Why transformation requires a new vision of happiness

The way we think about happiness is a window into the way we think about how we should live.

Sam Wren-Lewis
24 March 2020, 7.07pm
Blue Diamond Gallery/Alpha Stock Images/Nick Youngson. CC BY-SA 3.0

Happiness is a funny thing. To some people it’s what makes life worth living: to look back at your life and judge it be a happy one is to know that you have lived well. But to others happiness is a relatively trivial affair - a nice feeling to be sure, but not something around which we should plan our lives. Even those who greatly value happiness might declare it to be a wholly elusive phenomenon, something we can neither hold on to nor pursue directly.

Then there’s the portrayal of happiness in business, advertising and the media. Google the term and you’re likely to see images of people jumping in the air with joy in a pair of Nike trainers, or relaxing on a beach at sunset with a can of Coca-Cola in hand. We know that happiness doesn’t come from money or material possessions, but we are constantly told that it does. In light of this confusion and ambiguity, is there anything useful to be said about happiness and social change?

I believe there is. As I argue in my new book The Happiness Problem, to ignore happiness in the midst of our current personal and social challenges would be a huge mistake - not because we could all be happier, but because happiness is a window into the way we think about how we should live. So if we want to transform the way we are living, we need to think differently about happiness.

Let’s start with how we currently think about the subject. We tend to think that we’d be happy if only we had a loving relationship, a happy family, a meaningful career, good health and so on. But these lists inside our head are actually the problem, because they reduce something very complex and uncertain to something predictable and simplistic. We fill our lists with the things in our lives that we can readily control, but the idea that we are in control of most of our lives is an illusion.

The same is true on a social level. We tend to think that we’d have a better society if only we had the right politicians, policies or ideologies. But this also assumes a level of control over social issues that we don’t actually have. Many of our social problems are ingrained, complex and uncertain, and will not easily be solved by simplified narratives and quick fixes.

So how can we think about happiness and social progress differently? First, we need to understand what’s wrong with those lists inside our head.

When it comes to our happiness as individuals, we may achieve many of the items on our lists, but this won’t make us happy for long. We will still be insecure - fearful of disappointment, failure and loss - since that is the nature of being human. Vulnerability is built into everything we care about. As soon as we achieve the items on our list we’ll replace them with alternatives. We can always be more secure, stable and safe. We can always do better and improve our lot.

When we fall prey to the “I’d be happy if …” illusion, we fail to see the other things in life that really matter. This is how people can get to the end of their lives and regret that they’ve consistently made the wrong choices: working too much and not spending more time with their loved ones, for example; or living up to other people’s expectations rather than following their own dreams. The latter options are not as readily under our control but they are much more important in terms of how we should live - they are, ultimately, the things that are good for us and the people we care about.

So instead of seeing happiness as an outcome - something that comes from achieving the items on our list - we can see it as an ongoing process of discovering what really matters. We can do this by drawing on our psychological capacities for understanding: humility, curiosity and compassion.

First, instead of being certain about what makes us happy - a good relationship, job, home and so forth - we can be more humble about not knowing where life’s twists and turns will take us, and therefore what’s most important at each moment in time. Second, instead of urgently trying to achieve everything in our heads, we can be more curious about all the other things in life that don’t occupy our plans. Third, instead of blaming others or ourselves when things don’t go to plan, we can be more compassionate, learn from what has happened, and adapt.

With humility, curiosity and compassion, we can begin to discover what matters beyond our wish-lists. Of course, this process may not make us live happily ever after, but that’s not the point. The point is to try and improve our lives without losing sight of the things that are actually good for us, the people we care about, and the societies we want to build.

Once we’ve made this shift in our personal lives, we can begin to apply the same lessons on a social level too. In the same way that we have a list of things inside our heads about the things that make us happy, we also have a list of things that we think will make us all better off. For liberals, the list might include more public spending and equality of opportunity; for conservatives, the list might include limited government and more individual liberty. But if both sides can think about their views of social progress with less certainty, urgency and blame, and with more humility, curiosity and compassion, it might be possible to find more common ground.

As a result, instead of adopting simple solutions to complex social problems, we might start to understand their underlying causes, and how to create real, long-term social change. For example, crime policy needn’t be reduced to a battle between retributive policies like tougher prison sentences and rehabilitative policies like enhanced opportunities for ex-offenders. Instead, we can recognise the social causes of crime in the same way that we understand the social determinants of disease. We can understand that reducing crime in the long-term requires tackling its underlying causes such as poverty and inequality, as well as having more police on the streets.

The more we transform the way we think about happiness in this way, the more we can understand and transform society. Simplistic ideas about what makes us happy tempt us to adopt simplistic solutions to social ills. But with more openness and curiosity towards what really matters, we stand a better chance of overcoming the major personal and social challenges of our time.


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