Condemned to Joy?

(Colin Bell)

This article by the French philosopher Pascal Bruckner argues that the view of happiness has become skewed in Western thought. We’ve moved from seeing the pleasures or sorrows of this world as “but phantoms” compared to the hereafter to what happens now being all that counts. Technology and progress have meant that we can master the planet and fix our ills – at least in theory.

More recent trends just compound this. We have become consumers able to buy what we want, and buy it now on credit, and individuals, responsible for our own happiness. “We now owe it to ourselves to be happy, and we are expected to display our happiness far and wide.” Not being happy – or indeed well – is a social failing for which we feel guilt and cannot expect sympathy.

Bruckner’s article, as so many like it, is one of bold brush strokes, slightly oversimplifying the picture. And in one respect, I’d disagree with him somewhat. Though we are certainly increasingly individualised as people, paradoxically when it comes to happiness most people seem to have high expectations of what government and society in general should be providing.

His thesis could shed some light on the other main paradox of happiness. If we have all this “stuff” and an increased standard of living, why are we no happier than we were in the 1950s? Perhaps the “ceaseless work and effort” to achieve happiness counteracts the benefits. Or it could be a sense that we have some innate subconscious sense that things are out of kilter.

The trends, however, are clear. The notion of happiness he argues we have currently seems as though it would be unsustainable even if we weren’t facing everything else. But given that we need to put the effort into trying to help people find alternative goals: a version of happiness which both works and is genuine. This of course is somewhere religious belief can assist: faith and the various teachings provide an alternative set of places to seek meaning, in the divine and in better relationships with fellow humanity and nature for instance.

From the Christian perspective, the term “joy” (which appears in the title of the article but nowhere else) as distinct from “happiness” gives some insight. It is perhaps best defined as an inner sense of well-being and being in the right place, with respect to God and others. It can be experienced even in the face of suffering, due to a longer-term view of life, and the sense of the presence of God and of others through adversity.

There are clear equivalent ideas in other faiths, of course, together with the general idea of “resilience”. But however the individual perceives it, these types of inner strength need to be cultivated to prepare us for the changes lying ahead.

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