Thursday, December 15, 2005

A Very Short Essay on Happiness

“Man does not strive for pleasure; only the Englishman does”. – Friedrich Nietzsche

The Brits are unhappy again. In fact they have always been unhappy, but now it (as always) seems even worse than ever. Depression, obesity and alcohol abuse in Great Britain is taking its toll. A total of 38% of the 2 million Brits who are claiming incapacity benefits are ‘mentally’ ill. All this misery is costing the country about £9bn through the loss of productivity and benefits (Bunting, 2005). This despite the fact that Britain is ranked 7.1 out of 10 on the World Database of Happiness (Veenhoven, 2005).

The causes of all this misery in Britain are plethora and are sometimes visible on the rail networks as people commit suicide by jumping in front of trains or the near-suicidal feelings caused by the incessant announcements like on the London Underground: "due to (un)necessary engineering works, there will be no service on the .... line. "In addition, there is the welfare state that has been producing 'happy' suicide bombers. This is a terrifying phenomenon and beyond the mask of London’s ‘happy’ resilient response to terrorism, the forlorn aftermath of 7/7 still haunts public opinion. The always-trying-to-be happy Brits also now have extended drinking hours that promise to make them either happier or more hung over and depressed. And I suspect it will be the latter. Finally, the war in Iraq, increasing violent crime, drug abuse, disfunctional relationships, sexually transmitted diseases (STD's), etc have started to take its toll on the psychologicall well-being of Britain.

Britain is rapidly changing into a so-called therapy state. The NHS is now rolling out more and more programmes aimed at improving the mental health of the nation or nations given Britain’s multicultural demographic constitution. The BBC has gone so far as to recruit volunteers to spread happiness across Slough, while hiring experts to define happiness. It is documented in a recently televised series called Making Slough Happy. It included a rather absurd trip to the graveyard. One expert, Richard Stevens (BBC Lifestyle, 2005) is alleged to have said, "Going round a graveyard and reminding yourself that life is short can really boost your appreciation that it's wonderful just to be alive!"

Alain de Botton wrote a whole book about the unhappy phenomenon and called it status anxiety.

I can only imagine poor Nietzsche frowning upon the fact that this crazy pursuit of happiness is still ongoing. Nietzsche claims that the utilitarian ideal of happiness has no intrinsic value (Leiter, 2005). Utilitarian happiness is about comfort and fashion. This presents a conundrum as advertising and television (consumer capitalism, the beholder of comfort and fashion par excellence) has been identified as one of the main culprits causing the Brits to be such a miserable lot.

Generally speaking, we live in a world that is happy and miserable at the same time. In the end we all ride in the same taxi to the netherworld. The guru of misery, Arthur Schopenhauer, was spot on when he noted that the “vanity of our existence is revealed in the whole existence assumes: in the infiniteness of time and space contrasted with the finiteness of the individual in both; in the fleeting present as the sole form in which actuality exists; in the contingency and relativity of all things; in continual becoming without being; in continual desire without satisfaction; in the continual frustration of striving of which life consists … We shall do best to think of life as desengano, as a process of disillusionment: since this is clearly enough, what everything that happens to us is calculated to produce.” (1970, 16 & 21)

Is there an escape clause out of this ill-fated existence of ours?

The answer is simply no. Our life does not come with a guarantee of happiness, defined as contentment and pleasure. Suffering is part of our lives as much as joy is. Our existence is in part determined by our ever-evolving biological make-up and a very complex social environment. Evolutionary psychologists like Grinde (2002: 331) have realised that "the human capacity for positive and negative feelings is shaped by the forces of evolution."

It is probably a lot more complex then my humble proposition. Unlike Jean Paul Sartre’s thinking, wars are not necessary our wars and we are often confounded in circumstances that are beyond our control. The human race is an infantile one. We are still learning to walk. We don’t find ourselves trapped in the anguish of freedom. There is no existential angst resulting from an abundance of choices. Our freedom is limited and totally contingent. Our existential angst arises from Nietzsche’s abyss. The one that threatens to stare back at us.

This does not mean that our lives have to be bleak and miserable. Emotions that can be both negative and positive have evolved to help humankind to solve problems and therefore enhance our chance of survival. There is a place for joy amid the sadness and it is achievable, in spite of the contingency of our lives. Belgian behavioural biologist, Mark Nelissen (2004: 134) believes that joy is instrumental in evolution as it makes us more open new experiences, encourages greater cooperation and mutual support and heals negative experiences on an individual level.

What self-help advice can I give the Brits considering the gravity of their despair? I could start with suggesting that all those self-help books at WH Smith are at best to be avoided. They are depressingly addictive. Secondly, I could advise them to turn off the telly more often! It creates role models and expectations. It turns mankind into mediocre zombies or sluggish 'sloughs' (excuse the pun). The Brits (and for that matter the rest of humankind) need to think beyond the happiness/sadness dichotomy. This means that we need to strive for a passionately fulfilling life that does not necessary equate to happiness, but may be constitutive of joyious impulses / occassions and times of despair.

In short, we have to overcome ourselves, elevate ourselves out of the mundanity of our lives.
Really easy!


BBC Lifestyle. Making Slough Happy. 2005. [Online]. Available WWW: (Accessed 10 December 2005).
Bunting, M. 2005. Consumer capitalism is making us ill – we need a therapy state. Guardian, 5 December.
De Botton, A. 2004. Status Anxiety. London: Penguin.
Grinde, B. 2002. Happiness in the Perspective of Evolutionary Psychology. Journal of Happiness Studies, 3: 331–354.
Leiter, B.R. 2004. Nietzsche's Moral & Political Philosophy. [Online]. Available WWW: (Accessed 10 December 2005).
Nelissen, M. 2004. Emoties en de evolutie naar socialiteit. In Nellisen, M (ed.). Waarom we willen wat we willen: De invloed van de Evolutie op wat we kopen, wat we doen, wie we graag zien en wie we zijn. Tielt: Lannoo.
Nietzsche, F.W. 1954. (transl. By W. Kaufman). Twilight of the Idols. In The Portable Nietzsche Reader. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Schopenhauer, A. 1970 (transl. By R.J. Hollingdale). On the Suffering of the World. London: Penguin.
Veenhoven, R. 2005. Average happiness in 91 nations 1995-2005. World Database of Happiness, Rank Report 2005. [Online]. Available WWW: (Accessed on 10 December).

Interesting Links:

Alain de Botton

Friedrich Nietzsche Society at the University of Wales, Swansea

Happiness in Wikipedia

Happiness Program


Journal of Happiness Studies

World Database of Happiness, Erasmus University Rotterdam


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