How to be Happy

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What is it about happiness that makes it so elusive for most of us and yet seemingly so simple for some? Is it a matter of how we approach our lives, or is it just luck in how we find the world? Psychiatrist, Dr Raj Persaud, investigates the elements that contribute or conflict with the pursuit of happiness and considers how best to reach this ultimate goal.

This is the first in a new series of lectures at the historic church of St George's Hanover Square. Other lectures include:
   God and the Universe, by Ian Morison, Gresham Professor of Astronomy

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Professor Raj Persaud


I am delighted to have been asked to come and give the first talk here at St George's Church at Hanover Square. If I may, I will begin with a story.

There is this middle-aged woman, who, unfortunately, as most of us do as we get a bit older, has let herself go a little bit to seed.  She has gained a bit of weight and she has not quite looking the best that she did a few years ago, and because she has let herself go to seed, she has a heart attack.  The ambulance rushes her to hospital, and the medical staff realise this is very serious indeed and have to operate on her immediately.  But when she is on the operating table and they are operating on her, regrettably, they lose her for a few minutes and she dies, albeit transiently, and she has a near-death experience.  So she finds herself at the Pearly Gates talking to God, and she says to Him somewhat anxiously, 'It's not my time, is it?' and He says, 'No, relax, don't worry, it's not your time - you've got another thirty years, eight months, three weeks, seven days to live.' 

So she is relieved at this news, and the surgeons battling away on the operating table manage to save her life.  As she is lying in the recovery room, she reflects on her experience and she decides that she must really take things in hand and transform her life, especially given that she realises that she has so many more years to live.  So she decides, there and then, to transform her life, and so she immediately books herself in, since she is at the hospital anyway, for a tummy tuck, and she has a facelift, and she even has her hair done as well.  So feeling completely transformed, a few days later, she checks herself out of the hospital, walks out the main doors, crosses the street, and is immediately hit by a car and dies instantly.  So she finds herself at the Pearly Gates again, and this time she says to God, somewhat indignantly, 'But wait a second, you said that I had thirty years, eight months, three weeks, seven days to live - what's going on?!'  He said, 'I'm really sorry about that, but the problem is I just didn't recognise you!'

Psychiatrists are vulnerable to this habit of over-analysing things.  At the risk of doing this with regards to this joke, I would like to point out that one of the reasons why I like that joke is that it betrays something which I think is very common, which is a certain scepticism we all have that happiness is really possible.  At the heart of the joke is the idea that this woman does her best, but still, there is a problem that occurs, and so she is kept from attaining happiness.  Maybe people say this is a kind of European sensibility; that Europeans are a bit pessimistic and do not really believe that happiness is possible.  Perhaps that is why, if you look at European cinema and European films, they always end really grimly; whereas if you look at Hollywood, the Americans have a more optimistic, upbeat approach to life, and Hollywood films always have a happy ending.  So perhaps we can understand from this that Europeans believe that happiness is impossible and Americans believe happiness is possible.

So one of the reasons why it is a slightly brave endeavour to attempt to give a talk on how to be happy is this notion that is very much around that it is not really possible to be genuinely happy for sustained periods.  I am going to tackle that pessimism or scepticism that people have.

But there is another really profound and interesting resistance to the notion of happiness, which is, amongst people who regard themselves as serious and intelligent and intellectual, the notion that somehow happiness is not a serious subject - it is not worthy of serious consideration.  I want to put paid to that straightaway, with a very famous, ancient philosophical argument that dates right back to Aristotle.  Aristotle boldly claimed that happiness is always the ultimate purpose of life.  He came to that conclusion with several different philosophical arguments, and one of them is that if you stop someone in the marketplace, and you say, 'Why do you do that thing that you do?' the person is likely to say, 'Well, I do it because I think I will achieve this outcome.'  Then you say, 'Yes, but why do you want to achieve that outcome?' and then the person will say, 'Because I want to achieve this and I want that to then happen,' and so on, and ultimately, you'll get, if you go down this infinite regress of asking someone why do you do that thing you do, ultimately the answer will come back, 'Because it will make me happy.'

