peteg's blog

Quarterly Essay #41, David Malouf: The Happy Life: The Search for Contentment in the Modern World.

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I bought this at the Bookshop before my abortive move to Canberra in March 2011, fully two years ago. Since then it has been glaring at me balefully from my bedside table; it is difficult to get into as bedtime reading, which means I have read the first section five times, the second three and the rest once while drowsy.

The first half is long on promise, riffing on various notions of happiness in western culture, and Jefferson's "pursuit of happiness" at length. I enjoyed his comparison and partial reconciliation of the Greek and Christian origin-of-man myths, and the impact on technology and rapid change on humanity's imagining of time and experience. He channels the latter through the French thinker Marquis de Condorcet, also known for his work on voting theory.

I failed to be gripped by his take on the pleasures of the flesh, or his concluding ruminations on why we in the West remain unhappy despite having our material desires by-and-large satisfied. I wondered why he didn't invoke Aristotle on this topic, for those old ideas of "the good" (lagom in Swedish) resonate with Malouf's apparent contention that happiness is some transient rapprochement between comfortable repose and the striving restlessness that forces us to seek the new. That it is of limited duration and scope is surely something that can be analysed by neuroscientists; there just might be a form of happiness that is durable and never-ending, though it probably involves drugs not yet invented. That the big ideas are truly mind-blowing, and do not induce happiness in the average person, is a bit trite to observe; my search for comprehension has rarely satisfied me, let alone made me happy, but I feel it to be necessary nevertheless.

Lazily I could ask if it is really clear that happiness is morally valid; for Westerners it supervenes on many dubious practices, not the least of which is the assumed infiniteness of the inputs to the industrial machine. Is it really true that people are pursuing happiness — long work hours would suggest not — and what would society look like if they attained it? The rarity of it (and similar desired states) is a big part of what makes it valuable.

Malouf argues that happiness is unmeasurable, a purely subjective experience, and this puts it beyond the reach of statistical analysis and hence fields like economics. (The economists understand this when they shun intersubjective utilities, though they are always tempted to treat happiness as something that can be optimised.) For him there is no one-size-fits-all account of happiness, which ironically limits what this generalist kind of writing can tell us.

There is a lengthy excerpt in the SMage. Apparently this ~50 page essay has been expanded into a ~100 page book.