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As Aristotle noted in the Nicomachean Ethics, we all want to live happy lives, but there is vast disagreement about what happiness consists in. Some say that the happy life is a life of pleasure, others that it consists in living virtuously (or morally). Yet others believe it involves the renunciation of earthly things in favor of intellectual and spiritual contemplation, and some declare that happiness is secured through money and honor. Subjectivists will claim that there is no answer to the question, "Which of these conceptions of happiness is the true conception?" because happiness is a purely subjective phenomenon. Your happiness will consist in whatever happens to make you happy, in whatever produces the highest levels of "subjective well-being" in you. John Schumaker's In Search of Happiness challenges this subjectivist view of happiness, particularly the idea that "consumer happiness" is the right kind of happiness to pursue.
Schumaker argues that those who conceive of happiness as "subjective well-being" -- comprised of the satisfaction of individual desires and the presence of high levels of positive affect (and minimal negative affect) -- have failed to recognize that genuine happiness likely consists of more than satisfaction and pleasure. At the very minimum, we must recognize that the quality of a person's happiness necessarily depends upon the kinds of values which inform a person's understanding of happiness and thus set the parameters for how one pursues the happy life. On Schumaker's view, the values of individualist, materialist cultures are far too shallow, amoral, and non-sustainable for their realization to lead to a genuinely happy life. Because of this, Schumaker declares that, "in reality I believe that a heart-felt happiness is beyond the reach of most people who regard consumer culture to be their psychological home" (287).
For those of us who live in consumer cultures and are nevertheless dismayed by the extremes to which materialist desires have warped the lives of many, we might readily agree with Schumaker's basic ideas. At the same time, of course, we might scoff at the thought that Schumaker's skeptical conclusion applies to us, too, as particular members of such a society: "That may be true of everyone else, but I am happy." Schumaker, however, would warn that we should not be overly confident that our own self-assessments constitute the final word on how happy we are. Our values may mislead us, and we may be deceived by them about what is of real value. We may innocently begin with a belief that we are entitled to the free "pursuit of happiness," but then shift from talk of this fundamental right to the belief that we are entitled to happiness itself, whomever we may be, and also that we are entitled to define happiness in any way we please. Schumaker disputes both of these latter claims.
First, as members of a culture, we rarely define our own happiness. Rather, we pursue happiness through the values embraced by our culture. If our culture's highest values include family, charity, and attunement to the environment, then we will generally identify happiness with becoming a good parent or spouse, and a helpful, socially involved citizen, who respects and reveres nature and engages in modest patterns of material consumption. On the other hand, if our culture values nothing more than financial success, the acquisition of material luxuries, and the primacy of the individual, then we will typically pursue happiness through the lens of these values instead. The problem, however, is that not all values lead equally to happiness. At some point, increases in income -- especially if this additional income is merely spent upon further material goods, such as bigger TV's, vehicles, and houses -- do not lead to increases in happiness, even when happiness is conceived (and studied) as subjective well-being. Furthermore, emphasizing the centrality of individual happiness, to the exclusion of concern for others, leads to narcissism and egoism which often leave the individual in an existential void, alienated from others, out of touch with nature (and perhaps polluting it), and compulsively obsessed with the self-defeating question, "Am I really happy now?" As John Stuart Mill once quipped, "Ask yourself whether you are happy and you cease to be so."
Schumaker spends the first several chapters of In Search of Happiness trying to figure out how we arrived at what he takes to be a bankrupt conception of happiness. Flirting somewhat with the "myth of the noble savage," Schumaker suggests that our early ancestors were likely happy beings who were well-adapted to their environment, although perhaps they did not reflect on the nature of happiness or whether they were truly happy. In line with Mill's adage, perhaps the noble savage was also a happy savage because she had no need to ask herself whether she was happy. Schumaker provides anthropological data, generally culled from his own experience, of happy societies which likely approximate the lifestyle of our hunter-gatherer forbears, such as the "tranquil and carefree" Ibans of Borneo (47) and the Aborigines of Australia (in Chapter 4).
In Schumaker's reconstruction of the development of modern civilization, happiness emerges as a powerful ideal as people settle down into permanent communities which, surprisingly, leads to distancing of happiness from everyday life. Schumaker suggests that the development of agriculture, which allowed cities of specialized laborers to emerge (leaving farmers in the countryside to provide food), gave rise to the concept of work, as something that one must begrudgingly labor at during the day so that one can be happy (or just eat) at night. Work, for most people most of the time, is not fun, and so the concept of work distances those who must work from the happiness that they are working toward.
