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Lesson of Economic Crisis: Don’t Worry, Be Happy?

With typical Gallic insouciance, French President Nicolas Sarkozy recently suggested that we have been using the wrong index to assess national progress, proposing that social and economic advances should no longer be measured by production indicators and growth statistics but by the degree and quantity of happiness enjoyed in the body politic. The financial model, he argued, generates risk and uncertainty and obliges us “to imagine other models” of social progress.

Sarkozy commissioned a report by two celebrated economists, Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen, which urged that people chart the relative proportions of negative and positive feelings in their lives and, by shifting our perspective “from measuring economic production to measuring people’s well-being,” take steps to assure a favorable balance of emotional trade. According to these luminaries, a redistribution of income coupled with a diminished work week implies “an increase in one’s standard of living” and thus augments the quantum of available happiness.

Sarkozy’s happiness gambit and his economists’ vaunted report are clearly marred by two serious omissions in their neglect of undoubted authorities on the subject of happiness. I am referring, of course, to Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen, whose popular 1944 song, “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate The Positive,” was persuasively crooned by Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters, and Bobby McFerrin, whose 1988 hit, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” inspired by a favorite aphorism of the 20th century Indian mystic Meher Baba, struck a resonant chord around the world.

The Mercer/Arlen team informs us that we’ve “got to accentuate the positive/Eliminate the negative/Latch on to the affirmative,” otherwise “pandemonium/Liable to walk upon the scene.” Positive thinking does the trick. McFerrin, for his part, opines that “in every life we have some trouble,” but “when you worry you make it double.” The solution is evident: just don’t worry and the needle will immediately swing to the higher numbers on the smiley dial.

It couldn’t be simpler. The happiness bonzos have it down pat. Merely plaster the fridge door with emoticons and everything will be hunky dory. Why couldn’t Sarkozy, Stiglitz, and Sen think of this gloriously efficient answer to the problem of human despondency and resentment? Or consult the myriad self-help books associated with the trendy Positive Psychology movement that tell us how to achieve happiness formulaically, like Martin Seligman’s Authentic Happiness with its ludicrous “happiness formula” (H = S + C + V, or Happiness = genetic Set Point + experiential Conditions + Voluntary activities) or Tal Ben-Shahar’s Happier with its six happiness tips? One recalls the Gene Wilder film, The World’s Greatest Lover, in which the hero performs the sex act according to the numbered instructions in his cherished manual. More to the point is the sad admission of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s protagonist in his dystopian novel We, who laments that even in a supposedly perfect state, “we have not yet found an absolute, precise solution to the problem of happiness.”

Whether he knows it or not, Sarkozy is reviving the hoary Benthamite calculus, proposing a modern version of nineteenth century utilitarianism as encapsulated in the formula: society should strive for “the greatest happiness of the greatest number.” Utilitarianism comes in various flavors. As the principle of utility (a term Bentham derives from David Hume), it advises that we act in ways that will produce the greatest amount of possible pleasure or happiness in the world at large. Eventually the principle came to refer to acts that engender the most possible “good” in the world, thus assuming a strongly ethical rather than a faintly hedonistic character. Subject to the influence of the contemporary English philosopher G.E. Moore among others, this movement flourished under the rubric of “ideal utilitarianism,” the emphasis resting on virtue in lieu of gratification. In its American form, as developed by Ralph Barton Perry, William James, and John Dewey, the utility principle is construed in terms of “interest” rather than pleasure or virtue, that is, the focus falls on particular, practical acts judged to bring about the maximum good in the “interest” of society as a functioning structure.

In its Sarkozian transcription, however, the principle has experienced a radical and absurd metamorphosis, a symptom of the utopian prepossession of the modern mind, referring not primarily to the abolition of suffering and privation, or to the provision of a living wage for honest work, or the teaching of virtue, but to a pleasant and carefree existence with access to all the amenities, as provided by the all-beneficent state. Such a program is only the expression of what Soeren Kern calls “bread and circuses in the form of ‘cradle-to-grave’ social welfare entitlements,” predicated upon a shrinking and pampered labor force —happiness on a silver trowel, so to speak.

How different is this from just popping a few recreational, mood-mediating or happiness enhancing drugs on a daily basis? Psycho-stimulants like cocaine, the amphetamines, opium, Prozac, cannabis, mescaline, and other doors-of-perception substances would have us all swooning in a trance of re-encephalized bliss. Or would they? Their survival value would be no higher than the doctrines of the nanny state reducing its citizens to a level of appetitive dependence on an external benefactor. There may be a place for fairy godparents, but it is not in the real world.

Perhaps “the pursuit of happiness” was a more plausible enterprise back in 1776, though plainly Thomas Jefferson entertained a less pretentious conception of happiness than that of the French president — or, come to think of it, than the asininities of the NEF (New Economics Foundation) Happy Planet Index which places Egypt more than 100 points higher than the U.S. on the “supporting well-being” scale. Such a metric is no less deceptive than preposterous. In the reveries of our facile paradisiacs, we are ultimately meant, it appears, to be heroes of happiness and scions of state-sponsored indolence. Eventually, if we play it right, we will all see ourselves married to beatitude, and life will finally resolve into a perpetual sabbatical of harmony, ease, recreation, and, obviously, ecological propriety, conveniently managed by the state. Is this not, at bottom, the European project, the release into the body politic of a collective dosage of legislative serotonin?