Let us take an example: You happen to see a politician passing in a marketplace, and you say to them, 'Why do you court popularity?' and they said, 'Because I want to get elected,' and you say, 'Well, why do you want to get elected?' and they say, 'Because I want power.'  You say, 'Well, why do you want power?' and they say, 'Because then I will change the world and make it a better place.'  Then you say, 'Well, why do you want to do that?' and then they will say, 'Because it will make me happy!'

So ultimately, Aristotle said, whenever you ask people why do you do what you do, and you keep persistently asking the question, you always come back to this ultimate answer, which is, 'because I think it will make me happy'.  The really interesting point that Aristotle then made is it seems as though happiness requires no explanation beyond it.  You do not ever say to someone, 'Yes, but why do you want to be happy?'  The argument seems to constantly end at that point, and has, it seems, no further place to go; whereas with any other human motivation, like 'Why do you pursue power?' we feel somehow that it cannot end there - there has to be some unanswered point as to why people are pursuing power.  We cannot believe that is an end in itself, but happiness seems to be the only ultimate purpose which appears an end in itself.

The other really interesting point that Aristotle made is you do not seem to have to explain happiness.  You do not say, 'Well, I want to be happy, because then I think I will get more sex,' or 'Then I think I will get more power.'  That does not seem to make sense either.  It seems as if happiness always ends up as the ultimate purpose of life, if you ask people enough questions like I have been describing.

So if happiness is the ultimate purpose of life, which is what Aristotle argued some 2,000 years ago, then it does indeed become a subject worthy of serious consideration, and you are not saying something trite when you say 'I seek to be happy'.  In fact, as far as Aristotle is concerned, you are saying something very profound.

So, let me start my account of how to be happy with a true story that comes from the 1960s, when Harold Macmillan was the Prime Minister here in Britain.  Harold Macmillan was a very patrician Prime Minister, and the story goes that he found himself at a very important state occasion in France, and this was a state occasion marking the very important retirement of President Charles de Gaulle.  During this very long, boring state occasion, Harold Macmillan found himself standing next to Madame de Gaulle, President de Gaulle's wife.  In order to make conversation, he turned to Madame de Gaulle and asked her, politely, what it was that she was most looking forward to after the retirement of President de Gaulle.  He was somewhat startled by her reply, because when Harold Macmillan asked Madame de Gaulle what she was most looking forward to after the retirement of President Charles de Gaulle, Madame de Gaulle said 'a penis'.  It was only later that Harold Macmillan realised, on reflection, that what Madame de Gaulle had probably been trying to say, through a very heavy French accent, had been the word 'happiness'! 

Right there, I think you can see one of the key problems I am going to discuss about happiness, because whenever you discuss how to be happy with someone else, very interestingly, people are not being clear by what they mean by the word 'happiness'.  The word 'happiness' has multiple different meanings to different people.  This is why it is often very difficult to get a coherent conversation going on the subject, because people are often referring to different things when they use the word 'happiness', as indeed perhaps Madame de Gaulle and Harold Macmillan realised.

Let us take one example of that: if I was to measure one dimension or aspect of happiness that psychologists have become interested in, I might choose to measure the intensity with which you experience happiness.  So let us say I devise a crude scale from nought to ten, where four or five is you are feeling relatively okay, five or six is mild contentment, eight, nine or ten is throbbing ecstasy, and nought, one or two is sort of abject, suicidal depression.  If I was to measure the happiness levels of people here attending this lecture today, we would find, generally speaking, a large number of people, hopefully, clustering around the five, six or seven level, and so mildly content.  We would find a small group of people in abject, suicidal depression, and a small group sitting here today at lunchtime experiencing throbbing ecstasy (and, by the way, can I just say to those of you who are sitting here experiencing throbbing ecstasy as I talk to you, that you really need to get out more!).

The interesting thing is that, having measured people's happiness levels in this room today, if I brought you back in a year's time and measured your happiness levels, a really interesting thing would happen.  This is that the people who were scoring five, six or seven - the mildly content, let's call them - would actually most likely be scoring, in about a year's time, five, six or seven again.  In other words, their happiness, although not very intense, would be very stable over time.  But the people who are scoring eight, nine or ten, who are experiencing throbbing ecstasy and are scoring very high on the intensity of the happiness experience - and many people would say that it is a good thing that those people are doing that, that it is a desirable thing - the ironic and interesting thing is that, in a year's time, those people are extremely unlikely to be scoring eight, nine or ten again.  If anything, if you are going to make a bet on what they are most likely to be scoring in a year's time, it would actually be at the nought, one, two or three level.  In other words, people who strive to have very intense happiness experiences, their happiness is often fragile.  Their lives are a rollercoaster ride of emotion, and so although they hit highs from time to time, they very often also hit very deep lows.

