Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Happy? Exposing the cultural myths about happiness, by Tony Wellington

Recently I've been thinking about the subject of happiness. Or more pointedly, the false avenues that the economy and our politics leads us down in search of our happiness. When reading Peter Hartcher's book on the end days of the Howard government, he quoted the former PM as saying:

‘The fact that you are better off now – everybody’s better off – is lost if you compare yourself with your neighbours who might have done even better than you, and if you don’t have as much as you’d like.’

This seemed pretty extraordinary to me. Certainly not a recipe for social cohesion. Or indeed happiness.

I've also been reading a bit of G. K. Chesterton, the great British writer. He says the very opposite: that less is more. Enhancing one's happiness, according to Chesterton, means using your imagination and making the best of the world you've been given.

With these two contrasting views in my head, I wanted to look into the concept of national happiness indexes, hoping to write some sort of article about the subject. This brought me, quite by accident, to Tony Wellington's book on happiness.

Wellington's book is not a 'how to become happy' type of book. It's basically a pretty thoroughgoing critique of our modern Western culture: politics, media, economy, the happiness industry itself. The ultimately ironic point that the book makes is that, in searching out happiness, we have only made ourselves unhappy. How could this be?

Essentially, by always comparing ourselves with others, and using the over the top media culture we live in as a distorting mirror to seek out our reflection, we are doomed to be disappointed. By wanting more of everything - money, fame, beauty, mass adulation - we are discounting the small pleasures of everyday life.

One of Wellington's main culprits for our unhappiness is money. Our economy, and the political system that backs it up, calls for citizens to amass larger and larger amounts of money. We may be richer than previous generations, but having double the wealth does not translate into double the happiness.

Our economy is also self-defeating, as we gobble up more and more of the world's natural resources. We're all digging ourselves into a pit. Wellington says our politics really needs to change, but he sees little chance at the moment of any dramatic changes.

Despite that mild pessimism, or realism, I feel this book is absolutely spot on. If anything, this book clarified a lot of what I've been thinking for the past few years. For that reason, I found this book quite consoling. Happiness, Wellington says, is a by product of our day to day, hum drum lives. Cooking, gardening, taking a nice walk, enjoying nature - there are the true pleasures we find in our life. We don't find happiness in chasing fame, money, beauty or any of the other trappings of modern life. More to the point, anticipating great happiness is a sure recipe for creating disappointments in life.

So lower your standards, count your blessings, and start enjoying life!

To me Happy? reads like a book of common sense. All of our modern obsessions are discounted as ways of making us happy. In fact, I'm sure G. K. Chesterton would have very much agreed with Tony Wellington on the true sources of our happiness.

Wellington backs up his arguments with a wide range of references and interview material.

Tony Wellington's conclusions may disappoint many, but I found them very satisfactory. Life is really about the simple things. This is where happiness is found. Turn your back on money and the silly promotions of the advertising world. Enjoy a walk in the park or baking a cake. The best things in life turn out in the end to be free.

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