Which is rich?

In his Quarterly Essay on “The Happy Life,” David Malouf argues that a concept of limitless happiness has somehow infiltrated our collective soul, to our detriment.

Among the many pronouncements that fell from the Treasurer's lips on Tuesday night, one that seems to have stuck in the collective craw is his notion of $150,000 as the line between rich and poor. People on or over that line protest that they are not rich, that they too find it hard to make ends meet.  Perhaps rich is relative; they are only rich compared to the bottom 85% of Australian households. 

Today's Australian has an interview with the Fowlers, a couple on the 'wealth' line. Mr Fowler says: "We've accumulated a nice house full of stuff over the last ten years, but there's no way in the world we're wealthy."  His comment is revealing. An outsider might reasonably assume that in our country, a nice house full of stuff is regarded as both a sign of wealth and a measure (if not a means) of happiness.  Yet someone who possesses such a house, indeed has spent a decade of his life pursuing it, still feels want. Astounding, given that his relative wealth in Australia is nothing to his relative wealth 'in the world.'

'Feels' is the operative word here: are the rich really rich if they don't 'feel' rich? If they feel pressure, want, status anxiety? If they feel supply is unequal to their demand? Given that they're already in the top 15th percentile, a nicer house more full of stuff is clearly not going to make the Fowlers feel better. Something else is going on here. Wealth, like happiness, is qualitative, not quantitative.  Numbers don't guarantee it, and even lines around it, as Malouf suggests, don't guarantee that the quantity measured off will be enough. Maybe - and we have good evidence - there's no such thing as enough.

Man was made for joy and woe

Thinking more about goodness, I probably need to qualify my earlier thoughts. A careful distinction needs to be drawn between true comedy, which involves restoration of good and a happy ending after sorrow, and narratives which are merely saccharine, in which no restoration is needed. Unmitigated goodness in fiction feels false.  Unshaded sunshine has no contours.  Even in children's books, there is something eery about stories with no shadow, no threat to happiness, nothing to be overcome; Pollyanna, that avatar of the bright side, exercised her trademark optimism in the face of unusual misfortune and distress.  I'm thus brought back to Hopkins' glory in dappled things, and (to change the metaphor) to William Blake's famous song of “Innocence”:

It is right it should be so;
Man was made for joy and woe;
And when this we rightly know,
Thro' the world we safely go.

Joy and woe are woven fine,
A clothing for the soul divine.
Under every grief and pine
Runs a joy with silken twine.

A character in All's well that ends well has the line: “The web of our life is a mingled yarn, good and ill together.” According to Blake, not only truth but safe passage rests in this knowledge. Not only a better reflection of the way life is, but the secret of a way to live. In this sense, comedy is more instructive than tragedy, less spectacle than physic. The silver-lined cloud has become a tawdry image of wishful thinking, but the silken twine that runs under every grief is a lifeline, a saving grace. The title of Shakespeare's comedy might seem a toothless truism in the face of real sorrow, but it is in fact a great truth. All's well that ends well. The happy ending works backwards, not to erase suffering, but (to change the metaphor back) to illuminate it. Though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, all's well.

The happiness project

English novelist Jenny Diski offers a fairly scathing review of Gretchen Rubin's The Happiness Project, pointing out that originally ‘happy’ meant something more like lucky, as in ‘happenstance.’ The pursuit of happiness is a fairly modern project, consisting, it seems, largely of positive thinking and to-do lists (what about to be lists?). 

Rebecca's comment prompted me to think about what constitutes happiness in the fictional worlds of different authors, Shakespeare’s in particular.  Even though most of Polonius’ advice is meant to be derided, his memorable line “to thine own self be true” seems to strike a chord with Shakespeare's own thinking. In the world of the plays, happiness seems to be constituted mostly in the idea of individual freedom and personal authenticity. So argues my doctoral supervisor Peter Holbrook in his recent book Shakespeare's Individualism.

Acquiring or relinquishing happiness is not necessarily the nerve centre of a story, but it seems ubiquitous enough to be worth studying. So what about others - Tolstoy? Hardy? Faulkner? Woolf? I just have this hunch that literature is a better clue to happiness - getting it, understanding it, understanding that we can never really get it - than the projects of pop psych.

Mor(e)on happiness

The latest Harper's has an interesting article about psychology and the happiness industry.  When Freud visited the US in 1909, he came “to the land of unbridled optimism to inform its inhabitants that a fragile equipoise between repression and abandon was the best they could hope for,” writes psychologist Gary Greenburg in ‘The War on Unhappiness.’ A century after Freud's visit, Greenburg attends a psych conference at which Freud's pessimism is laughed out the door by a new breed of evidence-based happiness gurus who are contributing to a state-endorsed project of human flourishing, starting with trauma-resistant soldiers. Maybe it’s not as alarming as Greenburg makes it sound, but there is much to be wary of in the notion of happiness as a means, rather than an indicator, of flourishing. Not unlike the craze for laughter yoga, which attempts to harness the medicinal effects of laughter without recourse to jokes. 

What's more encouraging is this article from the NY Times suggesting that happiness in African Americans has measurably improved with the gradual (if stunted) improvement in social equality and civil rights over the past five decades.  Happiness flowing in this direction seems more plausible than the tautological ‘winners are winners’ philosophy of the state-supported gurus.

Happiness is...

... reading Pride and Prejudice, which I've just done for the squillionth time. What sprang out at me this time was how much of the book is about happiness. The word ‘happiness’ appears 74 times and the word 'happy’ 84 times in the book. We tend to think that Jane Austen's all about social mores or moralities, and the correction of behaviour through painful experience, but I wonder if she sees these simply as structures put in place to secure or guarantee individual happiness. Charlotte Lucas sacrifices happiness in order to obtain the socially valuable goods of household and status. Elizabeth on the other hand rejects the same offer of social stability in favor of personal happiness and is ultimately rewarded. Her resolve to act in a manner that will constitute her own happiness without reference to Lady Catherine's strict preservation of the distinctions of rank makes her an appealing heroine and ultimately delivers Mr Darcy into her hands.  In Sense and Sensibility, Elinor's constant caution is a means of guarding her personal happiness, rather than simply of obeying social codes, and Marianne provides an example of the pain that ensues when codes are flouted and happiness is squandered on undeserving objects.