How to be Happy – ICA Panel Discussion 27th January 2011
With Oliver Burkeman, Philipa Perry, Ros Taylor & Mark Fisher
From a personal point of view this talk didn’t get off to a particularly auspicious start. My letter of complaint were I unhappy yet self-validating enough to write such a thing would begin, “ dear ICA I paid £12 pounds for a discussion on happiness and I am unhappy that I couldn’t hear twenty five percent of it due to a terribly inadequate sound system, unworthy even off the most under-funded village hall let alone art’s centre. The fact that the twenty five percent I missed was predominantly the words of the host speaker, Mark Fisher, makes this all the more disheartening. Thanks to the seventy five percent of the lecture I did hear I know that this is not a useful line of thought to pursue so I will bid you anon…” Thankfully someone else in the audience had confidence in their ability to judge consensus audibility and piped up, otherwise I would have missed seventy five percent. When the host, Mark Fisher, was confronted with the suggestion that the sound quality was awful he responded by asking “in what way?” I immediately wondered if this was a Joe Pesci moment and cowered behind the seat in front of me whilst in my minds eye he repeatedly asked “awful how?” I did manage to work out the gist (I think) of Mark Fisher's contribution thanks largely to what the others said (this is something I have done all my life due to hearing loss). My understanding of what he said was that society’s sickness is affecting the happiness of its constituent members. This would seem to make sense as I have since read that Mark is also known as K Punk and is a social theorist. (At the time I thought he’s a bit round the houses and mumbly for a journalist). The speakers all seemed to agree, however that a nanny state was not the answer to this. The Tories, I recently read, want to instigate a tick box happiness survey. And here then is the catch twenty-two (an apt phrase as it pertains to madness). It is the current face off between the drive to order and the desire to inhabit an intangibly tangible world that causes feelings of isolation. We need to do real things to get happy not fill in multiple choice questionnaires – although like drugs multiple-choice questionnaires might play a small but useful role on the road to recovery. Even touchy feely Oliver Burkeman conceded by the end that happiness is fuzzy but if you are trying to sell a book then you have to deliver the idea in a focused way. An obvious simple version of this is that capitalism is a left-brain system focused on competition and achieving goals. Yes, say the rationalists, if you don’t teach kids to try and win then they will fail in later life. To which I would ask why does it have to be one or other approach? Why can’t it be a dialogue between the two led by the right brain? This notion of dialogue is at the heart of happiness.
The drive towards order is a strong one but it seems to me that on the whole we are ordering that which has been already ordered. The drive to create needs to be combined with the drive to order. The left-brain is what helps us create order but the right brain is capable of moving between the system and the whole. This view seems to fit the idea that we need to heal ourselves rather than wait for the government to legislate. Think of us bringing down another wall that exists in our minds - Wir sind das Folk. Philipa Perry offered us a five-step plan. For those in the know five step plans are part of the culture of self-improvement but Philipa’s plan seemed to me to be thorough and invigorating. In this article Perry presents a four process framework but on the night adds the fifth step of not beating yourself up if you don’t always manage the other four steps effectively. I think letting yourself off the hook can lead you back into the other steps. What I like about Mrs Perry’s plan is that without spelling it out it nurtures a dialogue between our left and right brain. We tend to think that the creative and empathetic mind cannot exist within a system but that is only a belief that we need to change (see step 4). For me the idea of practical is central to happiness. There are great deals of things we avoid because they are impractical. We ask what’s the point? It is practical to do impractical things from time to time. Ross Taylor offered the extremely useful advise that we replace the phrase positive thinking with useful thinking. It was only when I considered that fretting over the whereabouts of my favourite fine-liner pen might not be terribly useful that I was able to start writing this. Later it was only by considering the apparently useless to be practical that I was able to complete this. Fuzzy thinking is useful in an horizonless universe. I have been latterly espousing the wonders of primordial unity unaware that Nietzsche found this in the combining of Dionysian and Apollonian points of view (the unknown and the known). This is about a process of dynamic exchange – could it be that happiness is achieved by not always being happy.
Jung is another man drawn to this combination of light and shade (I should like to add that I do not think that we can simply read Dionysian vs. Apollonian as Right Brain vs. left Brain). So to Jung I turned. When I’m stuck I find it useful to let myself off the hook. One way of doing this is to allow myself to open a book on a random page and read as if I knew what I was doing. This prevents that mind-numbing loop of re-reading a passage that you have read every night of the week. It is no over estimation to say that Jung was a big fan of synchronicity and therefore I was delighted that upon opening my copy of Dreams I read the following sentence at the top of the page, “Happiness for example is such a noteworthy reality that there is nobody who does not long for it, and yet there is not a single objective criterion which could prove beyond all doubt that this condition exists. As so often with the most important things we have to make a subjective judgement”.
I recall a recent article in the Guardian that concluded that happiness was rooted in absorption. This links well with Philipa Perry’s idea of good stress and a more general piece of advice that I took away with me that “doing” things can lead to happiness. When we are absorbed all our senses are unified and we feel somehow beyond dimensions and this is what the lady two seats down from me seemed to suggest when she said "happiness is a dynamic multi-sensory state." This lead to Oliver Burkeman regretting that the definition of happiness couldn’t remain fuzzy but when one is selling a book, he revealed, it has to be focused. Is he like the American tourist who upon seeing so many references to Apollo was pleased that NASA was so popular in Greece? We are ordering that which is used to order and not the stuff itself. Is it a political issue that we increasingly find ourselves thrust into a field of signs with a voice over bellowing orders to aspire towards goals? Ros Taylor mentioned the delusions of X-factor contestants and suggested that their friends tell them that their talents lie elsewhere. This seems useful enough but I would suggest that the proven ability of the left-brain to delude in order to make sense is at the root of this malaise. It is almost as if the act of doing is not needed because the brain can trick itself into believing its version of the truth if the right brain (the world of complete uncertainty) is silenced. This would explain the presence on our screens of outraged teenagers unable to grasp why they are not seen as potential worldwide super stars when they haven’t even learnt the tune or lyrics. Learning a song, by the way is good stress and so perhaps “good stress” is a way of linking the two apparently opposing points of view – the unfathomable and the unpicked.
The moment you fill in a happiness tick box survey you are moving towards the field of signs that Aristotle planted. He did not intend it to become the overriding reality but a useful crop. Our screen based culture withers the hands that feed us and it is our duty to extend our networks in the real world by using this technology. It is useful to do things whether or not we deem them wholly practical. More and more I hear students warned of the pressures of a competitive market as a means of motivating them but the irony is that to be competitive they need to spend time dwelling in a non-competitive fuzzy state. Is our goal to compete in the system or to gradually move the system towards a healthier place by sharing common pursuits and allowing for inter-subjective experiences?
I had intended for this to be a review of the talk at the ICA but have rather digressed. So to recap I recommend the four points of Philipa Perry (5 if you let yourself off the hook) as being a method of reaching Ros Taylor's useful thinking. K-punk suggests that happiness is a political issue and I would agree provided I am allowed to shift my belief of what politics is beyond the current jam jar held fast by Cameron and his forebears. Also even if Oliver Burkeman is ever so slightly embarrassed by the holistic philosophy of the world of self help he does offer some very practical advise in his column. I came away wishing he could let himself off the hook from time to time but then again he is a journalist and truth is never fuzzy in the world of monoculture. I’m glad I made myself go to this talk as the benefits were not instantaneous but instead time-released as the thoughts and connections continued to resonate through my synapses.
Here is a picture of me playing in This Happy Band. I'm the one at the back in a pink shirt looking a bit grumpy.