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Ukraine, Nigeria, Egypt, Syria, Somalia, North Korea: Do we deserve to be happy?

Our Sunday Comics columnist on Mardi Gras 2014 and his experience - rather than pursuit - of happiness

Jim Gabour
9 March 2014

There is a lot of misery out there.  I cannot read the Real News section of the print newspapers I get every morning any more.  I put them aside until later in the day, when presumably I will develop a harder soul and be able to digest all the pain the species is inflicting on itself moment by moment, worldwide.  I do not enjoy being miserable, or ingesting misery as a steady diet.  It does my soul harm.

I want to be happy.  I do.  And I have a legal right to that state of bliss, don’t I?

In any case, up until now I always thought that I had been taught that this was true, from elementary school onwards.  There it is in the all-important American Constitution, which states very clearly that I have an “unalienable right” to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”.  

Uh oh.  Is that the trick?  Did the those supposedly high-minded shapers of the US Constitution put one over on unaware taxpayers for these last three centuries? 

Reading the document again, in light of my own 2014 cynicism, the question that could be made is:  do we have no right to actual happiness, or just to the pursuit?

The website How Stuff Works also has shown an interest in this question: 

Because happiness was widely considered a natural state for humans in the Jeffersonian era, it was believed to be what God intended and therefore deserved protection. The word's proximity to two other natural rights -- liberty and life -- demonstrates that Jefferson found happiness just as important. The legal and social frameworks provided by the Declaration and the Constitution are meant to create that protection. . .

 

When he wrote the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson avoided defining happiness, choosing to leave it to the individual to determine his or her own meaning of the word. He also may have realized that it's not enough to want to be happy: The path to happiness must be unobstructed, as long as it doesn't interfere with another's happiness, of course.

But The Atlantic believes “There's More to Life Than Being Happy” and uses Viktor Frankel's bestselling 1946 book, Man's Search for Meaning to take their argument even further, and decry the “pursuit”:

"To the European," Frankl wrote, "it is a characteristic of the American culture that, again and again, one is commanded and ordered to 'be happy.' But happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to 'be happy.'"

 

According to Gallup , the happiness levels of Americans are at a four-year high -- as is, it seems, the number of best-selling books with the word "happiness" in their titles. At this writing, Gallup also reports that nearly 60 percent all Americans today feel happy, without a lot of stress or worry. . . On top of that, the single-minded pursuit of happiness is ironically leaving people less happy, according to recent research. "It is the very pursuit of happiness," Frankl knew, "that thwarts happiness." 

The pursuit is thwarting happiness?  Hmmm, I have had experience with this recently.  But I was not pursuing, I was just happy, and witnessing the thwarting of un-happiness.  Which also made me happy.

Just this past Tuesday I was in that blissful state, and my happiness was documented.  It was Mardi Gras Day, I live in New Orleans, I have wonderfully creative and intelligent friends, and we enjoy each other’s company immensely.  We joyfully share our Carnival experience, costuming and parading and laughing.

But then there they were again.  These four dozen or so large strong-arm goons from Texas drive a bus into New Orleans for Carnival weekend every year, to stand on Bourbon street and in front of St Louis Cathedral to order “Catholics to Hell”, and generally rant about having, or not having, a good time.  They seem to actually have a pretty good time themselves, doing their rehearsed act.  Completely worthless and without lives, these base creatures trundle onto the streets of my hometown to tell me I have no right at all to positive feelings.  For them, happiness should be and is beyond the realm of possibility for individuals with life values like my own.  And happiness should also be unavailable to many many more who are completely different from myself.  And different from them, of course.  That being the working point.

They use multiple megaphones to loudly announce that not only are Muslims and Democrats going to hell side by side, but “Sports Nuts” and “P.K.s” (???) are also doomed to eternal damnation.  Even in misspellings they get their digs in, berating “Evilutionists” and “Adulters” and “Shak Up Sweety’s” as all doomed.  I myself have mentioned, and castigated, this batch of thugs before.  They are all beefy club-bouncer sorts, member/employees of a very intimidating group of para-Christian bullies who now go under the commercial brand of “Official Street Preachers”.   The pix are from just this past week.

Jim1.jpg

But in their own twisted way, the demented ninny preachers have also provided happiness.  Indeed I sought them out and had some of my best laughs of the Mardi Gras season seeing what they had spawned as a reaction to their blastingly loud sermon of unhappiness and imminent hellfire. 

The happy people ran alongside the preachers.  Dozens more of them, with preprinted signs and their own megaphones extolling the joys of being happy, and the results of such adamant insistence on the rules for unhappiness.  My favorite parading placard read:   “After the Rapture I’m Taking Your Car.” 

Jim2.jpg

Notice that the sign-bearer here is carrying a holster of mace gas, in case someone gets too unhappy about his message.  But the pro-happy folks are smiling.

Of course this is all happening in a town with one take-away booze-window chainstore called “Huge Ass Beers”, and another named Tropical Isle selling “Hand Grenades”, a drink actually, which has five shots of booze.

Jim3.jpg

OK, yes yes, so that is just one benign cultural example.  One that bothers me of course because I just lived through it.  But I also, just this past week, was faced with another example, this time in music and in video. 

