Oh for Joy!
The sub-title ”The Western cult of happiness’ is a mirthless enterprise’, in the City Journal caught my attention; partly because the French author Pascal Bruckner belongs to a nation which, according to a Gallup Poll, are the world’s most gloomy, and partly because the UK government tried to measure the nations happiness. The French may indeed be ‘gloomy’ but that doesn’t necessarily make them ‘Les Misérables’. On the other hand the British may indeed be Les Misérables but not necessarily gloomy. Perhaps, both nations would regard the European national anthem ‘Ode to Joy’ , a paean to spiritual joy, as an allusion to some form of earthly happiness, now muted as being a goal of European social policy that requires political intervention. At least that’s one of the propositions put forward in the ‘First European Quality of Life Survey: Life Satisfaction, happiness and sense of belonging’. This would seem to give credence to Pascal Bruckner’s proposition that joy is no longer an option.
Bruckner claims that two major shifts in the 1960’s brought about ‘a duty of happiness’. The nature of capitalism produces the first shift, in that what had long revolved around production and the deferral of gratification, now focused on consumerism and immediate gratification. Available credit changed everything; frustration became intolerable and self-gratification normal. The rise of individualism was the second shift, where nothing opposed self fulfilment any longer—neither church nor party nor social class. A vast number of self fulfilled industries arose, ranging from cosmetic surgery to diet pills to innumerable styles of therapy, including self-help books. The idea of immediate self fulfilment became the successor to the more demanding ethic of delayed gratification, and in doing so became a demand itself.
There is a belief that the will has total power over mental states, to regulate moods and make contentment the fruit of a personal decision. This belief in an ability to will happiness also lies behind obsessions with health and the need to resist mortality. The domain of therapy tends to annex everything that once belonged to the art of living well. The dinner table becomes a kind of pharmacy counter with fat and calories weighed, foods hardly more than medications. Wine drunk not for its taste, but to strengthen the arteries; whole-grain bread eaten to aid digestion; garlic bitten off raw for various health reasons.
The hunting down of smokers looks like a collective exorcism, as if a whole society wished to absolve itself of having once found pleasure in cigarettes. Authoritative values now prevail. Everyone must today be saved from something, health has its martyrs, its pioneers, its heroes and saints. Sickness and health become harder to distinguish, to the point of creating hypochondria. The horizon of our democracies, has become a matter of ceaseless work and effort, happiness being surrounded by anxiety, poisoning our own existence with all kinds of impossible commandments.
There is no mastery of the sources of happiness; they ever elude appointments made with them, springing up when least expected and fleeing when desired. The excessive ambition to expunge all that is weak or broken in body or mind, to control moods and states of soul, sadness, chagrin, moments of emptiness—all this runs up against the inertia of the human species and its state of being, which is not some malleable raw material. While the power exists to avoid or to heal certain evils, it cannot order happiness as if it were a meal in a restaurant. The Western cult of happiness is a strange adventure, something like a collective intoxication. In the guise of emancipation, it transforms a high ideal into its opposite. We are probably the first society in history to make people unhappy for not being happy.
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