I am going to be giving away some key secrets to life and to happiness, and I am going to give away secret number one right now, which is that the secret to happiness is not to pursue intense happiness but to pursue mild contentment.  Now, you can see right there, that this is not a very sexy message; it is not the kind of thing the media's going to get very excited about and want to review your book or have you on the front page - 'Raj Persaud says secret to happiness is... mild contentment!'  It is not the kind of thing that gets people going, galvanises massive political movements.  You do not see a million people marching on Parliament shouting, 'What do we want?!'  'Mild contentment!'  'When do we want it?!'  'Well, whenever you can get round to it?'

So it is not a message that is very popular with the media, corporations and people in the advertising world, because they are out there pedalling intense experiences all the time, because that is what is going to get your attention.  Therefore, I want to argue, not only is the answer to happiness not to pursue intense happiness, but to beware of the fact that actually there are massive forces at work, abroad in our society, encouraging you to pursue intense experiences, and that actually may be a problem; it may actually be the source, ultimately, of a lot of unhappiness.

Let us talk now about another way in which we could talk about the word 'happiness' and what we could mean by it.  Psychologists have discovered, when you research people and their experiences of happiness, you find that happiness tends to cluster around two main types of happiness. 

The first type I am going to be calling a kind of hedonistic, pleasurable aspect of happiness, and this is the kind of happiness you feel after a nice glass of wine, after you have had a nice meal or seen a nice film.  This kind of happiness experience is often fairly intense, but it is unfortunately pretty short-lived.  In fact, psychologists have attempted to measure how long this happiness tends to last after you have seen the nice film or had the nice glass of wine, and it is roughly around fifteen minutes.

There is another kind of happiness though, which is not the hedonistic, pleasurable aspect of happiness, but it is a more cognitive, intellectual aspect of happiness, and that is the kind of satisfaction you feel when you sit back and you think about your life, think about the difficult goals you have overcome, and you get a general sense of satisfaction over achievements you have made, and also a general sense of satisfaction over the direction that your life is taking.  That could be called a more cognitive or intellectual kind of satisfaction that you feel about your life.  This form of happiness is much less intense than the nice glass of wine type of happiness, but interestingly enough, it tends to last much longer.

Now, because psychologists are very imaginative people, they have labelled these two types of happiness: the first kind, the hedonistic kind, they have labelled Type One Happiness; and the cognitive, intellectual kind of happiness, they have labelled Type Two Happiness.  Here is another great secret to happiness I am going to give away, and this is that when you speak to people in the clinic, and you talk to people in general who are struggling to find happiness, what you find is that they have made a classic error, which is that they have decided to devote their lives to pursuing either Type One or Type Two, and actually, they have not understood that the secret to happiness is having the right balance of Type One and Type Two in your life.  The heroin addict has gone down, clearly, the Type One route, but also, the selfless, sacrificing person, the constant martyr, has gone down the Type Two route and has abandoned the Type One by having no time to stop and smell the roses and enjoy life. 

This analysis may, at first sight, again appear rather trite, but actually I think it is quite profound.  It explains something very interesting, which is: why is it, in the Western intellectual tradition, that most intellectuals, when asked about happiness, have been very pessimistic about it?  Let me illustrate what I mean by that with a short list of quotes from famous Western intellectuals:

'One feels inclined to say that the intention that man should be happy is not included in the plan of creation.'  That was Freud, who also said: 'The best that can be hoped for in life is a transformation of hysteric misery into common unhappiness.'

'The existentialists say at once that man is in anguish.'  That was Sartre.

'Throughout the ages, the wisest of men have passed the same judgement of life: it is no good.'  That was Nietzsche.

'I don't know why we're here, but I'm pretty sure that it's not in order to enjoy ourselves.'  That was Wittgenstein.

