The ‘great ruse’ of the happiness rhetoric

Fahad Suleiman Shoqiran
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The “happiness rhetoric,” a recurrent media topic, continues with its exposing practices. This one-size-fits-all rhetoric, an ideological one at times and a utilitarian one other times, can only be truly reformed by precise cognitive argumentation and sturdy analysis. In this context, Hekmah magazine published an essay entitled: “The happiness ruse,” written by Cody Delistraty. The essay ponders the question of how feeling good came to be “a matter of relentless, competitive work; a never-to-be-attained goal which makes us miserable.” In this article, I will present a summary of the essay’s key ideas.

Delistraty’s essay says: “Happiness has, of course, not always been conceived of this way. The Epicurean outlook on happiness – which Thomas Jefferson was thinking of when he enjoined Americans to cherish ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ in the Declaration of Independence – is exceedingly simple and different. As Epicurus saw it, happiness is merely the lack of aponia – physical pain – and ataraxia – mental disturbance. It was not about the pursuit of material gain, or notching up gratifying experiences, but instead was a happiness that lent itself to a constant gratefulness. So long as we are not in mental or physical pain, we can, within this understanding of happiness, be contented.”


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The writer adds: “Modern thinkers tend to view happiness less as a lack of pain than as a surfeit of wellbeing. The English economist Richard Layard, for example, laid out what might be considered a ‘happiness economics’ – now forming the basis of an annual survey called the World Happiness Report, which measures the extent to which a person’s income and a society’s wealth influence happiness. However, like Epicurus, Layard still regards mental health as the most important factor in happiness, as he explained in his book Happiness: Lessons from a New Science (2005).”

The writer moves on to discuss the etymology of the word ‘happiness’ and its connection with the concept of luck. He says: “Where, historically, did this idea of ‘peak experience’ happiness come from? When the word ‘happy’ first entered the English lexicon, around the mid-14th century, it meant something closer to ‘lucky’, since one’s status, health and happiness were wrapped up in the arbitrary decisions of the Catholic God. (It’s most likely that the word ‘luck’ came first and, from that came words such as ‘happy’, related to ‘happenstance’).

US president thomas jefferson. (Stock image)
US president thomas jefferson. (Stock image)

Happy didn’t mean joyful until the 16th century, and it was not until the mid-17th century when Thomas Hobbes, writing in Leviathan, cast happiness as an unending process of accumulating objects of desire, thereby redefining it as a subjective, shifting feeling, predicated on our desires. ‘The felicity of this life,’ wrote Hobbes in 1651, ‘consisteth not in the repose of a mind satisfied. For there is no such finis ultimus (utmost aim) nor summum bonum (greatest good) as is spoken of in the books of the old moral philosophers.’”

But what about pleasurable experiences and happiness?

“As Hobbes saw it,” says the essay, “happiness could be meaningfully achieved by pursuing pleasurable experiences. He believed that there was no stable satisfaction (‘the repose of a mind satisfied’), and took indirect aim at Epicurus (‘in the books of the old moral philosophers’); happiness, he believed, must be continually sought after, its slippery and fleeting nature interpreted as a feature rather than a bug. If one had to say where the modern conception of ‘peak experience’ happiness derives, then Hobbes’s then-aberrant idea is probably the place to start.”

Moreover, Delistraty insists that happiness remains a concept “riddled with problems.” He cites the Mad Men scene where the fictional advertising executive Don Draper asks what the definition of happiness is “in neo-Hobbesian mode”, before answering: “It’s the moment before you need more happiness.” The writer says: “These days, we pursue happiness rather than letting it come to us. We try to collect moments of happiness like shells at the beach, even as the waves wash them away. The pursuit is Sisyphean; it inevitably leads down a disappointing path.”

Delistraty also tackles the issue of happiness on social media, which has pushed people to think they can only find their being by showing their every move to the virtual world. He says: “There is no image of modern existential emptiness quite like the person travelling the world while constantly posting pictures of restaurants and landmarks on social media, and competitively performing happiness at the expense of making genuine connections with his peers. In trying to be happier – better – than others, this person risks alienating himself from them. It’s a zero-sum game.”

Further, the essay posits that the path to happiness cannot exist without the acceptance of sadness as well. The writer suggests that one solution to “the quandary of happiness – we want to be happy but not to alienate or hurt ourselves on the path to it” perhaps lies in “realigning ourselves with the Romantics, who embraced both their joys and sorrows.” He cites wrote John Keats as saying in Ode on Melancholy (1819):

“Ay, in the very temple of Delight,

Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine.”

In this context, Delistraty adds: “During Passover, Jews discard drops of wine before they drink so as to remember tragedies before embracing pleasures (so, too, when observant Jews marry: to step on a glass is to remember sadness as you embark upon a life of happiness). This embrace of melancholy might be a way out of the lose-lose prison of happiness, whereby pursuing it leads to disappointment and loneliness, and not pursuing it seems to guarantee that it’s never reached.

We might never be truly contented unless we embrace our negative feelings. Indeed, negative feelings might not be so negative. The emotion of sadness, for instance, has all kinds of positive uses.”

Many books on happiness, some of which deceitful, are released every day across the world. It is a great ruse that dominates many a platform, program, or life coaching session. Happiness is an integral part of the mystery of human beings and their perceptions of the world, life, and human beings. The reassessment of scientific research on happiness is a must in order to counter emotional rhetoric and linguistic-psychological deception. The essay we presented in this article is a great example, in my view, for it is an exhaustive study with high scientific standards.

This article was originally published in, and translated from, pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.

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