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The search for happiness



Jonathan Power
TFF Associate since 1991

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November 23, 2011
Want to be happy? Read on!
Sigmund Freud, the great psychiatrist, said that people can never be fully happy. But most people are reasonably happy, according to numerous surveys. Even in the slums of Calcutta a majority are. Read "The City of Joy" by Dominique Lapierre. According to one survey Nigerians are the happiest. (But other surveys say it is Denmark, a country with a cradle to the grave welfare system where one doesn't have to worry so much about one's health or old age.)
Being married or having a steady partner is a good way to increase one's happiness. Another is to be well clear of poverty and a low income. As one progresses upwards happiness comes by leaps and bounds. But then after a certain level - an annual income of $15,000 - increased happiness slows.
One can't reach super-happiness except in special moments - falling in love, doing well in an exam, having a child born, being rescued at sea and so on. These are called by psychologists "peak experiences". They don't last long. Georgio Armani, the fashion designer, who seems to have everything - a job he loves and is very successful at, a couple of beautiful houses, a nice car and a gorgeous looking wife - says you can't get hold of happiness. It is there and then it's gone.
For most people happiness declines from the time of their youth until they are around 40 and then turns a corner and increases until they are 70 and over. Presumably it takes that long to get on top of life, answer or accommodate to its demands and find a measure of peace.
Divorce or separation from a partner one has loved immensely can wreck havoc with happiness. The death of a child even more so. Indeed people say that in many cases parents never recover from that.
According to a survey in Switzerland comparing cantons, the more democratic cantons have a happier population. But no one knows if this applies to countries. But we do know that democracies don't go to war with each other, creating untold misery and broken families.
A strong religious belief also works as a boost (even if non-believers are content that they are more rational). Acts of charity and joining a club of like-minded people also bring happiness.
In Aldous Huxley's novel "Brave New World" the following conversation takes place between a young man, nicknamed "the Savage", and an official.
"Don't you want to be comfortable?", enquires the official.
"I don't want comfort", the Savage replies. "I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want goodness, I want sin."
"In fact", the official observes, "you're claiming the right to be unhappy"
"All right then," says the Savage, "I'm claiming the right to be unhappy."
A small minority of us are like that, but not many.
Most of us in the middle class seeking more happiness and a more comfortable life by buying a car, a new computer, a set of furniture or going on a luxury holiday will be disappointed to find that after the initial pleasure happiness wears off. But if we didn't seek these things national income would go down hill - the hospitals and schools would decline as taxation revenues from sales taxes fell. Then, of course, unhappiness would set in. It seems in capitalism we do need the majority of us to be selfish and acquisitive (even if we make some room for those who reject materialism as long as they are a small minority).

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John Stuart Mill was wrong when he wrote that he looked forward to a stationary state "where economic growth and ceaseless economic striving would end with the realization of abundance". The greatest economist of them all, John Maynard Keynes, wrote: "The time is not far off when economic problems will take a back seat where they belong and the heart will be occupied by the real problems, the problems of life and human relations, of creation and behaviour and religion." But this goes against what we know: society at large has to stay on the economic treadmill or it will fall apart. (But that is no excuse for bankers' salaries or a debilitating distribution of income.)
All of us will loose happiness if we become unemployed, retire on too modest a pension, get depressed, are discriminated against or suffer ill health. Extreme pain is probably the worst thing imaginable. With the right medicines 90% can be helped, but many hospitals won't give pain priority and some pain relieving drugs are banned, such as in the US morphine-based drugs because they are subject to abuse by drug addicts. Doctors are under-trained in medical schools to deal with pain.
The American constitution talks about the right to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness". We have some way to go.


Copyright © 2011 Jonathan Power


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Jonathan Power can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172
and e-mail:

Jonathan Power 2007 Book
Conundrums of Humanity
The Quest for Global Justice

“Conundrums of Humanity” poses eleven questions for our future progress, ranging from “Can we diminish War?” to “How far and fast can we push forward the frontiers of Human Rights?” to “Will China dominate the century?”
The answers to these questions, the author believes, growing out of his long experience as a foreign correspondent and columnist for the International Herald Tribune, are largely positive ones, despite the hurdles yet to be overcome. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, London, 2007.

William Pfaff, September 17, 2007
Jonathan Power's book "Conundrums" - A Review
"His is a powerful and comprehensive statement of ways to make the world better.
Is that worth the Nobel Prize?
I say, why not?"


Jonathan Power's 2001 book

Like Water on Stone
The Story of Amnesty International

Follow this link to read about - and order - Jonathan Power's book written for the 40th Anniversary of Amnesty International



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