The antidote to such drivel may be found in the ancient texts and ideas of the great classical thinkers of the Western tradition, in Plato’s notion of “metriopathy” (discretion, proportion, decorum), in Aristotle’s to meson or “golden mean,” in Zeno the Stoic’s admonition to seek happiness through knowledge and mastery of the passions, in Epicurus’ teaching the art of rational living consistent with the joys of intelligence, moderation, friendship and fair conduct, and even in Rabelais’ notion of “Pantagruelism,” which he defines in his rollicking anti-monastic satire Gargantua and Pantagruel as “drinking to your heart’s desire and reading of the fearsome exploits of Pantagruel.” At least one reads while imbibing.

“Life,” says the English Renaissance author Robert Burton in The Anatomy of Melancholy, is a “glucupicron,” that is, “a bitter-sweet passion, honey and gall mixed together, we are all miserable and discontent, who can deny it?” A modicum of happiness, we are instructed, nests in “music and merry company”; after all, even “grave Socrates would be merry by fits, sing, dance, and take his liquor too.” But more importantly, if one would be happy in this vale of tears, one must consider the virtue of modesty: “Admire not thyself. Be not proud or popular. … Go not to law without great cause. … Keep good company. … Seem not greater than thou art.” And, naturally, search out wisdom in “Isocrates, Seneca, Plutarch, Epictetus, etc.”

These old coots have a good argument. They furnish a significant corrective to the modern tendency to legislate happiness de haut en bas, concentrating instead on the intrinsic character of the individual who may persist in unhappiness, rancor, envy, and dissatisfaction regardless of all that may be done for him by an overarching power. They would not be impressed by a shorter work week, extended vacations, fiscal entitlements, early retirement, and socialized leisure, for by their lights the secret of happiness lies within the educated and intelligible self and not within the clamoring voracities of the parasitical ego. Would that the governing elites of France, Greece, Spain, England, and even America, leading their countries into collectivized bankruptcy under the aegis of budgetary debauch and forced equality, and so amplifying the unhappiness quotient, had been sufficiently educated to absorb the oeuvre of these savants.

For I suspect that our ancestral mentors are right. Their insights offer more to the individual soul than all the fatuous assumptions and shallow recommendations of the Sarkozys of this world. They remind us of our personal responsibility in the quest, if not for unadulterated happiness, then for the benefits of quiet contentment in the slow perfecting of our own flawed and covetous natures. The seventeenth century Spaniard Baltasar Graciàn Morales says it simply in his treatise The Art of Worldly Wisdom (which, when it appeared in English translation in 1992, remained for almost five months on the Washington Post’s best seller list, a good sign): “It is material weight that gives value to gold and moral weight that gives value to man.”

Is the French president listening? He should be, since he is presently constructing the theoretical scaffold for a ruinous agenda. But more likely, he remains shut up in a Sarkophagus of dead ideas. No doubt his busy schedule prevents him from wrestling with the complex texts of antiquity. Still, in the last analysis, nothing can replace the great, patrician minds of our literature, who have no “best before” date and whose counsels of excellence remain always fresh. “Only those works that are themselves timeless are significant,” writes Dutch essayist Rob Rieman in a lovely little book called Nobility of Spirit: A Forgotten Ideal, for these are the works that help to create the “cultivated person,” whom Rieman defines as the antithesis of “utilitarians, materialists, ideologues.”

The “cultivated person” does not expect to be “happy” or coddled or subsidized but to be whole and independent of mind. He or she seeks to live in a condition of alertness or attentiveness, what Antonio Damasio in The Feeling of What Happens calls simply “wakefulness,” that is, when “the brain and mind are ‘on.’” Abraham Maslow describes this condition as “the cognition of being,” which is what “Plato and Socrates were talking about” and which ensues in “courage” and “humor.” Happiness — the feeling of equilibrium, self-assurance, geniality, peace of mind, clarity, well-being—is a by-product.

In any event, as we probably all know deep down, genuine happiness — so much of it as is possible in our uncommutable state of being — cannot come from the “outside” alone. Jonathan Haidt, a positive psychologist whose The Happiness Hypothesis, it must be admitted, is a cut above the staple pablum dispensary, sensibly claims that “happiness comes from between” the inner and the outer. But, to put it unfashionably, a determination of the spirit, a modification of the will, is essential. Such prescriptions are by no means as grim as they may sound to us. As Burton and Maslow point out, high seriousness does not preclude humor, and as Rabelais says in his Introduction to Gargantua and Pantagruel, “laughter makes men human” — but also, he continues, “courageous.”

The real issue is that happiness is not something that can be delivered artificially, whether by the fiats of the state or, as indicated above, by the boilerplates of Positive Psychology or by the stimulation of targeted neurotransmitters, which are chemical carriers, not fundamental originators. The very risk and uncertainty which Sarkozy and his ilk wish to escape or anesthetize are intrinsic to human life and are met chiefly by resilience and responsibility, not by pseudo-psychological recipes and strategies for behavior or by post-genomic or post-national remappings of the nature of our existence.

François Rabelais and Robert Burton together afford an ideal and complementary tandem for anyone curious about the mysterious subject of human happiness and willing to learn from the masters. Burton especially, for all his textual density and innate pessimism, proffers a tonic for the beleaguered sensibility. The “sovereign remedy,” as he puts it, resides in “a man’s courage and discreet carriage of himself.” And, I might add, in reading Burton’s Anatomy while drinking to our heart’s desire.