterical laughter at their mother’s funeral or to abandon their family responsibilities to “find happiness”.
It simply means that much better support can and should be offered to citizens, so that we are better able to productively tackle and overcome life’s challenges – and to make the best of what life offers. It is a matter of increasing people’s autonomy and sense of independence, not the contrary. High levels of challenge and high support give the best learning outcomes, and the best learning outcomes give the most sustainable positive results – this is educational psychology 101.
”People are hurt and afraid at a subtle psychological level – and are therefore self-absorbed, incapable of taking on larger perspectives and incapable of acting upon the very real long-term risks that are threatening our global civilization.”
Isn’t Happiness a Personal Responsibility and Do People Deserve to be Happy?
A libertarian reflex is to be wary of all attempts to create happiness by political measures (“it is not the role of the state to…”). While understandable, this reflex misses the point entirely. It is not that either states or markets (or families or civil society or individual persons) create happiness – and “if the state does it”, the individual cannot. That’s silly; a rather crude and, frankly, unintelligent way to look at it. All of these categories work together in a great meshwork. You can gear these different parts of society to work together well and create happy human lives – or not. Given that we already do have a public sphere and a market, we can either tweak them so that they tend to generate sustainable happiness, or we can develop them in ways so that they become oppressive and create misery. But we cannot avoid the choice.
But, again, do we really want a happy society in the first place? Aren’t challenges and difficulties what give life its meaning and direction? And do we deserve to be happy at all?
Let’s start with the last question. If I grew up neglected by my father, with a school class where one girl cut her arm, one kid never talked to anyone, most people were insecure and never really figured out love and relationships, and some took hard drugs or drank alcohol and never got jobs, and some of the people who went to college got depressions and severe stress anxieties – am I not justified to want to inflict a corresponding pain to others, so that they learn just how tough life really is?
No. The current level of suffering in modern societies is not ethically justifiable. It is morally wrong to uncritically reproduce a society that displays the amount of misery and long-lasting traumas prevalent in modern countries – even the comparatively happy ones like Canada and Denmark. It’s not that pre-modern societies are any better, but today we have more options available, which lends us greater moral responsibility.
Another version of the “not deserving” argument has to do with the global bottom billion – people in abject poverty. Somehow it might seem arrogant or even coldhearted to want to dramatically improve the lives of people in rich, relatively happy economies when there is quite obviously so much material inequality in the world. Isn’t it unethical, or at least distasteful, to want to build a more kind, listening and inclusive society in the developed economies, when we should in fact be focusing on redistribution of wealth and more acute suffering? There are three answers to this.
The first answer is that we can and should do both, so that the poor do become richer, but once they have become so, life can actually be happy – which was the point all along. The second answer is that rich societies are going on with their development and institutions either way, so we might as well make sure they do so in an efficient and intelligent, rather than inefficient and unintelligent, manner. The third and by far strongest argument is that the world-system is evolving a whole; each part affects every other part. So one of the best things that we can do for the good of the world is to make sure that the richest and most privileged people have enough psychological security not to worry about how fancy their cars are or if they look a little fat, so that they can instead expend time, attention, energy and resources as genuinely concerned world citizens – which would benefit everyone immensely.
Happier people create more functional societies, and more functional societies are more efficient at combating inequality – locally as well as globally. We are trying to shift the whole global system into a fairer and more sustainable equilibrium, and that requires some parts of the world to culturally develop ahead of others. It’s simply hard to see how we could neglect this part of the equation.
Life is just much too full of suffering and lost potential, and this is keeping our populations from developing psychologically and becoming mature, genuine world citizens. People are hurt and afraid at a subtle psychological level – and are therefore self-absorbed, incapable of taking on larger perspectives and incapable of acting upon the very real long-term risks that are threatening our global civilization. We must, at all cost, make the world population much, much happier in the deepest sense of the word.
Obviously, we don’t want to obsess about consumerism and commercialized “self-development” (as happiness researchers and yogis will agree), but we can and should wish our fellow human beings genuinely happy, productive lives. If you think about it, it becomes obvious that the opposite position is untenable from an ethical standpoint. Try saying this out loud:
“I will inflict upon you deep suffering and degradation, or refrain from preventing the hell-like mutilation of your psycho-physiology and emotions, ‘cause it might be good for ya.”
