Thursday, April 12, 2007

Happiness is dumbing-up

Laynard's Happiness
Blog book reviews are usually glowing, but I read an awful book recently, Richard Laynard’s ‘Happiness’. Despite the idea being widely rejected as simplistic by John Stuart Mill and almost every serious thinker that’s ever thought deeply on the subject, the idea that ‘happiness’ is the sole purpose of life, or even an end-in-itself, seems to have taken root in our therapeutic culture. Life is not a simple calculus of unhappiness/happiness. Even a cursory look at the complexity of feelings, emotions and behaviour make that idea seem childish. These simple distinctions; happiness=good/unhappiness=bad; positive feelings=good/negative feelings=bad, are puerile and misleading.

Happy clapping
Unfortunately government has caught a bad dose of ‘happy clapping’ and ministers have latched onto the idea that we should try to engineer this happiness. You see it in the work-life balance debate (read work=unhappy, life=happy). You also see it within organisations, as hapless HR people try to take control of the emotional welfare of employees. Self-appointed armies of coaches, counsellors, mentors and therapists are crawling all over organisations searching for the pathological. Everyday emotions and ordinary contention are diagnosed as illnesses and people with creepy ‘open questioning’ techniques come in to offer cures. By the way, is there anything more creepy than the current Pamela Stephenson series on TV. It’s patronising garbage. No wonder Billy Connolly’s no longer funny.

Furedi - Why the ‘politics of happiness’ makes me mad
Frank Furedi, one of the few sane commentators on this topic, has en excellent article in Spiked (thanks to Dan Travis), ‘
Why the ‘politics of happiness’ makes me mad - If you’re unhappy with state-sponsored happiness programmes, clap your hands’.

He objects to ministers buying the whole happiness kick, as if all would be well with regular doses of happiness counselling are the solution. He rejects the government’s attempt to raise our happiness levels with officialdom poking its nose at every juncture into our emotional welfare.

Happy sheets
What ever happened to contention? I don’t want people to fill in ‘happy-sheets’ when I speak at a conference. If anything I want to disturb them, make them think again, disrupt their existing beliefs. Why attend a conference to hear someone simply confirm what you already know and believe? If you want happiness go to a comedy club. Everyone knows you forget jokes as soon as the laughter has died down. Happiness is a dumbed-up state. This is not a plea for grumpiness, although, like most people my age I find that quality quite endearing, it’s a plea for realism and sanity before the therapeutic brigade start seeing the whole of society as an asylum full of pathological patients who need to pay for their platitudes.


Anonymous said...

Some insight, I hadn't quite realised we had become so obsessed with hapiness it's making us miserable. I should have guessed what was happening when Cameron and Blair started outdoing each other with their "happy-clapping" exhortations about work isn't everything.

Andy Tedd said...

Dyke spent a lot of time at the BBC trying to make everyone happy in the belief that this would make the organisation more creative.

It was the corporate equivalent of happy hens lay better eggs.

The fact that a lot of very creative people are miserable, grumpy bastards ;-) was conveniently ignored.

Andy Tedd said...

I should point out that Dyke wasnt naive, and he would have known only too well that the best creatives can be a royal pain in the arse (being of that ilk himself).

But a happy organisation, at the egg-laying level, is almost certainly easier to lead...

Donald H Taylor said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Donald H Taylor said...

Donald - good point as always. The problem is that books like Happiness sell because a life of unending joy seems desirable, but is actually unattainable. The peculiarity is that we ever thought it might be anything else.

As for conferences, though, please don't give up on the evaluation forms. They aren't 'happy sheets' - much of the evidence of disruption and provoked thinking can be found in the comments on those forms, when the author (for whatever reason) would rather not voice it in the auditorium.

Anonymous said...

Nice one Donald, I love the reference to Creepy open questions, but tell me, why do you think this about happiness? ;-)

The same simplistic thinking that equates happiness as an end goal can also often be said for “fun”. I keep hearing that if only we make learning “fun” then everyone would be able to achieve.

My view is that learning should/can be rewarding, stimulating, challenging but please NOT fun. If it’s fun then it’s probably not learning.

Am I appealing to the Calvinist in you yet?

Anonymous said...

Too much emotion makes us stupid.Whatever the emotion is . . .

SUSAN KEMP said...

I have liked your blog. I will come again to your site. Keep it up!Happiness is as a butterfly which, when pursued, is always beyond our grasp, but which if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.