'Today, it is bad, and day by day, it will get worse, until at last the worst of all arrives.'  That was Schopenhauer.

'Man hands on misery to man; it deepens like a coastal shelf.  Get out as early as you can, and don't have any kids yourself.'  That was Philip Larkin.

So why were these very profound thinkers so pessimistic about the possibility of genuine happiness?

If we go back to the framework of the Type One and Type Two distinction, we find that it says that these people, generally speaking, devoted their lives to massive projects.  They were very much in the realm of the Type Two happiness.  They were out there, trying to write great works, trying to change the world, and because they were so devoted to all that Type Two stuff, they never did any Type One stuff.  They never had the nice glass of wine or stopped to smell the roses.  So, as a result, because they got the balance wrong between Type One and Type Two, that is why they ended up so miserable. 

But, let us just be fair to the Western intellectuals: maybe what they were saying was that it is not that it is impossible for each individual to become happier, but maybe they were saying it is impossible for a society at large to become happier; that for a group of people, like the group of people here in this church today, it would be impossible for me to raise your happiness levels in general.  There is an interesting reason why this could be the case which comes from the very profound idea in psychology that all assessments on which you base your happiness always have an implicit comparison involved.  In other words, you have to be comparing yourself with someone else. 

How happy you feel about how much you earn actually has very little to do with how much you actually earn; it has much more to do with who you are comparing yourself with.  If you are comparing yourself with someone who earns much more than you, that upwardly directed comparison will make you feel miserable about your income.  So, implicit in all happiness assessments is a comparison process, and what is really interesting about that argument is that, in a society at large, we always have to have some people that we can look down on to make us feel good about ourselves.  Therefore, unfortunately, that argument says that any attempt to raise happiness is stymied by the fact that happiness has to be based on some kind of inequality, and for everyone looking down, comparing themselves with someone earning less than them, there is a group of people looking up comparing themselves with people earning more, and that negative feeling they have cancels out the positive feeling that the people at the top have, looking down, and so, as a society at large, average happiness does not get anywhere.  That is a very interesting argument.

Can we be sure this comparison process is that powerful?  In answer to this, there was some fascinating research done by some American psychologists looking at the Barcelona Olympic Games a few years ago now.  They did some fascinating research looking at the happiness levels of different Olympic medal winners.  They found, much to their surprise, that bronze medal winners were happier, on average, than silver medal winners.  This is a very surprising and paradoxical result, because you do not need to be an athlete to know that a silver medal is definitely better than a bronze medal.  But, when the psychologists thought more profoundly about their very interesting result, they came up with the explanation of its being accounted for by who the medal winners are comparing themselves with.  The bronze medal winners tended to compare themselves with the rest of the field, who had not got a medal, and because that was a downwardly directed comparison, they felt great about their medal.  The silver medal winners, on the other hand, were inevitably always comparing themselves with the person who got gold, and because that was an upwardly-directed comparison, they felt dreadful about their medal, although actually it was better than the bronze medal.  So this notion of comparison is profoundly important in determining your sense of wellbeing, and let us illustrate that with a little thought experiment.

I want you to imagine we are living in a parallel universe, and you are waking up on a very special morning, when you are taking delivery of your very first Rolls Royce, or we could make it a Ferrari or a Lamborghini or any obscure object of desire so long as it is very expensive and people crave it.  If I was to ask you to rate how happy you feel, as you anticipate the delivery of your first Rolls Royce that morning, you are probably going to give me a pretty high score, because you are feeling great this morning as the Rolls Royce you have worked all your life for is finally arriving. 

I am going to change one variable in this story now: we are still in the same parallel universe, you are still taking delivery of the same Rolls Royce this morning, but what is changed is that all your neighbours have two Rolls Royces, and they have had theirs for ten years.  How are you feeling about your Rolls Royce now?  Not so good as before!  Why is that?  I haven't changed the car - it has got the same gleaming, walnut interior, the same whispering suspension!  So how come you are not feeling so happy now?  You are not feeling so happy because it is not actually the Rolls Royce itself that delivers happiness; it is what it allows you to do in terms of comparing yourself with other people. 

