How are you today? This stupid question, no matter how well meaning it may be, always presumes that you should be happy. Even when it comes from someone who has to ask it a hundred times a day, people appreciate the concern and answer it, as if they have a personal relation with the cashier. The expectation is that somehow everything is about happiness.
This mania has now been exalted by the United Nations into a World Happiness Day (March 20). In honor of the occasion, the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network publishes an annual World Happiness Report which ranks the nations of the world on a happiness scale. This is based on asking people around the world: on a scale of 1 to 10, how are you doing?
Normally, GDP measures which country is making money and which isn’t. The researchers think that GDP is an inadequate measure because – as the rich are always pointing out – money can’t buy happiness. They want to deny that the accumulation of money is the purpose of everything in this capitalist world. They see the stupidity of an economy that is just about money getting bigger for its own sake, but instead of criticizing that, they make up another purpose: happiness.
The report seeks “measurements of happiness to better guide public policies.” The idea is that the politicians should say: we have a great economy, but unfortunately it doesn’t make people happy. Why don’t you ever hear them saying that? For the most part, when the politicians say that economic growth is what it’s all about, they are confessing to a bit of realism: everybody must bow down to its dictates if they want to get anything for themselves.
The report’s question – “how happy are you?” – completely abstracts from every real interest in people’s lives: work, love, friendships, neighborhoods. It seeks to affirm the ideal of a universal contentment above any specific need and its satisfaction or damage; in comparison with this “real happiness,” all needs should be unimportant. Obviously, this is just a cheap way of coming to terms with the unhappiness imposed by a capitalist world which is indifferent to peoples’ needs.
The statistical methods of the World Happiness Report are telling. Like all statistics, they aim to bring out what the researchers put into it. Each country becomes an average of everything in their survey (and like any average, this includes both poor and rich) and gives an average happiness rating. The researchers then compare the average happiness of a country with the average conditions there and look for factors which might relate to its ranking. Guess what’s number one for happiness? GDP per capita – or: income. It turns out that money is pretty important to happiness, after all!
The next factor is social support. When things are bad, can you get help from friends or relatives? This is a strange admission: feeling bad is part of feeling good. Who would care about support networks if people didn’t need them? The researchers also find that charitable giving is positively related to happiness. This assumes that there are a lot of people who need charity. It turns out the average happiness of a country is related to people who have extra money giving money to people who don’t have much money.
Their big discovery is that when people say they are happier than people elsewhere, the basic conditions of capitalist democracy are working on average for the average people there. Not surprisingly, the Scandinavian countries rank at the top because they have a decent average income and stable communities, so people can expect to live longer than people in Burundi or Bolivia. It’s interesting: the Scandinavian countries have been turning against the social programs they were famous for in the 1950s and 60s, cutting back on everything from welfare to medical care to pensions, yet this erosion in living standards doesn’t seem to effect happiness; they still come out on top. Happiness and austerity go together just fine.
“Hell no I ain’t happy” – Drive-By Truckers
Ordinary people take for granted that “how are you?” is a real question and important to answer. Why? Its a question that an Eskimo living 200 years ago would never dream of asking; you can’t imagine a French serf or a Roman slave asking: am I happy? In early Christianity, the message was that the world is an earthly hell where you will never be happy; its better after you die. The question “how can I be happy?” has something to do with a modern capitalist society.
In a capitalist society, individuals are forced to look out for themselves as best they can because no one else is going to do it. That’s what’s called the pursuit of happiness. You are free to pursue your happiness, but whether you get anywhere near it is always a maybe. This is because everybody else is pursuing the same thing. And because it’s a competition, there are always a few winners and lots of losers. It absurd: everybody wants the same thing, but pursues it in conflict with everybody else.
This freedom is bounded by the freedom of others in relation to the state and rather restrictive. But you are supposed to see these restrictions as “opportunities.” Of course, there is some material truth to this because you might make lots of money; and in the political sphere, there is the possibility that you might have a say in the political life of the nation. But this simply can’t work out for most people.
Disappointments in work life and civic life don’t end there, but should be compensated by a happy home life. If you are a nervous wreck because work is stressing you out, then you should at least go home to whatever home life you can manage for yourself. The private sphere is what’s left of life, so all striving gets focused there. That’s why people have such irrational notions about love. Like most feelings, love doesn’t last; its amazing if it does. But when its gone, instead of just saying: ok, end of story, a breakup becomes a major disaster. People either blame themselves – I screwed up! I’m not worthy! – or they blame the other side – what a bitch she turned out to be! They feel entitled to happiness as Americans. Freedom is supposed to work out for them. The ugly side of the pursuit for happiness is the daily material of the local news.
People even ask about their job: do I like what I do? Its a strange thing: trying to extract happiness out of something whose purpose is to make money off of you. Its not that you should feel good about completing work, that it’s over, because then you have the product of work. Rather, feel good about the work itself! The ideology is that work is for your sake; it can’t be that work is for money. But anyone can see that there can be no other purpose just by looking at what’s going on in the workplace: workers go to get paid and work takes place because the owners of money make more money from it.
If a person isn’t getting any happiness, they can always partake in the huge industry offering techniques and suggestions for it. Or they can enter the respectable madness of a religion which promises absolute happiness after they die. Or they can blot out their unhappiness to some extent with drugs because consciousness is said to be an obstacle to happiness. Another strange thing: an abstract happiness which is not based on any need being satisfied, but blotting out consciousness of dissatisfaction. This fits a society in which the satisfaction of needs is always questionable and how you satisfy needs is wearisome at best.
So everybody is judged by this pseudo-measure of success and always comparing their happiness to everybody else’s. People want to know how you are doing because they think they have a right to know how happy you are. Its bad manners to say: none of your business! You owe people an accounting of your success and how you feel about it. How come you didn’t manage this happiness business? You even have the option of blaming yourself: I failed to be happy so now I’m going to make something of my failure as a failure character. I will get respect by owning up to my lack of respect.
The UN’s happiness researchers condemn consumption because they say that “real happiness” is not found in the material world. That’s funny: happiness is not about satisfying needs – its about doing without. Be proud of that. Develop your human nature by being as little human as possible. This can go as far as chants of Hare Krishna: happiness has nothing to do with material things, its just a state of mind. Get fulfilled by absolutely nothing at all. Sever the object from the subject entirely. Search for a viewpoint which turns poverty into the opposite of poverty.
This self-deception is the higher wisdom of a capitalist world in which the future is clear: more poverty, war, and environmental destruction. The UN and its happiness researchers want you to make your peace with that by making peace with yourself.