By Graham Peebles
Happiness, or at least the search for it, is a human right. It is in America anyway, where at birth the founding fathers boldly stated in the Declaration of Independence that, “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” are “unalienable rights”, given to all humanity by “the creator” and which government is duty bound to protect. This virtuous document goes on to state that if the government “becomes destructive of these ends”, the people have the right “to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government” – one that is“most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.” In Britain a recent report on mental health (albeit motivated by the cost of mental illness to the National Health Service) concluded that, “the ‘pursuit of happiness’ must become an explicit and measurable goal of government.”
The commonsense deduction that government policy should cultivate happiness, runs contrary to the impact and, many would argue, intention, of democratic corporate politics, which despite the liberal rhetoric, creates the conditions in which people – the 99% – live with perpetual anxiety and insecurity. Discontent is fostered, feeding the urge for comfort and pleasure: for escape. Transitory habit-forming relief is supplied in a range of colours by a plethora of corporations, including the pharmaceutical giants who annually make worldwide profits of, according to the World Health Organisation around 100 billion US $.
It is hard to be happy, or to have the energy and psychological space to pursue happiness when trapped under the suffocating, inhibiting shadow of fear. The basic requirements for happiness are clearly documented. Unsurprisingly they are food and shelter, friendship, to feel part of something – a family, community etc. – valued, loved even. When these externals are threatened, so too is our fragile sense of wellbeing and happiness: anxiety floods our nervous system replacing these transient dependent states.
Pleasure or Happiness?
Whether recognized as a universal human right or not, happiness is a state of being to which we all naturally aspire. Children throughout the world, often despite their circumstances, wake with it, bear testimony to its living presence and, free from longing, spread it abroad. It is an inherent part of our nature, as the great 20th century Indian Sage Ramana Maharshi said, “happiness is your nature. It is not wrong to desire it. What is wrong is seeking it outside when it is inside.” The current economic paradigm forces us to do precisely this: it preaches a doctrine of happiness based on consumerism and materialism, and devotees of the divisive, worn out system, that sits at the poisonous root of so many of our problems, use universally pervasive methods to persuade and entrap. Advertising and PR, together with the media, form the primary toolsof deceit.
All too often happiness is confused with or exchanged for pleasure; pleasure derived as J. Krishnamurti makes clear from satisfying a longing. ‘You want a car, and you get it, and you are happy… I want to be the greatest politician, and if I get it I am happy. If I cannot get it [what I want], I am unhappy. So what you call happiness is getting what you want.” And conversely, “if you cannot get what you want then unhappiness begins.” The happiness achieved by “getting what we want” does not last and traps us between what appear to be opposites: happiness and misery. The thrill of getting what we want – the new car, i-pad, job or dress – quickly dies away and we regress to the previous level of happiness or frustration (the Hedonic Treadmill of British psychologist Michael Eysenck) and the emptiness we were so desperate to fill reasserts itself.
We are encouraged to believe that ‘pleasurable experiences make us happy’, are in fact the source of our happiness. And so we hunt them out, moving from one pleasurably stimulating moment to another, hopefully even more intense, more satiating. We live for these highlights, punctuate our lives with them and a great deal of time and energy is spent (understandably we might think) trying to maximize pleasure in the search for happiness, and avoiding its opposite – pain and the associated suffering. And here within the duality of desire we live out our days. Caught, trapped and all too often discontent and anxious.
Pleasure is generally sensory, often hedonistic, always temporary. It functions in tandem with desire. Insatiable and entwined, chicken and egg, with fear, desire was long ago identified by the Buddha as the cause of all suffering. In order to be free from pain He preached The Third Noble Truth (of Four), proclaiming that: “all personal desire and ambition must be extinguished by the person who wishes freedom from suffering.” Before The Enlightened One shared His wisdom the ancient seers of India made plain the need to overcome desire, the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad amongst others making clear that “the true nature of the Self [or Soul we might say] is to be free from fear, free from desire,” which function as the major obstacles to happiness, freedom and peace. Desire is like a permanent itch, it aggravates discontent and thereby inevitably fuels suffering. It has hold of the minds of humanity and is a core requirement in the perpetuation of the consumer driven neo-liberal economic system, which actively encourages the adoption of attitudes of mind that strengthen individual desire and intensify social division: ambition and competition, for example.
The neo-liberal model of capitalist complacency beloved by politicians red, white and blue, promises happiness but delivers discontent, material dependency, social inequality and division: little of lasting value. It encourages identification with materiality, strengthens a value system promoting acquisition, consumption and desire. Hollow and insatiable ideals that divide societies, strengthen atomization, and cause unhappiness and illness. Governments, north, south (they have no choice), east and west, who believe they are elected to bring economic success and to ‘compete on the world stage’, are the murky facilitators, beneficiaries and bedmates of worldwide corporate chaos. Rampant capitalism – “market fundamentalism” the acclaimed Indian writer P. Sainath calls it – thrives on consumerism, it preaches abundance for all, never sufficiency, never just address your needs; no, fill your boots, your desires to overflowing – ‘because you’re worth it’, and then some more they scream, and scream. There in the homogenized land of globalized shopping, the Shangri-La of insatiability, where all credit card-carrying visitors are welcome, if not equal; it is there in the corporate polystyrene cafes that happiness sits, wrapped in mock leather inscribed in gold with the motto: ‘Greed is Good’ – or is it ‘Greed is God’.
Instead of facilitating the creation of a civilization based on perennial principles of goodness; freedom, social justice, unity and cooperation, the puppets in grey suits have allowed, indeed encouraged, a culture of mediocrity and ugliness, competition and greed, division and destruction to spread like a plague across our beautiful world. Everything is a commodity, from a forest to a child, a river to a view: all is to be bought (after all ‘everything and everyone has their price’), used and sold; wrung dry of inherent value and promise and discarded. Conformity is demanded, desire constantly stoked; the agents of materialism knowing well no matter how often it is scratched it will never rest, never be made quiet, and so happiness will always lie in the next shopping basket, the upcoming vacation, that new jacket or mobile phone. This is the daily dogma poured out; subtle and crude are the ways, anxiety, discontent and a plethora of mental illness the consequences. In America for example, where the ‘pursuit of happiness’ is a constitutional duty of government, the WHO record that 21% of the population are known to be suffering from depression (that’s 64 million); worldwide they describe it as an epidemic, with 350 million suffering – hardly the picture of a society bathed in happiness. Who knows what the figure would be if the 800 million living in stifling poverty in India where surveyed, or the 450 million struggling on less than $2 a day in Sub-Saharan Africa or rural China. And no, they are not ‘poor but happy’; they are poor, and suffering, many intolerably.
Happiness as a permanent state implies contentment and freedom from desire, with its inherent agitation and insatiability. Whilst it is not the responsibility of governments to ‘make’ people happy, it is their duty to abolish methods and reform systems that build obstacles to happiness and feed a climate of anxiety. Conversely governments should actively work to promote the building of a society based on perennial values, many of which sit at the heart of true democracy: participation, cooperation, sharing and unity. Qualities that allow happiness to naturally come into being.
A freelance writer and director of The Create Trust a UK registered charity he founded in 2006. He has run education projects & teacher training programs in Palestine, India and Ethiopia where he spent two years working with acutely disadvantaged children, young people and women in Addis Ababa. His political essays are widely published in leading political journals. He is currently working on a book project about Ethiopia.