… or worse, because “it might be useful to society”.
”That life is too easy and hurts too little is just very rarely the problem. Don’t worry. Life is going to hurt, alright, even if we dramatically improve upon its quality.”
But isn’t Suffering Necessary?
When I talk about this vision of a deeper welfare, people will often bring up the argument: “Oh, but if you make people genuinely happy, society would stop functioning, because we need people to be anxious consumers (so they keep spendin’ it!) and act out of fear of losing their jobs (so they keep workin’ it!) for things to run smoothly.” Sometimes people will even, in all seriousness, say that we need suffering to produce good books and screenplays.
Of course, this line of reasoning is in opposition to the ethics that Immanuel Kant set up for us, to treat every human being as an end in and of herself – never as a means for somebody or something else. It also breaks the older Golden Rule, to treat others as we ourselves would wish to be treated.
Besides, it’s completely wrong, if you look at the facts. The Nordic countries have happy populations relative to others – and this appears to work in tandem with a highly functional and ordered society (producing plenty of poetry and crime novels too, for what it’s worth). It is often misery and psychological hurt that prevent productive and meaningful social, political and economic development.
The happiness of human beings – again, in a deep, psychological sense of the word – serves the common good. Deep suffering can have positive effects (there is an increasingly promising clinical literature on “posttraumatic growth”), but most of the time it causes lasting traumas and costs the hell out of society in terms of social work, criminality, unrest, poor health – the list goes on. Our society generates huge amounts of trauma, every day, every minute. And psychological mutilation causes suffocated souls that never get to blossom and share their unique gifts and longings with the world.
Either way, making life hurt more is the last thing in the world you have to worry about. Even in the most functional, educated, equal and healthy regions on Earth, a lot of people are traumatized, miserable wrecks. Ask any therapist, social worker or doctor who knows what goes on beneath the surface. And with all the rapid changes and crises coming up at every corner, somebody’s gonna get-a-hurt.
That life is too easy and hurts too little is just very rarely the problem. Don’t worry. Life is going to hurt, alright, even if we dramatically improve upon its quality.
Of course, overprotection from discomfort can be harmful, because it may foster unsustainable laziness and inability to deal with problems. In psychology and psychiatry there is the concept of “learned helplessness”, which can be caused either by seemingly hopeless situations, by exhausttion, and by overprotection. However, being severely harmed and degraded many times over throughout your lifetime, often beginning at very early age – which happens to many if not most people – is simply not productive.
What we are looking for is not an army of spoiled fools, incapable of taking responsibility or enduring pain. We are not looking for a non-acceptance of the suffering of life (which only brings more misery), but for a profound acceptance of life as it is. Psychologically speaking, we want a radical acceptance of pain, so that we can deal with it much more productively and create happier (and less miserable) lives for people and animals. But to truly accept the pain of life and deal with it, we require a lot of comfort, support, security, meaning and happiness. This is also what the “posttraumatic growth” researchers claim, i.e. the folks who look into how people gain positive, life-changing insights in the wake of personal crises.
The point is that “normal life” causes immense harm to so many people; it just happens on a subtle and non-obvious level. This grinding down of living, breathing children is currently going on at a massive, global industrial scale through many cruel social-psychological mechanisms prevalent in what we call everyday life. Maybe we cannot stop this suffering, but at least we should do our best to substantially reduce and mitigate it.
What we are looking for is to stop the mass-mutilation and torture of human beings – who are in turn fed with the agonized bodies of enslaved non-human animals.
But then again, the happiness of our children and fellow citizens does not – should not – require further justification. We can and should create a happy society, simply because we care. Unfortunately, I have found, this is not obvious to many professors of psychology, theologians, philosophers, economists and the like. Pond scum.
”…yes, we should make people happy, and it is simply perverse to suggest otherwise.”
Don’t Scorn Happiness
It is as fashionable to scorn happiness as it is dumb. It is popular to try to seem “wise” because one “understands” that happiness is not that important after all. And voilà: you can mirror yourself in Kierkegaard, Heidegger or Viktor Frankl, saying that meaning is more important. And sure, for the individual person faced with aging, sickness or concentration camps (that was Frankl), this can make sense, which is probably why most people begin to say such things after about age fifty. But at a societal level of analysis, the scorn for happiness is profoundly misplaced.
