The Search for Contentment

I Making Australia Happy
What can make us happy?
The question sounds quite simple, and yet the answer is so elusive. Our common wisdom tells us that modern people living lives of relative prosperity in secure surroundings ought to be able to identify themselves as happy.

And yet, this is plainly not the case. Last year the ABC aired an intriguing programme called ‘Making Australia Happy’. The setting was ‘Australia’s unhappiest suburb’ – namely, Marrickville, in inner western Sydney. A group of unhappy people were then taken through their paces by a group of ‘happiness psychologists’ in an attempt to improve their happiness.

The language of the show was of course carefully called ‘scientific’. It involved blood tests, and machines that went ‘ping’. We were told about the ‘science of happiness’. And what did the scientists advise? That contemplating our mortality, performing acts of altruistic service, finding ways to forgive those who have wronged us, meeting people and learning to give thanks for what we have are all essential to the genuinely and measurably more happy human life.

Interesting, isn’t it? Why didn’t they just send the unhappy folks along to church?

II The Business of Happiness
But happiness is a serious business. In educational circles the work of US psychologist Martin E Seligman is receiving a great deal of attention because of the recognition that education of young people for achievement without a sense of well-being is simply not enough preparation for life.

But I was fascinated to read Australian novelist David Malouf’s recent Quarterly Essay entitled ‘The Happy Life – The Search for Contentment in the Modern World’. Malouf is a novelist of the absolute first class who has written profoundly over many years of the human condition. In particular, he draws for inspiration on the Greco-Roman world, and its ideals of friendship as a means for overcoming suffering.
In this delightful piece of writing, Malouf probes the notion of happiness and our modern conception of it. He reminds us that Thomas Jefferson, in framing the Declaration of Independence in 1776, added ‘the pursuit of Happiness’ to ‘Life’ and ‘Liberty’ as one of the unalienable Rights that human beings received from their creator.

 Whether Jefferson meant it to be or not, this turned out to be a radical turn. ‘Happiness’ might have been understood to mean something quite objective and material: the state of being happily favoured by your circumstances, in other words. But the word also came to mean the state of pleasure that we experience when things are going well for us. What the Declaration seems to offer– and has often been taken to offer in the political arrangement that it was to spawn – is ‘happiness’ in the sense of ‘contentment, satisfaction, pleasure’. In addition, the Declaration does not see happiness as something deferred to an afterlife. Human beings are entitled to expect this in the here and now.

What could deliver on this promise? That, you might say, has been the problem for politics in the Western world ever since. Happiness – by which we mean happiness as something I must feel – is to be expected to arise from the arrangement of society itself. It is a promise for today. If I am not happy – then who is to blame?

III Are we happy?
As Malouf sees it, it is likely that most people would say they have nothing to complain of. We live the good life of which our grandparents and great-grandparents might only have dreamed. Our children generally do not die as babies. We are not vulnerable to the old epidemics. We are well-fed, educated and cared for into our dotage by a diligent state.

But why would so few people say they are actually happy? Despite all our gains, we still feel a sense of unease and insecurity. Malouf’s diagnosis is that this is because in the Space Age the world has become vastly bigger than the world we can directly experience with our bodies. ‘What we inhabit now is the Planet’, says Malouf, and with it comes a sense of connection and responsibility that is overwhelming and exhausting. We now realise that we inhabit several overlapping complex systems – the Economy and the Environment being just two of these. And the usual instruments of technical expertise do not yet seem to have gained us protection from the powerful waves that sweep over us. I cannot hope, for example, to have prevented the reckless investing that caused the 2008 GFC.

He writes:
What most alarms us in our contemporary world, what unsettles and scares us, is the extent to which the forces that shape our lives are no longer personal – they know nothing of us; and to the extent that we know nothing of them – cannot put a face to them, cannot find in them anything we recognise as human – we cannot deal with them. We feel like small, powerless creatures in the coils of an invisible monster, vast but insubstantial, that cannot be grasped or wrestled with.

As we become more and more aware of our physical smallness, Malouf notes, we have become more and more aware of our own bodies. We spend more time looking in the mirror than ever before human beings did. Something has changed in our approach to the death of the body, too. The horror of death has now become not the fear of non-being or the fear of judgement but rather the fear that we will live beyond the functionality and pleasurableness of our own bodily life. It is nursing home that is the new hell, for modern people.

So: how to be happy? Malouf’s suspicion is that we need to be happy ‘within limits’. Be happy now – for who knows what lies ahead? Rest and contentment may indeed prove out of our grasp. But we can find, or at least ought to seek, our happiness in what lies near us and around us. It is ‘a kind of happiness he can make do with from one day to the next’.

Malouf sounds like the teacher from Ecclesiastes at this point. And his wisdom is at one level profound. Recognition of our limits is key; a focus on ephemeral pleasurable sensations is making us actually sad; fear of what we can’t control is pointless, since we can’t control it.

But it is a kind of sadly disappointing vision of human life. I feel like saying to Malouf ‘is that all?’ Won't this lead us to a very self-protective kind of life, a life of perhaps minimal harms but also only minimal joys?

Like Jefferson, Malouf tends to reject Christianity’s view of happiness as being all about the afterlife – a notion which corrupts even the small pleasures we have in the present by telling us that they are at best distractions from the bliss of the final state and at worst downright evil.

At this point, we need the beauty of the full eschatological hope of Christianity. The gospel of the resurrected Christ tells us that the happinesses we may experience now are in fact the first tastes of what is to come in the new heaven and the new earth. The vast wheel of history is not turned by some blind impersonal combination of forces, but by the God of Jesus Christ. We can recognise our own limits, but in hope cast our cares on him. We can consider our own mortality in the light of the resurrection; give thanks to a God who is gracious, and not just to lady luck; seek to serve others following the example of Jesus Christ himself; and forgive one another our sins as we know we have been forgiven.

Photo credit:Exfordy


Michael Jensen is rector of St Mark's Darling Point and is the author of the book My God, My God: Is it Possible to Believe Anymore? He's on twitter: @mpjensen

Comments (2)

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  • Stephen Davis
    May 17, 11 - 4:14am
    I think the main theme of some of the people you mention above Mike, are all looking at happiness in worldly or earthly terms. As we both know, this so called happiness is only temporary and will pass away, and that in turn is what I believe drives the questions they ask above. As Christians however we know the truth and we can only speculate at the things that God has prepared for those who love him, and I think that this helps us to deal with our daily existence here on planet Earth. I think your last paragraph is very well put. All the best.
  • Grant Hayes
    May 20, 11 - 2:19am
    A koan:

    "A man travelling across a field encountered a tiger. He fled, the tiger after him. Coming to a precipice, he caught hold of the root of a wild vine and swung himself down over the edge. The tiger sniffed at him from above. Trembling, the man looked down to where, far below, another tiger was waiting to eat him. Only the vine sustained him.

    Two mice, one white and one black, little by little started to gnaw away the vine. The man saw a luscious strawberry near him. Grasping the vine with one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other. How sweet it tasted!"