A huge amount of advertising hinges on this idea.  In fact, it took me a while to realise this, because, I have to confess now, I am actually a bit of a classic car fanatic, and I realised, after I understood a little bit more about this comparison process, that the whole point of a Rolls Royce is not actually that it is such a significantly better car than any other.  The whole point of a Rolls Royce is that your neighbour will not have one - that is the point!  They are rare and expensive.   That means that if you have one, your neighbour is not going to have one.  At the point at which, when you buy a Rolls Royce, you know confident that your neighbour will already have one, the whole point of getting a Rolls Royce goes out the window. 

In fact, just to illustrate how complicated and obscure an idea this is, I was giving a talk to a luxury car manufacturer, which shall remain nameless.  It was a very small volume but very expensive luxury car manufacturer, and a new employee was complaining bitterly that one of the things that they advertise very proudly in their brochure is that the coach line - this is a line that is painted down the side of the car - has always been painted by hand, from the date of the conception of this car company to now.  The employee said, 'Why are we still doing this by-hand stuff?!  I mean, we all know a robot can do it much more accurately!'  But he was missing the point.  The reason they put in their advertising that it is done by hand, is that it is a coded message to you there are not many of these things around, and therefore, your neighbour is not going to have one!  If a robot was doing it, there would be millions of them around, and your neighbour could have one!  So I now understood, for the first time, why luxury car manufacturers emphasise the 'hand-built' nature of their cars. 

I found that very difficult to understand, which I can explain with another thought experiment: you are an astronaut sitting in the nose cone of a rocket, and you have a choice of being in a rocket which has been hand-built or a rocket that has been built with all the benefits of modern robot technology.  I can tell you which rocket I would rather be sitting in, as we sit there to blast off to the Moon - clearly the robot-built one!

So, the hand-built thing is not actually about how good it is; it is about how rare it is, and that feeds directly into the importance of this comparison idea. 

Now, when the Olympic medal researchers were studying the Olympic Games, they noticed something else very interesting about who was happy or not so happy about their medal.  They noticed that if the medal winner had just shaved out the competition by a few hundredths of a second, they were delighted with their medal.  But if they were 400 yards ahead of the next runner, then they were pleased with their medal, but not quite so ecstatic.  This brought in the notion, in psychology, which has become very important in thinking about happiness, of what is called 'the close shave'.  What is really interesting about the close shave is that it seems to determine a lot of what we feel in terms of happiness.  So the athlete who experienced a close shave, and as a result, got the medal as the result of a close shave, is much more delighted with their medal than the athlete who did not experience a close shave, even though they got the same medal.

Let us illustrate that with another thought experiment again, of you trying to catch a train.  You arrive at the train station, and you become aware that the train has in fact arrived at the platform and is waiting to leave.  So you rush up the stairs, rush onto the platform, about to get on the train, when the doors close in your face and the train disappears down the track.  If I was to, rather irritatingly, get a rating of happiness from you at this moment then I would find that you would not be very happy! 

Condition two of the experiment: you arrive at a train station, you are going to try and catch a train, you buy your ticket, you go up to the platform, there is no train and you have got half an hour to wait until the next train.  What is very interesting is, in condition one, even if you still have the same length of time to wait for the next train, the fact the doors closed in your face and you missed that train makes you much more miserable about your wait.  You have had a close shave, and the close shave seems to be really important in determining how you feel.

Why is that?  Well, there is another very important concept that psychologists have come to with the notion of the close shave, which is that the close shave directs and focuses your thinking in a very specific way: it focuses your thinking into what is called 'what might have been' thinking. In other words, I might have been on that train instead of where I am now!  That kind of thinking is labelled by psychologists, and philosophers, 'counter-factual thinking' - 'what might have been' - and this now has been found to be very important in determining your happiness levels, because it is not where you are in society or what has happened to you, it is what you think or how you compare it with what might have been.  This is why, for example - and this is even called, in psychology, 'the school reunion effect' - that school reunions are often such terribly competitive affairs.  You go and you meet people you have not seen for twenty years, but you are comparing yourself with them, and your focus is on that because they seem to be a worthwhile comparison because you were at the same place many years ago in the classroom, and if, God forbid, someone you meet has been very successful and is now a billionaire, you will be thinking 'what might have been'.  That is likely to be very important in determining your happiness.