You don’t think happiness is important? Now look the chronically depressed person in her eyes – we are not talking about the cute kind of depressed of cultural creatives here (like the Norwegian author Karl-Ove Knausgard) but people who really can’t get up in the morning and get abandoned by their own families as a result – and say that again. Look at the unhappy, insecure kid, who desperately looked for comfort in a stranger on the web and just got raped by someone (who is also miserable), and say it again. Or how about the screaming piglet who just literally got his testicles ripped off without anesthetics. Look him in the eye and tell him his happiness is unimportant, that he should try to find meaning in it. Not so tough, huh? Kind of craps that solemn, wise style you had going there for a moment.
Happiness and misery, bliss and suffering – these are, to a large extent, continuous with one another. If you are committed to preventing and relieving the suffering of others, you are also committed to supporting their happiness.
To say something in the defense of the deriders of happiness, it’s not usually that they don’t care about others or that they suffer from philosophical defeatism due to a kind of Stockholm’s syndrome (that you begin to excuse unhappiness because you yourself are unhappy, that your mind is “taken hostage”, as it were). Their mistake lies primarily in the failure to make the analytical distinction between unsustainable, hysterical “happiness” on the one hand, and authentic, sustainable happiness on the other. Authentic happiness includes hedonism (pleasure, fun) and eudemonia (meaning, contentment) as well as the productive and responsive acceptance of pain and sorrow.
These critics also fail to see the social implications of how happy people are more productive in profound and complex ways. The critics conflate all talk of human happiness with cheap commercial self-help books and unbridled individualism: one big, hot summer party on Ibiza. They think that striving for happiness implies what I in my book The Listening Society call “the denial of tragedy”. Sometimes they also mistake sincere commitment to the happiness of others for the worship of the happy/successful person and a corresponding disdain for the unhappy/unsuccessful person – which is of course not what we are talking about here. Striving for the happiness of our fellow citizen is perfectly compatible with ascribing equal ethical value to the fortunate and grief-stricken alike.
On another note, some of the better informed critics point out that happiness is a rather vague societal goal, because people don’t seem to agree about what makes them happy. But the argument doesn’t hold up. First of all, it is perfectly possible to describe with some consistency what happiness feels like, some of its psycho-physiological correlates and so on. Happiness constitutes a set of describable, discernible phenomena, regardless of how it is caused. And yes, we can know a lot about what causes happiness – just not by naively asking people (what a stupid method is that!), but through experimental psychology, ethology (studies of animal behavior), psycho-physiology, and so on. Secondly, and more importantly, people are rather consistent in their ideas about what makes them unhappy (social degradation, harm to the body, etc.), which again underscores that we can prevent misery in order to create happiness and vice versa.
People find many reasons to be against happiness. Such criticism of happiness is understandable, but ultimately mistaken and inexcusable. It lands you in untenable positions.
The fact that happiness isn’t everything, that it isn’t the only worthy personal and societal goal, doesn’t mean that it’s nothing and no worthy goal. Of course, if you always try to make everything about happiness only, you get in philosophical trouble, and people can start asking you those dull questions they like to ask beginner-level utilitarians, i.e. people who want to maximize the happiness in the world (“what if you had a poisonous happy-pill…”). But – and here’s the reply – if you try to act in society without any concern at all about the happiness and suffering of others, you get in much worse trouble. That’s the point here.
I’ll say it again: the fact that happiness isn’t everything, doesn’t make it into nothing. Happiness still matters very much if you want to understand the problems of society. A growing host of research from the field of “positive psychology” and other fields, including strands of medicine and epigenetics, shows that happiness is good for you. A banal research finding, in a way; I’m not going to reference it here. So yes, we should make people happy, and it is simply perverse to suggest otherwise.
Don’t worry, spirituality and existential development really do tower far beyond emotions of happiness, and yes, they are awesome and significant, and no, happiness alone does not exhaust the meaning of life and the universe. We just need to get some people off their high spiritual and existential horses, so that we can get on with the argument without being stuck at point zero due to tiresomely pretentious attempts at profundity.
And then we need to set the horses free, while we’re at it. Their backs aren’t made for carrying other animals, you know. Horses are made for roaming on vast plains under open skies.
