Happiness is a kind of Dodo, an odd bird, though certainly not extinct. It means as many different things as there are people, though our predilection for collective experience has shaped a view toward happiness that we generally agree on. Departures from this are seen as just that – alternative, avant ‘something’, deviant – indeed that is where these concepts come from. But we have given the pursuit of happiness such a central role in our public and private lives, it has become the thing we guard the most as well as infringe upon most regularly. The very flexibility of happiness in this regard seems to be its key and its lock, if you will.
As we often ignore the big problems in favor of smaller, more manageable ones, happiness can be difficult to deal with. Not being happy, per se, but defining what it is and going on from there. Simply because the royal We have attached many things to this idea or achieving it (a combination of property and resources that equal a certain level of luxury) those things must then be compromised as we pivot toward becoming more planetary minded. But does this mean we will have to compromise our levels of happiness? This is a high-minded question, surely, weighted-down with the concrete boots of bourgeois comforts that surround us, that make happiness, like most other things, needlessly more complicated than it needs to be.
But it’s the tale of the green tape, right? If we could just cut our consumption of food, fuel and shelter by eighty per cent and not be concerned about its impact on our happiness, the prosperous way down would lose both its spartan implications and its sex appeal and hence, become a limp marketing tool. It would seem to imply that we would become ambivalent about our self-preservation, which is impossible. So what are we trying to preserve if not our most flexible characteristic, i.e., our definition our happiness?
Via, the new economics foundation has released its second Happy Planet Index, an attempt to quantify happiness in terms of some factors more tangible than GDP, but also as a function of resource consumption. This is interesting on its own and represents multiple philosophical tangents at once. One way of getting to the point of being able to perceive and then opt for the reality of less is to release ourselves of some of the constraints we have battened to our happiness.
Whatever it is, SUVs, suburbs, exurbs, plastics, a forty-hour work week with two weeks of vacation per year, a cellphone plan as individual as you are, the idea has grown more rather than less contained, simply because of all the pre-requirements.
The ways we use happiness to sell ourselves products bares a rather perverse relationship to the methods we use to shield our delicate selves from some of the unsavory things necessary to live as we do. What we are doing is protecting our happiness as if it were a sort of achievement in and of itself, and not a journey that could entail many things. That could even be quite different and nonetheless, still make us happy.
After all, if we can compare ourselves to others and imagine how things could be worse, can’t we also imagine how they could better?