What this is suggesting is to beware of the 'what might have been' thinking that is a comparison process that leads, inevitably, to unhappiness.  So, you rush onto the train platform, you try to get the train, the doors close in your face, and you are thinking 'what might have been... I might have been on that train!'  Another 'what might have been' is you might have rushed onto the platform, tried to get on the train, and fallen in the gap between the train and the platform!  That is also what might have been, and if you think about that as the train disappears down the track, you are a lot happier than the other 'what might have been'!  So we need to be careful and become more aware of the 'what might have been' thinking.

Now, the very fact that we can do the 'what might have been' thinking is an act of the imagination, and the very fact that we have imaginations is one of the things that separates us from animals - theoretically.  This introduces another very interesting idea, which is evolutionary theory.  We now think that evolutionary processes led inevitably to the rise of a species like us which had intelligence and, perhaps more importantly than intelligence, imagination.  We can think 'what might have been'.  We can think beyond what we see before us and we can think about what is possible.  The very fact we can do that through evolutionary processes raises an interesting question because evolutionary thinking tells us that nothing about us is there without an evolutionary purpose.  So we can ask the question, what is the evolutionary point of happiness?

Well, happiness is there to impel us to do all the things that make it much more likely that we as a species are going to survive, in terms of our million year history of evolving.  So the things that tend to deliver happiness, particularly in terms of Type One happiness - things like sex and eating - are things that also are biologically necessary for the species to propagate itself.  So happiness is not just a random thing that just happens to us; it is biologically wired into our brains to be a reward mechanism for activities that have some kind of evolutionary purpose.

That leads to some interesting thoughts, therefore, about how we have to be careful about happiness.  It also raises a challenge, for the very first time in 2,000 years, to Aristotle's idea that happiness is the ultimate purpose of life.  As I said before, that argument has effectively stood unchallenged for 2,000 years, but now that we have evolutionary theory, we are led to believe that there is a point to happiness, and that is survival.  In other words, the reason why are biologically wired up to experience happiness is because it lends itself to the survival of the species, and actually, survival is the more primary imperative than happiness.

Let me illustrate that with a true story.  Back in the 1930s in South Africa, there was a herd of elephants that grew to an enormous size, and was trampling down the crops of farms.  The farmers were getting upset with this, so the South African Government hired a hunter to take his rifle and to do some control of the large numbers of elephants by shooting a number of them.  So, he went around stalking this herd of elephants as it marauded through the South African countryside, and he would take his gun and shoot a number of elephants. Now, if you think about a herd of elephants, and we think about the personality of elephants, which I am sure is not something you have often done, we can see that here must be a personality structure to the herd.  A herd will inevitably have a small group of elephants that are clustered in the middle of the herd, where perhaps it is safer - we can call those neurotic elephants.  They are nervous or jumpy elephants, who don't like to take risks.  But around the outskirts of the herd are slightly more risk-taking elephants, who do not mind taking a gamble, do not mind being far away from the centre safety of the herd - these are risk-taking, gambling type elephants.  Now, as the hunter is going around shooting this herd, he is picking off the elephants on the outskirts of the herd.  Soon enough, the herd became much less marauding, and the South African Government changed its policy to go down a conservation route, and told the hunter to stop shooting elephants.  So, he had shot all the risk-taking elephants and left the neurotic, jumpy elephants, and to this day, it is said, there is a particularly jumpy group of elephants in that part of South Africa.  We should remember that the jumpy, nervous or neurotic elephants, by and large, are the less happy elephants, compared to the ones who are on the outskirts of the herd, but the less happy ones survived.  But what is really interesting here is that evolutionary theory says that if unhappiness leads to survival, then it explains why there might be a point to unhappiness.

