Happiness is a goal worth pursuing – but it needs a feminist reboot
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Happiness is a delusion and its pursuit demeaning folly. Nietzsche, at least, thought so. “Mankind does not strive for happiness; only the Englishman does that,” he wrote. He was teasing those English utilitarians, for whom the greatest happiness of the greatest number was the ultimate good.
Ten years ago I met an Englishman striving for happiness. The LSE economist Richard Layard was then the government’s “happiness tsar”. He thought happiness was desirable, measurable and attainable. Inspired by a recent fact-finding mission to Bhutan, he argued Britain should emulate the Himalayan kingdom, whose government tries to maximise GNH, or gross national happiness. Layard called for cognitive behavioural therapy courses that would cost £750 for each person. These would pay for themselves in money saved on incapacity benefits and lost tax receipts. Everybody – especially the Treasury – would be happy.
As you’ll have noticed, Layard failed. Britain in 2018 is, if anything, more miserable than a decade ago. In the interim, he was ousted as happiness tsar, while global financial crisis produced spiralling debt, mounting insecurity and the gig economy. It also led to Tory governments slashing social care and mental health services. It’s almost as if the Conservatives surreptitiously appointed a misery tsar to boost national woe. If so, give them a bonus: they’re doing a bang-up job.
The private pursuit of happiness, though, has carried on regardless in that decade. But here’s the twist. It has become a tyrannising nightmare, wherein images of others’ social-media-performed wellbeing produce the most characteristic emotion of our age, namely Fomo (fear of missing out). Happiness is today something individuals seek but rarely attain. Emblematically, we buy cars in order to maximise freedom and happiness, only to find ourselves achieving the opposite: sitting in gridlock, going nowhere but giving school kids asthma.
How did we get this way? A Marxist psychoanalyst who preached sexual liberation, invented the orgone accumulator and wound up dying in jail only to be posthumously championed by Kate Bush and satirised by Woody Allen is arguably to blame. In his splendidly splenetic 1945 essay Listen, Little Man!, Wilhelm Reich wrote: “For 25 years I’ve been speaking and writing in defence of your right to happiness ... No one else is to blame for your slavery but yourself. No one else, I say.” In the 50s and 60s his call for authenticity and sexual fulfilment struck a chord, especially with counter-cultural blokes bent on exercising their right to rip off the corset from straight society and realise their hedonic birthright. Some eminent males stepped inside Reich’s “orgone accumulator” (essentially a metal-lined wooden cupboard insulated with steel wool) to see if it really improved their orgiastic potency, as he promised. “Your intrepid reporter experienced spontaneous orgasm, no hands,” wrote William Burroughs. If any women visitors got the same hands-free bliss, perhaps they could email their accounts – anonymously if necessary – to the letters editor.
The history of happiness since the war can be traced from Wilhelm Reich’s orgone accumulator to Harvey Weinstein’s sexual predation. To be happy and sexually rampant were for Reich imperatives, and nobody’s feelings, especially those of mere women, should diminish one’s entitlement. And what Reich started has its unhappy ending in Donald Trump. How to be a success and get happy? “Don’t be nice, be a killer,” Trump told his TV apprentices. Forget CBT, the way to boost jobs and the economy is for everyone to unleash their most ruthless, selfish selves; and the way to get laid is to think of number one. Nice guys, after all, finish last – in business as in bed.
What happened was that the countercultural liberation of eros got co-opted by conservative forces. Liberty, authenticity and the right to happiness were buzzwords of Reagan and Thatcher, and what the philosopher Herbert Marcuse called repressive desublimation (whereby a society devoted to self-gratification is easier to control) became ubiquitous. We forgot the wisdom of Epicurus who said he would be happy with barley cake and water (wisdom echoed by Layard who argued that happiness is inversely related to wealth beyond a certain level of income because of the declining marginal utility of getting richer).
The Swedish psychologist Carl Cederström calls what Reich urged the “happiness fantasy”. In his new book of the same name, he argues the deluded, selfish and individualistic pursuit of power, sexual conquest and money is a male mastubatory fantasy that needs a feminist retool (if that’s not the wrong word).
What Cederström proposes in effect is a happiness revolution for the #MeToo era. We need to liberate ourselves from the idea that happiness can only be an individual struggle to realise one’s authentic self. Become, if you dare, a loser – if to lose means to lose yourself in others and realise your mutual dependency on them.
“Does this sound naive?” asks Cederström on the last page. “Of course it does.” It also sounds like a blessed relief from the endless labour of pursuing something and never reaching it. And an antidote to a culture where entitled men exploit vulnerable women’s bodies as part of their inalienable right to be happy.
Cederström’s new happiness fantasy sounds rather like what Layard found in Bhutan, a land with less status anxiety, focused on a moral rather than materialist ethos. Arguably it’s time to make happiness a goal of public policy again, but only if we reconfigure it in a less self-centred and masculinist way.
There’s another possibility. Perhaps Nietzsche was right and striving for happiness is misplaced. Freudian shrink Adam Phillips once told me: “[I]f you have a sense of reality you are going to be really troubled.” Certainly, if you read the news and are happy, there is something wrong with you. Viewed thus, to be happy is decadent, to narcotise oneself to others’ suffering.
“Pack up your troubles and just get happy,” Judy Garland sang while Reich’s orgone accumulator was in its 50s heyday. In the next world, maybe. In this one, it’s not so easy.
• Stuart Jeffries is a Guardian feature writer
Social policy and administration
Health & wellbeing
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