David Malouf is one of Australia’s greatest living novelists. Among many other awards, his novel Remembering Babylon was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.
Recently, I discovered a short book of his titled The Happy Life: The Search for Contentment in the Modern World.
In it, he asks a question.
We are more prosperous than ever before. The material demons that haunted our ancestors — famine, filth, disease, and many others — are no longer a day-to-day problem for first-world citizens.
Yet, we are not happy. Not quite.
“We have nothing to complain of, we are ‘happy enough’; but we are not quite happy. We are still, somehow, unsatisfied, and this dissatisfaction, however vaguely conceived, is deeply felt.”
People may act happy on social media or in public, but their outward optimism is often a mask for thinly-hidden worries.
“If pressed, our friends or neighbours will probably tell us that what they are suffering from is ‘stress’; a sense, again vaguely conceived, that in the world about them, as they feel it and as it touches their lives, all is not well. They do not, in the end, feel secure or safe. … But what is it, in a society where so many of the conditions that might once have stood in the way of happiness have been removed or brought under control, that makes us so uneasy, so fearful that our lives are not yet safely in hand, that the future we are facing…?”
In this essay, I want to look at one distinction Malouf makes — the distinction between the good and the happy life.
Good + Good = Happy?
Malouf suggests that we often mistake the good life for the happy life:
“The advanced and highly managed societies we live in today tend to assume that the good life, which can to a large extent be provided for, is at least a step on the way to the happy life, in that it removes so many of the conditions that might work against it. But the good life and the happy life, as I suggested earlier, belong to separate and in some ways unconnected meanings of happy; one refers to material fortune, which can be objectively measured, and the other to an interior state that cannot.”
Notice what he says: unconnected.
Many of us, I suspect, see the happy life as connected to the good life. We imagine a staircase that, step by step, brings us closer to the happiness we seek.
College education? Check. Sex three to five times a week? Check. Salary above $70,000? Check. Eight hours of sleep? Check. Sex 3–5 times a week? Check. House in Portland? Check.
We just need to work a little harder — check a few more boxes — and we’ll get to where we want to go.
But does such a staircase exist? And, even if it does, will it take us where we want to go?
The Wrong Language
In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams captures the hilarity of trying to describe something complex and infinite in a single number. When the supercomputer Deep Thought is asked for the answer to the meaning of life, it responds, after 7.5 million years, with “42.”
Such numbers, suggests Malouf, can only tell us about the good life, not the happy life:
“When statisticians attempt to measure the ‘happiness coefficient’ of a society — how much for how many — it is really the good life they are measuring, in such indicators as equality of opportunity, justice before the law, civil liberty, civil safety, economic stability, employment, food and housing, and of course all these are contributors to individual happiness. (Whether or not they are essential to it is another matter.) The trouble is that the statisticians can deal only with what can be generalised and yields itself to number.”
That deserves to be repeated.
Statisticians can deal only with what can be generalised and yield itself to number.
When we take findings from research and try to apply them to our own lives, there’s a sense that the research never gives us the detail that we need. It can, perhaps, serve as a star to guide our actions, but we’ve still got to sail the damn ship ourselves — and it takes a lot more than a few damn stars in the night sky to sail it.
Statistics, which serve as the foundation of science, are powerful at a group level but start to fall apart when it comes to the individual — when it comes to you:
“But happiness is singular; each case speaks only for itself. It is also subjective. It belongs to the world of what is felt, what cannot be presented or numbered on a scale because it cannot be seen. It belongs to life as it is perceived from within by a single and singular woman or man, and we have only to consider for a moment how inconsistent, how contradictory and perverse any one of us can be, to see how difficult it is to enter another man’s feelings, especially about himself, and how impossible it might be, in the confusion and mess in there, for even the man himself to say, ‘I am happy.’”
There’s an irony here.
Despite all the wonderful things science can tell us, it cannot tell us about what goes on in our heads. Sure, it can tell us how neurons fire, how genes affect cognition, how biases hurt and help us, etc. but, because of its objectivity, science is forced to ignore the singular and the subjective.
It is forced to ignore you.
I am reminded of the philosopher and great historian of ideas Isaiah Berlin, who captures this tension between science and subjective experience in The Roots of Romanticism.
Describing the ideas of German philosopher Johann Hamann (a contemporary of Immanuel Kant), Berlin says:
“General propositions were baskets of an extremely crude kind. They used concepts and categories which differentiated that which was common to a great many things, common to many men of different sorts, common to many things of different sorts, common to various ages. What they left out, of necessity, because they were general, was that which was unique, that which was particular, that which was the specific property of this particular man, or this particular thing. And that alone was of interest, according to Hamann. If you wished to read a book, you were not interested in what this book had in common with other books. If you looked at a picture, you did not wish to know what principles had gone into the making of this picture, principles which had also gone into the making of a thousand other pictures in a thousand other ages by a thousand different painters. You wished to react directly, to the specific message, to the specific reality, which looking at this picture, reading this book, speaking to this man, praying to this god would convey to you.”
I’ve tried it. You can make a spreadsheet. In it, you can put “income above $70,000", “X good friends”, “8 hours of sleep”, “sex X times” and so on.
Ticking boxes may help you, even. It may make you more focused, improve your mood, make you feel in control.
But there are many things a spreadsheet will not bring.
It will not bring answers to all of your problems. Nor will it bring a permanent state of bliss: a life without stress, a life free from choices with no correct answer, a life without gentle regrets, or a life without terrible loss.
Life is not, and never will be, a spreadsheet.