"The restless search for wealth, power, fame and office produces unhappiness in all but a tiny minority"by AC Grayling / January 7, 2015 / Leave a comment
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The translation of Aristotle’s eudaimonia as “happiness” is regarded by most philosophers as inadequate to capture the sense of wellbeing and well-doing—of active flourishing—that he intended by his use of the term. The subject of wellbeing is as old as the classical tradition. It is a theme common to the ethical schools of the period: from Stoics and Epicureans to Cynics the aim was to achieve at very least ataraxia, “peace of mind” or more accurately “unanxiousness”, which by any account would be a minimum requirement for wellbeing, if not constitutive of it.
Philosophical reflection on the nature of eudaimonia and ataraxia has of late given way to the calipers and thermometers of quantitative social science. Wellbeing—measuring it, promoting it, teaching the skills that lead to it, comparing it across age groups and nations, distinguishing between the wellbeing of children, men, women, individuals and groups, and much besides—has become the subject of an industry. It is related to “Happiness Studies,” now officially part of university curricula and well-funded research projects. If people once chuckled at the King of Bhutan’s introduction in 1972 of Gross National Happiness in place of GDP as a measure of Bhutan’s success, they chuckle no longer.
As a result we can now read National Audit Office (NAO) reports stating such things as that “In 2011, 71.8 per cent of adults aged 16 and over in the UK rated their life satisfaction as 7 or more out of 10, higher than the EU–28 average of 69.3 per cent.” Statistics such as these, which are based on subjective self-assessment and are sensitive to complex cultural factors influencing individual and group assumptions, expectations and experience, are of doubtful value. They are unlike the statistics with which they are typically mixed, such as those in the NAO’s report that “In 2013, 79 per cent of adults aged 15 and over in the UK scored very high, high or medium on an index of cultural practice (measuring frequency of cultural participation), higher than the EU–27 average of 66 per cent.” This last is a genuinely measurable matter, so long as “cultural participation” is well defined (including theatre and cinema attendance, purchase of books and music and visits to museums). From it one might infer something about the “life satisfaction” of people thus outwardly engaged and interested. But “life satisfaction” and other subjective states have a vagueness that makes measurement of them speculative.
The export of quantitative techniques to the social sciences from the natural sciences is a good thing in general, because the data thus garnered provides empirical support for many of the insights that the social sciences offer, and they sometimes confute traditional stereotypes and assumptions that can be harmful to individuals and society alike. But subjectivity is a limiting factor in social scientific analysis, and defeats efforts at the precision which, questionably, statistical analysis of the NAO kind offers. At best and most this kind of study gives an overall impression—which however fades when one begins to ask, “But what exactly does the study mean by…”
It might be thought that the nostrums of the philosophers are no less, and perhaps more, vague and unspecific than the spreadsheets of the sociologists. After all, they talk in general terms about eudaimonia or peace of mind, and draw on personal experience or the anecdotal evidence not untypically provided by the reflections of the elderly on what really matters in life and what yields a sense of wellbeing. Among the Stoics of late antiquity matters were put in such a reductive way that they hardly seem to be talking of wellbeing at all: “to philosophise is to learn to die,” was the trope. It seems dismal until the realisation that losing one’s fear of death, means nothing else can affright one, and it will lead to living life with more fortitude (“more philosophically” as they indeed were wont to say) as a result.
It might also be thought that the further nostrums offered—that the restless search for wealth, power, fame and office produces unhappiness in all but a tiny minority, that sufficiency is wealth, that modest ambitions and a retired life are the most tranquil and satisfying—seem to be life-denying rather than life-enhancing, like settling for a warm corner of the waiting-room for death rather than embracing opportunities to live with zest and ambition out in the world’s weather.
If the nostrums are unpersuasive, then they might suggest a different lesson, namely: is wellbeing the point? Why are we so keen to acquire it, when the struggle to achieve, to create, to conquer, to progress, might be far more worthwhile? This thought in turn suggests a wedge between “life satisfaction” (the struggling life might be more satisfying than the quietly retired life) and “wellbeing”—and it further suggests something analgous to what is often said about feeling well in the sense of feeling healthy, namely, that it is the absence of disease (dis-ease or physical unease), the analogy being that wellbeing is the absence of a sense of illbeing, and therefore is a privative rather than a positive notion.
My own view is that it is a mistake to seek wellbeing or happiness as such, for these are epiphenomena that will come of their own accord when one is engaged in endeavours that seem worthwhile in themselves. To learn, to make something, to improve things in some small or large respect in any sphere, to achieve a goal, above all to succeed in what lies at the heart of worthwhile lives, which is one’s relationships: those are the things that wellbeing would follow. It has been well said that the surest way to unhappiness is to seek happiness; so it is not happiness or wellbeing itself, but worthwhile pursuits that one could take up consistent with one’s talents and interests, which should be the target. Wellbeing will—usually—look after itself as a result.