We are now suffering the Hawaiianisation of everywhereby Andy Martin / August 1, 2014 / Leave a comment
While in Hawaii on a quest for the perfect wave, I once bumped into a psychiatrist who asked me where I came from. She gave a sigh of respect at my answer. “England!” she said, in a dreamy kind of way. “You are so lucky!” How so, I asked, far more in love with Hawaii. “Because in England you can be miserable and nobody minds. They expect you to be miserable over there.”
It turned out that she was a specialist in depression. I said, “But we’re in Hawaii—surely no one can be depressed here? Aren’t these supposed to be ‘The Happy Isles?’ Isn’t this the land of ‘aloha?’”
She pointed out to me that: (1) In Hawaii the same ratio of people are depressed as anywhere else; (2) The problem with Hawaii is that you are expected to be happy—by idiots like me, for example—so that when you are depressed, you are not just depressed, you feel guilty about being depressed too, so you’re doubly screwed; (3) And, finally, because Hawaii is technically the United States too, if you’re depressed, guilty and broke as well, when you’re supposed to be affluent, then you’re in triple trouble.
“Yep,” she concluded, “Hawaii really sucks.” The problem is that we are now suffering the Hawaiianisation of everywhere. The Happy Isles of Great Britain? Sounds as much of an oxymoron as Antarctic agriculture. Coming out as “depressed” has become all the rage—among cricketers, footballers, even surfers (and, unbelievably, one old Italian café-owner I happen to know, who is now on Prozac instead of a hearty diet of raw chilli and double espressos).
But the spread of depression is partly a side-effect of our addiction to happiness. Conversely, understanding why we are so miserable should liberate us from being too miserable about it. We can feel good about feeling bad. In other words, we need a decent philosophy of failure to save everyone from thinking what failures they are.
Freud himself didn’t actually say that Hawaii sucks, but he came close. In Civilization and its Discontents, Freud argues that there are three reasons we are so miserable and they all have something to do with disappointed expectations. His enemies of happiness are: (a) religion, especially Christianity for pushing the idea of heaven; (b) 18th-century voyages of discovery—for raising unrealistic expectations of heaven on earth; (c) finally (so self-critically!) psychoanalysis itself, which seems to dangle in front of you the notion that everything can be fixed. I would add another: (d) the pharmaceutical industry (and illicit chemical cocktails similarly).
The notion that happiness is actually attainable belongs to the second half of the 18th century, as Freud pointed out. Previously there had been a general consensus that no one can be called happy until he carries his happiness down to the grave in peace. Paradiso was strictly for the pages of Dante. In Greenland, for example, the Greenlanders bought into Christianity on account of its persuasive description of pain and suffering. The vale of tears was real. And then Captain James Cook, and his French counterpart, Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, embarked upon their great voyages. Bougainville’s Voyage autour du monde (1771) seems to suggest that this journey had less to do with discovery or French imperialism, than the pursuit of happiness. What’s more, Bougainville suggests that happiness was actually found—in Tahiti.
Bougainville stresses two things. First, that the Tahitians live a life of wellbeing, and don’t have to work too hard either. Second, that the women—and to some extent the men too—throw themselves willingly at French sailors, which adds significantly to the happiness of French sailors. There are of course darker strands to the narrative—Bougainville mentions at least one murder, and hints that in fact sexual bliss may actually have been obtained in exchange for a few nails or other useful items. But nevertheless, I think we can say that Bougainville was concerned less with the pursuit of happiness itself, than with the fact it had finally been located and lived out in the southern hemisphere. It was just a question of transporting the south back into the north (as Margaret Mead would ultimately argue, in her 1928 bestseller Coming of Age in Samoa). Captain Cook got there a little bit late in the day but it was his crew who were the first Europeans to witness surfing. Thus “the most supreme pleasure” (as surfing was described by Willliam Anderson, Cook’s surgeon on the Resolution) was just the ticket to “allay all perturbation of mind.”
These traveller’s tales of transcendence had a powerful impact on subsequent thinkers. Freud, for one. His theory of the id and the ego transposes the 18th century map of the world, specifically the north/south divide, onto the map of the human psyche. The “southern” id was having all the fun—the pleasure principle—while the more northerly ego was reining in the hedonistic savage self with a good dose of the “reality principle.”
Charles Fourier, the great utopian philosopher who provided the blueprint for the communist society of the future, looked forward to unfaltering happiness and an age of “harmony” in the “phalanstery,” with mass adultery, public orgies and a sexual AA call-out service for anyone who is still really desperate. Fourier’s disciple, Victor Prosper Considérant, tried to put theory into practice—in what turned out to be an allegory of cognitive dissonance—in Dallas in the 1850s. His first book about the project, 1854, is called Au Texas! (To Texas!), and it’s full of heroic and unquenchable optimism. His more sober 1857 sequel is called Du Texas, which translates as Leaving Texas On Account of It Turning Out to Be Rather Resistant to Our Theory of Happiness After All.
Albert Camus was equally alert to the tyranny of happiness. In his early work, The Myth of Sisyphus, he satirises the figure of Don Juan and the concept of the orgy, but in the very last line of the essay he asks us to imagine that Sisyphus, forever rolling his rock up the mountain, is “happy.” Conversely, he suggests (in his Carnets) that “we have to fall in love if only to provide an alibi for the random despair we were going to feel anyway”’ Whether you play football or go swimming or rock-rolling—or even write (and Camus has some wonderful evocations of blissfulness)—something always goes wrong. Or, as Sartre, his long-time comrade and adversary, put it: “everything always goes wrong” (tout est voué à l’échec).
From Voltaire to Wittgenstein, the point of philosophy has been to pop the balloon of excessive optimism. “Many happy returns!” said his landlady to Wittgenstein on his birthday as he lay dying of cancer. “No there aren’t,” he replied tersely. Therefore, angst, despair, nausea: welcome! Get thee behind me Church of perpetual wellbeing (the “Wellness Syndrome,” as Carl Cederström puts it).