Dissecting the formula for happiness
“Who is rich?” asks Simeon Ben Zoma, a second-century Palestinian Jewish sage. His answer: “A person who rejoices in his portion.” Other than in fleeting moments of elation, satisfaction with what we have is the best we can hope for in life. For many it amounts to being happy.
Contemporary surveys that seek to chart the happiness of individuals almost invariably come to this conclusion. Neither the rich nor the mighty, not even the wise, are necessarily happy because of their wealth, their power or their insights. Those who are contented with their lot in life usually are.
Critics of happiness polls tend to dismiss claims of being satisfied with one’s lot as illegitimate. Thus, for example, Michael Booth in his book about Scandinavia, The Almost Nearly Perfect People, calls the concluding chapter of the section on Denmark, “The Happiness Delusion.”
Denmark, like the other Scandinavian countries, ranks high in virtually every poll that asks individuals to indicate their level of personal well-being and happiness. However, Booth ascribes it not to incontrovertible evidence but to the Danes’ propensity for denial — about their poor health, their creaking public services, increasing gang criminality, economic and social divide, etc.
A Danish journalist told Booth that in her country it’s shameful to be unhappy. The positive answers pollsters get are the results of embarrassment rather than truth. Booth writes that he hasn’t yet met a Dane who when confronted face to face really agrees with the rosy picture of the surveys.
Reviewing a couple of books on the same subject in Spiked online journal, Kathryn Ecclestone, a professor of education at the University of Sheffield in England, writes that “the happiness and well-being industry is suffused with a ‘morality of low expectations.’ ” The reason for it is “diminished social and political aspirations.”
She argues that, instead of trying to change the world for the better, many choose to accept things as they are and pretend to be happy. They thus collude with the forces that oppress them. Rather than wanting to challenge that which seems too overwhelming they acquiesce by feigning satisfaction.
Ecclestone’s critique and the critique of the authors she cites amount to an indictment of the bourgeois lifestyle.
While Hillary Clinton will try to persuade Americans that if they elect her tomorrow she’ll make it even easier for the middle classes — the bourgeoisie — to live in relative comfort and be happy, many academics and others, especially but not exclusively on the left, believe that only a revolution against the existing and crumbling capitalist order will open the eyes of the masses and stop them from denying the truth about their less than satisfactory economic and cultural circumstances.
By viewing their lives more critically instead of denying the truth people stand a better chance of actually living to the full.
By all accounts, Ben Zoma wasn’t a social reformer. But he was a disciple of the Hebrew prophets and had learned from them that society must indeed change to be viable. Prophetic criticism of the abuse of power and the exploitation of the weak was often much more incisive than the arguments of Ecclestone and her sources. Yet that didn’t prevent prophets from urging us to be grateful for the gifts God bestows on us and regard ourselves as happy even in this imperfect world.
We who in our time try to heed the teachings of Scripture and live by Ben Zoma’s formula neither delude ourselves nor are we the victims of the manipulation of powerful masters. We’re ordinary people grateful for what life has given us and able to celebrate it. This is realism, not delusion.