So, the way this probably works is that all of us have, within ourselves, a system for detecting danger.  You are walking through a wood and you hear a crack of a twig behind you.  Now, the more jumpy, neurotic or hyper-vigilant for threat and danger types amongst you are thinking that crack of that twig could be a tiger, in which case, you are not taking any chances and you are going to make a bolt for it!  So every time you are walking through the woods and you hear a crack of a twig from behind you, you run very fast.  Now, the neurotic, hyper-vigilant ones amongst you, because you are constantly listening out for cracks of twigs, and very often the twig is cracking and it is totally innocent, you waste a lot of your time running away from these very innocent cracks of twigs.  So you have a bit of a more miserable time than the other people who have a system for detecting cracks of twigs and thinking about what to do about it.  Those people are more relaxed, they are not bothered so much about the crack of a twig.  They are walking through the wood and they enjoy the walk because whenever they hear a crack of a twig, they are not leaping out of their skin and running hell for leather.  So, the second group of people, who are not so bothered about cracks of twigs, are happier.  The trouble with that second group is that they have only got to get it wrong once, and it was a tiger, and they are not going to be leaving their genes on to future generations!  Whereas the neurotic people, who are running hell for leather, burning a lot of useless calories, because they only have to get it right once in a hundred times, it actually makes evolutionary sense.  Therefore, you can see that it makes sense to sometimes be overly vigilant for danger around you, particularly if there is genuine danger around you.  That explains, to some extent, why it actually may make sense to be unhappy.  So in other words, we now have a final rebuttal of Aristotle's point which is that happiness is the purpose of life; in fact, evolutionary theory says that there is another purpose to life, which is life itself - survival; being around to pass on genes to future generations.  So that is a very interesting place where we are philosophically and evolutionarily, which is that there could actually be a point to unhappiness that makes some kind of sense.

So I want to come to a conclusion, which is that one of the other areas where people are making a mistake about happiness is that they are focusing on happiness itself.  We have analysed and talked about some of the distinctions of what we mean by the word 'happiness' and why that is problematic, but there is another very important thing that people are often not doing, which is simply focussing on what reasons they have to be happy?  It is the reasons bit that is actually the really important bit.  If one of the key things in your life as you are walking through the woods is that there should be no tigers in the woods, if you have checked the woods and there really are no tigers, then that is a good reason to be happy.  If social justice and preventing the suffering of lots of people is very important to you, if that is an important value to you, then the fact we live in a society or a world where there is a lot of social injustice and a lot of needless suffering, that is a good reason to be unhappy.  So the issue is not, to me, whether people are happy or unhappy; it is a matter of what reasons they have for their happiness or unhappiness.  This is a key area that the media, when they think about happiness and talk about happiness, tend not to get into, and that actually is actually the really interesting and important area.

I want to close with a quote from Aldous Huxley and his 1932 novel,Brave New World.  In this book, Aldous Huxley penned a chilling, futuristic vision of an all-powerful state in which the masses are kept under control with a drug called Soma which banishes all unhappiness.  Many have seen Soma as a prophetic anticipation of Prozac.  Liberal quantities of Soma ensure that everybody is content, well-behaved and free from any disruptively original or subversive thoughts.  If anyone should feel a tinge of dissatisfaction or anxiety, they are told to take a gram of Soma, which is said to have all the advantages of Christianity and alcohol, but none of their defects.  Only one character in Huxley's novel, the Savage, is recognisably human, and he claims the right to be unhappy. 

At the end of Brave New World, the rebel, John, otherwise known as the Savage, confronts the Controller.  'Universal happiness,' the Controller admits, 'has been achieved by shifting the emphasis away from truth and beauty and towards comfort.  Art and science have become impossible, because they require challenge, skill and frustration.  Happiness has got to be paid for somehow, and the guarantee of comfort requires losing other experiences that are part of being human.'

Says the Savage, 'But I don't want comfort!  I want God.  I want poetry.  I want real danger.  I want freedom.  I want goodness.  I want sin.'

'In fact,' said the Controller, 'you're claiming the right to be unhappy.'

'Alright then,' said the Savage, defiantly, 'I'm claiming the right to be unhappy!'

'Not to mention the right,' the Controller added, 'to grow old and ugly and impotent, the right to have syphilis and cancer, the right to have too little to eat, the right to be lousy, the right to live in constant apprehension of what may happen tomorrow, the right to catch typhoid, the right to be tortured by unspeakable pains of every kind.'

There was a long silence.  'I claim them all,' said the Savage, at last.




©Professor Raj Persaud, Gresham College, 17 November 2008

This event was on Mon, 17 Nov 2008


Dr Raj Persaud

Visiting Professor of Psychiatry

Raj Persaud is a Consultant Psychiatrist. Unusually for a psychiatrist he also holds a degree in psychology that he obtained with First Class Honours, and...

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