“Today’s middle class lives better than did the Royalty of not so long ago, and yet humans today don’t seem very happy.”
― Russ Harris
Should happiness be our main goal in life? In the book The Happiness Trap, Russ Harris makes a strong case against making happiness our goal. The book is based on an emerging psychotherapeutic approach called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). This approach is founded on the idea that avoiding pain and seeking pleasurable emotions can actually decrease one’s quality of life in the long-term. Chasing pleasurable feelings distracts us from meaningful pursuits and long-term goals, keeping us on the hedonic treadmill. Western ‘feel-good’ consumer culture fuels this problem with its quick-fix ideology of pain-free solutions. One only needs to take a look at the ridiculous workout equipment produced over the years to get the idea (“Take the work out of your workout… If you can sit, you can get fit” – The Hawaii Chair)
The Happiness Trap is based on two opposing concepts of happiness: short term pleasures (hedonic), and meaningful fulfillment (the good life). Too much focus on the hedonic pain-avoiding route prevents individuals from attaining deeper fulfillment since the latter form of happiness requires a degree of pain. For a more in-depth discussion of meaningful suffering see my post on ‘Finding Meaning and Purpose’.
Psychologists like Russ Harris are contributing valuable practical insights to individuals who are unknowingly operating in ways that diminish their quality of life. Although this book may help individuals, ideas about happiness are based in culture and the opportunities individuals have at their disposal to pursue more fulfilling forms of happiness are socially institutionalized. The job of the sociologist is to diagnose the deficiencies of a social realm, and advocate for social arrangements that foster individual flourishing.
The two opposed form of happiness described above can be found in Emile Durkheim’s landmark sociological text, Suicide. In the chapter on anomie, he distinguishes between two social states: insufficient social regulation and sufficient social regulation. The first is equated with hedonic forms of happiness, occurring in states of low social regulation.
Durkheim states that our individual desires are insatiable, requiring social regulation to provide a sense of direction and purpose whereby we can measure progress toward a goal. Durkheim says, “to pursue a goal which is by definition unattainable is to condemn oneself to a state of perpetual unhappiness.” Living by the direction of our individual desires alone is a form of torment since he states, “inextinguishable thirst is constantly renewed torture.” Following individual desires alone amounts to fleeting pleasures which produce renewed anguish when one is met with the disappointment of remaining unfulfilled.
Durkheim’s concept of fulfilling happiness occurs when the individual is in a state of sufficient social regulation, whereby the social role places limits on an individual’s individual aspirations. Contrary to Karl Marx, Durkheim argues that economic class categorizations can actually contribute to individual happiness and social harmony:
“This relative limitation and the moderation it involves, make men contented with their lot while stimulating them moderately to improve it; and this average contentment causes the feeling of calm, active happiness, the pleasure in existing and living which characterizes health for societies
as well as for individuals.”
This leads Durkheim to a conclusion resembling the contemporary maxim that happiness is not about getting what you want, but about wanting what you have. It is not economic class that provides this happiness in individuals, but the regulatory force it provides. Similar regulatory forces can be found in the family, as well as one’s specific occupational role. The key is that 1) the individual feels a sense of fair compensation for their labor, and 2) that their labor is contributing to the collective. Without these elements, social regulation disintegrates into chaos or the despair of detachment from collective life.
When we see the word ‘happiness’ we must beware of the potential trap. We need to ask ourselves if the version of happiness presented will create flourishing, or keep us running on the infinite hedonic treadmill. Aristotle said, “Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.” True happiness is not only the meaning and purpose of life, but it provides individuals with meaning and purpose. Finding meaning and purpose in collective life is essential if we are to avoid the happiness trap.