Pursuit of happiness

THERE’S a cartoon from the New Yorker magazine which shows two middle-aged men languidly sipping cocktails in front of a fake chateau.

One turns to the other and says: “I could cry when I think of the years I wasted accumulating money, only to learn that my cheerful disposition is genetic.”

The pursuit of happiness, surely the most inexplicable of human of emotions, has become the great obsession of our times; yet a look at the roaring trade in pharmaceuticals and self-help books — including enticing titles like God Wants You To Be Rich — would suggest it has never been further from our grasp.

With The Age of Absurdity, Michael Foley, a Derry-born poet and novelist, who has been living in London since 1972, has turned his attention to the age-old conundrum with a sceptical eye, and specifically with a view to finding out why our western world efforts at finding fulfilment are woefully counter-productive. The non-fiction work has been in gestation for many years.

“I’ve always been a reader of this ‘what’s it all about?’ kind of stuff,” he says, “but in secret because in Ireland people tend to regard that kind of thing as pretentious crap, generally. My literary friends think that novelists and poets shouldn’t become contaminated by ideas. Everybody I know thinks it’s probably a terrible idea but I’ve always been in love with ideas. Now I’m coming out of the closet in a way.”

In his analysis of the world’s great thinkers, from Schopenhauer to Spinoza, a personal favourite of his, and in areas of thought such as religion, psychology and neuroscience, Foley has found there are several happiness concepts which have pertained over the millennia. They include personal responsibility; autonomy; understanding; what Buddhists call ‘mindfulness’; ceaseless striving and constant awareness of mortality.

“I suppose if I had to plump for one that sort of summarised the others,” he adds, “it’s the rejection of difficultly because people think that everything is effortless nowadays, that fulfilment is effortless, even inevitable, that you somehow don’t have to make any great effort or sacrifice to achieve [goals in life], but the opposite is true, of course.

“In fact, a sad fact that I discovered when I was researching the book is that sales of oranges are plummeting because people can’t be bothered with peeling them anymore. I think that’s tragically significant. I tried to get the publishers to give away a free orange with every book, to try and start an orange revolution.”

Foley suggests that there has been an unfortunate fallout from the 1970s drive for liberation, those battles for feminism, gay rights and so on. Instead of the left’s great clarion calls, its warranted anger at injustice, we have been left today with a culture of entitlement and complaint.

The philosopher Julian Baggini, for example, conducted a study in which he found that what people most complain about are bad luck, fate and what is outside their control. Seneca would have scoffed at their preciousness or, as Foley writes, the neo-stoics would simply retort: “Shit happens.”

One of the infuriating things about human nature is that people are, as the Greek philosophers have told us, never satisfied with what they have. It is part of the human condition, this urge to keep striving for more and more. We’re trapped, psychologists tell us, on a “hedonistic treadmill”.

“We’re always living in anticipation, but that has got worse, I think,” says Foley. “We’re always thinking there’s something better just around the corner. I think that’s why shopping and travel have become so popular because they’re activities of pure potential, of possibility and promise. We’re not really interested in the goods or the destination; it’s the thrill of constantly expecting something.”

One of the more unusual studies cited in The Age of Absurdity is the case of a 17-year-old named Nick Bailey who filmed himself unwrapping his new Nintendo Wii console; nothing more, just a short film of him unpacking his new toy. He posted it on YouTube and within a week, 71,000 people had viewed it. And so was born, notes Foley mournfully, a new vicarious shopping experience — at two removes from the merchandise.

Foley also argues convincingly that we have become inveterate attention-seekers, whether it is people in Ireland or the UK eating and drinking alfresco in the middle of February or the advent of open-plan homes, and especially offices and public spaces which are designed to facilitate “people-watching”.

In fact, if you’ve the money or the weird inclination to, you can pay to have yourself put under surveillance. The founder of one such service points out that: “We’ve had clients who say that they wear nicer underwear or start taking better care of themselves simply knowing they’re being observed. Just knowing there’s attention on them can be enough.” I guess if it makes you happy.

Foley’s treatise takes its place among a bulging library of happiness studies published over the past few years, but it is one of the most insightful and entertaining of its kind and it is illuminated with reflections about his own demons as an aging university lecturer, parent and lover, rendered in wickedly sceptical tones.

Indeed by merely reading it, you’ll display one of the hallmarks of someone on the path to happiness. Holed up in a Nazi extermination camp during the Second World War, the writer Primo Levi later wrote that the one feature camp survivors shared was intellectual curiosity.

“That really startled me when I read that first and heartened me in a way actually,” says Foley.

“The other point he made was about the people who didn’t survive; the bourgeois people who depended on status and property and things like that fell apart immediately and were the first to die. They had no secret self to fall back on and no intellectual curiosity to keep them motivated.”

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