”The suffering and stunted development of our citizens are not individual concerns, but matters of utmost importance to society as a whole.”
The Fabric of Hurt and Bliss
Let’s return to the main argument. People are hurting as hell. It matters. We should do something to make them happier, if we can.
So, where were we? Let us clarify the diagnosis of late modern society, the central feature of our predicament: there is a shared, complex fabric of psychological hurt and bliss that determines our common lives and futures. Our wounds and insufficient developments do not stay with ourselves – they transmit to other people, often in unexpected and indirect ways (as that of the terrorist mass-murderer described in my post about the transpersonal perspective). The suffering and stunted development of our citizens are not individual concerns, but matters of utmost importance to society as a whole. They are deeply political, ecological and economic matters. The stunted development caused by emotional suffering affects the individual’s quality of life as well as basic societal concerns such as security, public health and the stability of our institutions.
It has been shown in large, influential studies that happiness tends to transmit through networks; a happy friend within a mile tends to make you happier – a neighbor even more; siblings or spouses work too, but to a lesser degree.
But happiness and pain are “social” in an even more tangible and intimate way. Hurt, shame and fear make us become mean, controlling bosses, envious friends, lousy parents, bad teachers, thoughtless voters, uncritical consumers and ungrateful neighbors. We shift the blame, as immature people do, and believe that the ills of the world are due to people who are not like ourselves – we become poor citizens, incapable of meaningful dialogue, incapable of universal love and forgiveness. We are judgmental, short-sighted and self-righteous, raging at the “moral degenerates” and “hypocrites”, and we fail to show common courtesy and respect to those we disagree with, not least in politics. We fail to take responsibility, to act productively in the interest of ourselves and others. And in our attempts at a better life, we are often severely limited or thwarted by the immature and socially inept behavior of ourselves and others.
There is a great fabric of relations, behaviors and emotions, reverberating with human and animal bliss and suffering, a web of intimate and formal relations, both direct and indirect. Nasty whirlwinds of feedback cycles blow through this great multidimensional web, pulsating with hurt and degradation. My lacking human development blocks your possible human development. My lack of understanding of you, your needs and perspectives, hurts you in a million subtle ways. I become a bad lover, a bad colleague, a bad fellow citizen and human being. We are interconnected: you cannot get away from my hurt and wounds. They will follow you all of your life – I will be your daughter’s abusive boyfriend, your belligerent neighbor from hell. And you will never grow wings, because there will always be mean bosses, misunderstanding families and envious friends. And you will tell yourself that is how life must be.
But it is not how life has to be. Once you begin to be able to see the social-psychological fabric of everyday life, it becomes increasingly apparent that the fabric is relatively easy to change, to develop. Metamodern politics aims to make everyone secure at the deepest psychological level, so that we can live authentically; a byproduct of which is a sense of meaning in life and lasting happiness; a byproduct of which is kindness and an increased ability to cooperate with others; a byproduct of which is deeper freedom and better concrete results in the lives of everyone; a byproduct of which is a society less likely to collapse into a heap of atrocities.
Of course, it should be noted that the fabric works in complex and often contradictory ways: one form of happiness can give birth to another form of misery (and vice versa); the happiness of one person can be the downfall of another. But there are regularities to these patterns, and we can make the patterns work for collective, sustainable happiness – yes, for love.
We desperately need a deeper kind of welfare, beyond the confines of material welfare and medical security – a listening society, where every person is seen and heard (rather than made invisible and then put under surveillance). How can this be achieved?
In my next post I’m going to attempt to answer this difficult question. The vision of a listening society, which I’ll make a brief outline of herein, and that you’ll be able to read more about in my book by the same name and its second part titled Nordic Ideology, is an elaborate proposal to how we can deepen our welfare and increase the levels of happiness and personal development in society. In the next post you’ll read why it is necessary and possible, and why we need to accept the risks involved in this endeavor.
Hanzi Freinacht is a political philosopher, historian and sociologist, author of ‘The Listening Society’, and the upcoming books ‘Nordic Ideology’ and ‘The 6 Hidden Patterns of World History’. Much of his time is spent alone in the Swiss Alps. You can follow Hanzi on his facebook profile here.