Various academic institutions and government ministries in America and Britain have recently begun dedicating specific groups and centers to the study and propagation of happiness. The cynical might question whether that means by implication that that quest does not lie at the root of the government and university’s other pursuits, and the even more cynical mean even surmise that the degree to which a person or society proclaims its commitment to pursuing happiness generally lies in inverse relation to their own happiness and reasonable chances of attaining it. The most deeply cynical would likely conclude (and already have, in some cases) that a government-sponsored or -affiliated program to directly increase peoples’ happiness without even the usual tired proxies of “anti-poverty initiatives” or simply sweeping the trouble-makers and discontented off to the dungeons, will probably take the form of some massive leveraging of the population into a state of pharmaceutical dependency to the point where their eyes will turn red and they’ll clamor for Prozac like the old junkies in “Naked Lunch” of whom “you expect any moment a great blob of protoplasm will flop right out and surround the junk.”
On the other hand, this type of program, if you can call it that, represents for a lot of academics and government ministers, coming on the heels of the comprehensive écrasement of their own preferred infâme, the degraded reality of a shitty little collectivist fantasy, something of a cheap escape from an ideological dead-end. Having seen that the only people willing to devote themselves to an advanced state of North Korean progressiveness are North Koreans, many seem to have concluded that the problem isn’t just with the institutions, there’s just something wrong with people themselves. Some sort of campaign directed at unhappiness itself at the psychological and physiological levels gives them a way forward out of all of that–the triumph of Freud over Marx.
Not that I’m opposed to the idea that much of what we thought was external in terms of causing happiness or unhappiness is actually internal, or even some sort of coordinated central response to that idea, particularly if it doesn’t involve massive expropriations of property or the commencement of hostile operations against various domestic and foreign “enemies.” But it’s not as scientific as all that, because happiness is just a word, like “good,” and any attempt to delimit its terrain precisely will probably be just as unsuccessful as G.E. Moore’s attempt a century ago to wall the concept of “good” in an ethical sense off from any particular qualities possessed by things which are considered good.
The problem with happiness is not that it’s an elusive concept but that it’s a manifold one; people in using it mean a million different things by it, since it’s basically an all-purpose word for a positive or desirable state of being. The Chinese character for “happiness” (well, one of them) includes the the radical that denotes clothing, as well as those for a roof, a dwelling-place and a cultivated field, the implication being that the one is equivalent to the possession of the others. Which is not probably something that many members of our wealthy society evidently so much in need of guidance in attaining happiness could probably accept without reservation, though if it were true it would make the famous (or notorious) substitution of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence for Locke’s formula “of life, liberty and property” as the fundamental individual rights more interesting and less vacuous.
Nor, as much as this idea sells itself in the trappings of biology, and sometimes even with real biological research behind it, should one forget that natural selection, the fundamental concept driving most of biological science today, in its evaluative criteria doesn’t have anything to do intrinsically with happiness as such. Remember that what makes a being evolutionarily successful is not dying as readily as its fellow beings and being more reproductively fecund. While for most people being alive and mating is probably fairly essential to happiness, this makes no difference for the purposes of evolutionary theory, since survival and reproduction are important not as possible means but as ends in and of themselves. Which doesn’t prove anything by itself, except maybe that evolution isn’t about ultimate ends or goals, much less providing a Purpose in Life. It’s more just an observation about life, and fundamentally a pretty obvious one at that: those that are best at surviving (in a multi-generational sense) in the greatest numbers will tend to take over. Anyone that thinks this gives their life a direction probably shouldn’t be trusted or even touched by those around them, as they’re likely to be traitorous, careerist little bastards who don’t realize or don’t care that survival is no more inherently glorious than a half-drowned rat clinging to a a piece of driftwood. Give me the romantically self-destructive any day.
And I am now Jesus, as Bill Hicks would say.