In his final column of the year, Common Weal director Robin McAlpine makes the case for eudemonic happiness, where we ditch searching for the latest consumerist high or even faddish political narrative, and instead embrace cost-free joy
MY FAVOURITE (and I think the most vital) album of 2018 is by a Bristol band called Idles.
I wouldn’t suggest this album is for all of you – it’s a fairly uncompromising punk album (though the track Danny Nadelko – an unashamed pro-immigrant sing-along – might persuade you…).
But what I would commend to everyone is the album’s title – ‘Joy As An Act Of Resistance’. Across the course of 2018 I have increasingly come to believe that this might be humanity’s last, best hope.
Now this is the Festive Season and everyone is writing columns and blogs on the theme of ‘let’s be nice for Christmas’. We all want to believe we can be those enemies kicking footballs around in no-man’s-land; it makes us feel civilised. But that’s not what I mean here; this is deeper than a temporary cessation of hostilities.
Let me be specific. From Plato onwards there has been an understanding of different kinds of ‘happiness’. ‘Hedonic’ happiness arrives suddenly and departs just as quickly.
It’s a bar of chocolate, a gin and tonic, a new pair of shoes, a nose full of cocaine. It quickly and effectively stimulates our pleasure sensors and makes us feel good. But just as quickly the buzz passes and we are left chasing it again – forever.
The other kind of happiness is ‘eudemonic’. It is slower, deeper, richer. It is not the stimulation of pleasure sensors but the triggering of deeper, much more important emotions.
It is playing with our children in the park, meeting a dear friend for coffee, the pride of keeping our garden beautiful, of playing a musical instrument, of reading a book.
The happiness doesn’t come on like the rush of a drug, but it doesn’t leave either. It is a happiness that stays with us, makes it all worthwhile.
Let’s call them pleasure and joy. And let me also be clear that I am never going to argue completely against the pleasures of hedonism (as most of my 20s and a chunk of my 30s will testify…). Good food and silly fun are valuable.
But they have another important function. They part us with our money. Joy is very often free – pleasure almost always costs. And because it stimulates neurotransmitters sending feel-good chemicals flooding through our brains it operates almost exactly like an addiction.
Of course ‘is addictive and very hard to escape’ and ‘parts us with our money’ is pretty much a definition of consumerist neoliberal capitalism – so ours has been the age of pleasure.
Go on, your worth it, you’ve earned it, treat yourself, this is so moreish, you only live once, you know you want to. These are the public mantras of my lifetime, all devised by marketing people. “I have what will make you feel good – give me your money”. Followed by “oh, has the feeling passed? Well give me more of your money and I’ll make it come back”.
And what do you know? The more we consume, the more miserable we seem to get. The larger the proportion of our time which is filled with the ‘pleasure’ of consumption, the less of it is filled with the joy of life.
So one day you wonder to yourself ‘why is there no decent park for me to take the kids to play in?’. The answer is ‘we cut taxes so you could shop more’. Which is to say ‘we changed society to take money away from collective joy and tricked you into giving it to corporations’.
Because this is the thing – happy people don’t shop. They’re too busy building blanket forts with their kids. Our first human reaction isn’t to desire a ‘vibrating foot spa’ – people who want us to buy plastic things need to coerce us into doing it.
So they advertise. And advertising can all basically be summarised in the same way – you’re shit. Your hair, your house, your car, your partner, your clothes – shit, all shit. But don’t worry – give us your money and you need no longer face the social stigma of your shitness.
We sprayed the planet with poison to make the 30 per cent of the food we throw away cheaper – and killed the insects. If it didn’t move we burned it, if it did move we shot it. We invented plastic things which are supposed to be opened, laughed at and then immediately thrown away – and the seas died. We really did ruin everything.
Then the pleasure principle was applied to politics. What makes you feel better today? Angry about the state of your society? Don’t change it, shout at an immigrant. That’ll make you feel better. Oh, the feeling passed? OK, shout louder this time.
Our entire economic system is based around seeking value in your life through consumption. It made you miserable and angry. It made you poorer. It is rapidly destroying our chance of surviving. And it tore apart our sense of ourselves.
As Idles put it in another of their songs ‘you pay through the nose to look like someone else, like the weirdos on the shelf’. But the weirdos on the shelf are miserable too – they’re just painted to look like they’re not.
They need us to mistake pleasure for joy. Politically they need it. Economically they need it. The single biggest act of resistance I can think of is to rediscover joy, to simply stop trying to shop our way to a happiness that recedes with each purchase.
We need to find joy in each other, seeking neither a validation that our anger is ‘right’ nor an excuse to unload that anger for our short-term entertainment.
Consider this – who is asking you to chase your pleasure. Amazon? Instagram? Donald Trump? The English Defence League? Leaving the EU will make shoes cheaper (apparently). Staying in the EU will make your foreign holidays cheaper (apparently). Our entire public narrative is fucked.
Trump won’t save you, but nor will Blair. Facebook has no answer, nor does a Kardashian. The EU won’t change anything fundamental, but neither will the Brexiteers. They just want you to keep chasing, today, tomorrow, forever.
Until you have no money of course. At that point you disappear from the narrative altogether because they have no use for you any more.
This year ends with more and more of us aware that humanity is at a crossroads. There are damn few people waving us down the road which says ‘humans, learn to survive through joy’. The biggest and most remarkable thing we could do would be to take that path by ourselves. They wouldn’t even know what to do with themselves if none of us turned up for the Boxing Day sales.
Because you’re great, your hair looks good, your house is cosy, your car is fine, your partner seems nice and your clothes look good on you. Away outside, don’t worry about it – and feel free.
Joy would be our single biggest act of resistance. Pure, fulfilling, overwhelming, cost-free joy. And this is the perfect time of the year to start.
If you want to be really, really radical, don’t smash something, love someone. Again and again. Forever.
Happy Christmas – see you all back on the barricades next year…
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