Despite the fact that most cultures contained thinkers who developed philosophical and religious systems which connected happiness with virtuous living, Schumaker contends that the average person would have still thought that happiness was largely a matter of good fortune, or luck. In religious cultures during the Middle Ages, good fortune translates into divine favor, and true happiness -- in Judeo-Christian societies -- became something that could only be enjoyed in the afterlife, perhaps after much earthly suffering.
As we near the Enlightenment, we find that advances in technology and medicine provided the means to prevent much human suffering and to make luxury more readily available, and while eternal bliss (in some quarters) retained its appeal, the idea that "life is suffering" fell out of favor, since it seemed that there was much in this life to be enjoyed (and as some theologians would point out, it would be an insult to God not to take pleasure in the earthly existence we have been given). This gives rise to the idea that happiness is possible on earth, too, and given happiness' allure, we don't even need to be told that we should pursue it.
The question, however, is how to pursue -- and secure -- happiness. Schumaker deftly connects the shift toward earthly happiness to the rise of the self-help industry. In its earliest form, self-help generally involved traditional calls to virtuous living (such as in the original self-help book -- appropriately entitled Self-Help: With Illustrations of Character and Conduct by Samuel Smiles in 1859). Even Norman Vincent Peale's hugely popular The Power of Positive Thinking advised against self-absorption and egoism, and declared, "Nobody stands in control but God." But once the idea that we could think ourselves into happiness had been sprung (and as it is still sprung on us in books like The Secret), the need to cultivate virtue or to countenance God's power had become, at best, optional.
The reason why the pursuit of happiness has become, on Schumaker's view, a nearly impossible task in modern society is because the fast-paced, success-driven, materialistic lifestyle of most of its members has led to a fragmentation of healthy social institutions, healthy values, and thus healthy individuals. Schumaker summarizes the situation as follows: "All indications suggest that modern culture has become insane due to the fact that its patterns of indoctrination are causing the majority of people to become so removed from their core human needs that serious problems are being caused in terms of mental health, social well-being, physical fitness, and planetary survival" (139).
People are being alienated from "core human needs," according to Schumaker, not only through the obvious factors of materialism and heavy advertising (which attempts to persuade people that they will not be fully happy if they don't purchase whatever happens to be for sale), but also through the false promises of positive thinking and self-esteem, when these ideas are not grounded by concrete values and standards. Even the murderer, the jerk, and the fool can smile and be happy, if thinking makes it so.
Furthermore, the pressure to "succeed" makes it difficult even for people to feel good about themselves, when their dedication to a single aspect of life leads them to forsake all others (such as family and relaxation), and often leads people to conceive of everything as, more or less, a business transaction, which is only worthwhile if there is something "in it for them." Borrowing a phrase from William Matthews, Schumaker characterizes the financial success that may result from this kind of life as "unsuccessful success" (199).
The final chapters of Schumaker's lambasting of modern happiness attempt to find a corrective for the warped values of consumer societies by examining several "Happy Societies," including African and South American societies in which the people are generally happy despite great poverty, as well as the Ladahkis of Tibet and the Samoans, all of whose happiness is bolstered by their intimate and supportive social networks and their non-materialistic values.
Environmental concerns never seem to be far from the source of Schumaker's critique of consumer society, and he adopts the notion of "sustainable happiness" from Catherine O'Brien in order to drive home his claim that true (lasting) happiness must include a moral dimension (280). In order to ground happiness in appropriate (and sustainable) values, we must adopt a "contrarian" attitude toward many of the values of a materialist society and reject many of the things that Madison Avenue would have us believe will make us happy. Schumaker refers, for example, to the Mennonites as a paradigm -- within Western culture -- of a group that has managed to strike a balance with nature and whose way of life seems to foster genuine happiness without all the bells and whistles of modern gadgetry. While the call to get "back to nature" has been made before, and while it can sound dreamy and insensible, Schumaker makes a strong case against the values of consumer culture. If he is correct, then real happiness can only be achieved through the adoption of reasonable and sustainable values and through efforts to realize these values in the face of market forces that would have us simply work ourselves to death, and then spend the money on the biggest coffin we can afford.
© 2007 Matthew Pianalto
Matthew Pianalto (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Arkansas. His personal webpage is http://comp.uark.edu/~mpianal and his work on happiness can be found at http://vaindesires.blogspot.com.