Modernity’s Happiness Fetish
In this modern age happiness is held up as the ultimate good and primary reason for existence. The clichés are all well-known. Just do what makes we happy. All that matters is that you’re happy with yourself. Who cares what other people think so long as you are happy? Modernity has made happiness into a fetish, and the pursuit of it the be all and end all. It has become the subject of endless self-help books, the primary theme of countless movies and television shows, and even occupies a line on the US Bill of Rights.To a certain extent this is understandable and indeed justifiable, after all it would be exceptionally hard to find anyone on this planet who actively seeks to be unhappy. However, it is worth noting that this elevation of happiness to the main goal of human existence has corresponded with the coming of age of a generation that is possible the most unhappy of any in recent existence. Surveys have found that people today report being unhappy in far greater numbers than past generations, with women especially admitting sadness at extremely high rates.
A good deal of the reasoning for this is how happiness has been defined and understood in the modern world. Being happy is not so much about being content with one’s life as it is about seeking the temporary euphoric high of a dopamine hit through getting drunk/high/laid or otherwise the brief delight of some materialistic acquisition or act of sensory experience. This is certainly reinforced by popular culture, which portrays life as an endless succession of such parties and hookup and fun nights out, combined with an endless pursuit of more and more material success. If for some reason you’re unsatisfied with this shallow conception of happiness then obviously the fault is with you and the answer is simply to have more drinks/do more drugs/buy more stuff/have more sex. The route to happiness is very narrowly defined one according to the modern world.
One of the harder moments of my own life was admitting to myself that I was not happy. It was a number of years ago, and at the time conceding this felt like a personal failure of some kind or perhaps like I was acknowledging myself to be some kind of freak. I certainly had no grounds to be dissatisfied with my life my the modern criteria. I was gainfully employed and while like a lot of people my age I had student debts and a tight budget I was hardly destitute. I had an active social life, and while I won’t claim to have been a player I was never particularly lonely either. Despite all this I finally had to admit I was miserable. All the aforementioned “good things” in my life were only temporary distractions from this, and hollow ones at that; I could always image having a bigger pay cheque or a nicer apartment or a cooler night out.
Finally admitting this was ultimately a liberating experience, however, because it forced me to actually ask myself what did make me happy. The answer, it turned out, was very different than the approved laundry list of modernity. What gave me genuine satisfaction were things like my faith, and time spent with my family, and the company of my friends; acts that were with a broader community that I was a part of. This is ugly truth of the modern world and the sorry system it has created. It has elevated happiness to the highest possible good while simultaneously devaluing it to the most superficial and fleeting definition of it, and the results are leaving us miserable.
Charles Murray, in his highly recommended book Coming Apart, delved into numerous statistics on the American population but one that stuck out in particular. The demographic group that reported the highest levels of satisfaction with their lives were married women who were stay at home mothers’ of children, in contrast to childless working women who reported some of the lowest levels of satisfaction. This is not to argue that all women should immediate quit their jobs and become housewives. That likely wouldn’t be economically feasible for many folks and there almost certainly would be some people who would not be especially happy with that state of affairs (every rule has exceptions).
What it does mean, however, is that the conventional wisdom on the centrality of happiness to modern life and the means for achieving it could do with some questioning. The millenials’ boomer parents in many ways gave them advice for life that was contrary to their own experiences, telling them to focus on a career and never to settle because they could have it all. The Sexual Revolution promised string free gratification at no cost. Much of it in the end turned out to be untrue, and instead many of us have become lonely, atomized individuals living in boxes in the sky. Reevaluating what makes us happy, and what truly matters in life, may very well be the key to we as a society once again being happy.