Singer/songwriter Pharrell Williams has had over 76 million YouTube views of his tune “Happy”, such a great positive reaction that his site now promotes “24 hours of happy”, and the song is part of the award-winning soundtrack to the animated feature “Despicable Me 2”.  Oddly enough nothing really happens in the music video, just a lot of smiling people on the street lip-synching a line or two of the song, or just the word “happy”.

Then there is Kanye West’s brand new misogynistic, self-deluded, puerile lyrics and video called “Bound 2”,  31 million views.  Besides overtly stating the physical acts that will make him happy, and the amounts of bling that are the necessary accoutrements of that state, the singer crudely and awkwardly humps – the only descriptive verb that seems to fit -- a nude model while she is lying backwards on a motorcycle that reels through classic American landscape panoramas.  And through greenscreen footage of wild stallions carousing in the wild.  Subtle.  Interestingly, even in what is labeled as the “explicit version” of West’s vid, the model’s nipples are electronically erased, although her breasts are the prominent feature of the clip.

This video is an icon for deep and lasting unhappiness.  Get a life, Kanye.

I can only think back just a few months again when the very same “Happy” Pharrell Williams above joined Robin Thicke in the playful, though aesthetically questionable, “Blurred Lines” video, featuring  three mostly nude women.  Chests unobscured.  Millions upon millions upon millions of views.  At least everybody in that vid seemed, uhhhh… happy. 

Kanye, and his purported partner, seemed at best challenged in their onscreen encounter.   

Even the venerable Rolling Stones wrote a tune called “Happy”, but equated the feeling with love rather than sex or money:

Well I never kept a dollar past sunset,
It always burned a hole in my pants.
Never made a school mama happy,
Never blew a second chance.
I need a love to keep me happy…

Though of course at the time each of the members of that band was a millionaire with a dozen supermodels in tow.  I am but, as Jonathan Swift would say, a “poetaster” on the subject.   There is a movie however, just out, called “The Happy Movie”, that significantly explores the subject at length, and in more depth than I can attempt here.

But there are facts.  A few years ago, faced with the multiple polls that gave evidence that money was the primary determinant of modern happiness, The New York Times tried to quantify matters, and published an article asking “How much money do you need to be happy? Think about it. What’s your number? …”  So a bank balance will do it?  Create it?

But The Huffington Post, in a post entitled “The Habits Of Supremely Happy People”, found other traits and sources of happiness:

Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology, theorizes that while 60 percent of happiness is determined by our genetics and environment, the remaining 40 percent is up to us…  Joyful folk have certain inclinations that add to their pursuit of meaning -- and motivate them along the way.

 

They surround themselves with other happy people . . . it’s as simple as it sounds: just trying to be happy can boost your emotional well-being, according to two studies recently published in The Journal of Positive Psychology. Those who actively tried to feel happier in the studies reported the highest level of positive moods, making a case for thinking yourself happy.

 

Seligman summed up perhaps the greatest characteristic of the pessimist in one of his most acclaimed books, Learned Optimism:  “The defining characteristic of pessimists is that they tend to believe bad events will last a long time, will undermine everything they do, and are their own fault.

Which rather brings me back around to the pessimistic street preachers, vs my friends the optimistic Carnival paraders.  We are happier, I do believe, and because of that happiness we are also healthier.

And in my marching club, La Société de Sainte Anne, we even pass from this earth happy.  Every year we carry the ashes of members who have passed in the preceding year in our Mardi Gras Day parade, letting the departed savor the positive energy of their families and comrades one last time.  We laugh at loss.

We do not pursue happiness, Thomas Jefferson, we merely leave unhappiness behind.

Can there be a green populist project on the Left?

Many on the Left want to return to a politics based on class, not populism. They point to Left populist parties not reaching their goals. But Chantal Mouffe argues that as the COVID-19 pandemic has put the need for protection from harm at the top of the agenda, a Left populist strategy is now more relevant than ever.

Is this an opportunity for a realignment around a green democratic transformation?

Join us for a free live discussion on Thursday 22 October, 5pm UK time/12pm EDT.

Hear from:

Paolo Gerbaudo Sociologist and political theorist, director of the Centre for Digital Culture at King’s College London and author of ‘The Mask and the Flag: Populism and Global Protest’ and ‘The Digital Party: Political Organisation and Online Democracy’, and of the forthcoming ‘The Great Recoil: Politics After Populism and Pandemic’.

Chantal Mouffe Emeritus Professor of Political Theory at the University of Westminster in London. Her most recent books are ‘Agonistics. Thinking the World Politically’, ‘Podemos. In the Name of the People’ and ‘For a Left Populism’.

Spyros A. Sofos Researcher and research coordinator at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Lund University and author of ‘Nation and Identity in Contemporary Europe’, ‘Tormented by History’ and ‘Islam in Europe: Public Spaces and Civic Networks'.

Chair: Walid el Houri Researcher, journalist and filmmaker based between Berlin and Beirut. He is partnerships editor at openDemocracy and lead editor of its North Africa, West Asia project.

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