Do we pursue the wrong kind of “happiness”?

By Wayne Allensworth

The “pursuit of happiness” seems to be a quest everyone in our society is on. It takes on the aura of a requirement in an age of radical individualism, in which “self-realization” is supposed to be the aim of life in an otherwise meaningless universe. But how does one “pursue” happiness? And, most of all, what is it?

As has often been the case, psychiatrist and philosopher Iain McGilchrist has an answer for us: We pursue the wrong kind of happiness.

Most often, it seems the word “happiness” is used as a description of something like joy or bliss, a sensation that we all know is fleeting. An ecstatic, exultant moment that comes on, arrives, and floats away with time and the next experience. It’s not something easy to artificially produce or even anticipate. It comes over you like fear or sadness and so many other emotions, triggered by events we may not have foreseen.

Is it contentment? A state when one is “happy” with one’s situation, one’s job, family life, relations with friends, or a general sense of doing well? It may be, but can one consciously “pursue” that kind of “happiness”? You can make considered and well thought out decisions that may get you there but may not. The pursuit, the journey, is never ending in this life, and is fraught with potholes along the way. And be careful what wish for. You may well get it, and find your desires were mistaken. In that sense, “happiness” can evaporate at any time, and then the fear of “unhappiness,” of making the wrong decision, can dig a very large pothole on one’s path in life.

Maybe “happiness” is something else. And the more we consciously think about it and “pursue” it, the less successful we are in achieving anything like it. Somewhere in his vast writings, McGilchrist compares happiness to a butterfly. It is beautiful and attracts our attention, stoking our desire for it. It may even land on our shoulder for a brief moment. But if we try and seize it, it flits away from us. It is not something that can be “pursued” in that sense.  

In his magnum opus, the two volume The Matter with Things (TMWT), McGilchrist cites a mountain of research indicating that “pursuing happiness” by the standards of the brain’s Left Hemisphere, which wants what it wants and wants it now, the assertion of the psyche’s will to power, has hardly been successful in its quest. Quite the opposite.

In the epilogue to TMWT, McGilchrist notes that we in Western society are the world’s most relentless pursuers of “hedonic happiness” in the world; i.e., we feverishly pursue personal pleasure. What else could matter in a mechanistic, solely material universe? That pursuit results in what he called “the hedonic treadmill,” a “restless, endless pursuing of something we know not what,” that can never be satisfied. That which is pursued loses its flavor as soon as it is attained. Yet our society has deemed the set of values that underlie the hedonic treadmill superior. The values of individualism, “personal autonomy, control, choice.” Yet the evidence tells us a different story—that they do not provide “a pathway to a happy life—rather the opposite.”

One instructive example McGilchrist cites is a cross-cultural psychology study that identified certain cultural characteristics within various countries and attempted to measure them, then reviewed the results. The qualities the study identified and measured were greater or lesser levels of equality, greater or lesser personal autonomy, less or more structured codes of behavior, greater or lesser clearly defined sex roles, and, finally, longer term (self-denying) or shorter term (self-gratifying) orientation. Implied in all these criteria are attitudes toward traditional authority and moral codes. The results pointed to a seeming paradox: the countries that score the “best” according to what our society values—more equality, greater autonomy, less structured codes of behavior, and “low masculinity” also have higher rates of mental illness and suicide. McGilchrist noted that the very fact that professional psychologists see this as a paradox tells us just how focused we have become on “values which do in fact turn out to cause harm.” What’s more, suicide rates are lower in lesser developed, more traditional societies than in the modernized countries.

A study on rates of psychopathology in adolescents over an extended period (1938-2007) in modernized societies found—again, seemingly paradoxically—that there were between five and eight times as many adolescents that met a common standard for rating psychopathology in the latest cohort than in the earliest. McGilchrist noted that those numbers may be an underestimate, as more recent cohorts of disturbed youths may be treated with antidepressants.

Not surprisingly, isolation and loneliness figured prominently in many of these studies. Subjects tended to “silo” themselves in artificial and isolated worlds enabled by technology, building virtual milieus and “communities” for themselves. The result in their pursuing “happiness” through radical autonomy was depression, mental illness, loneliness, and suicide.

There is an alternative way to “pursue happiness”—what McGilchrist calls “Eudaimonic happiness.” This is a disposition, a psychological disposition toward ourselves, others, and the world we live in, rather than a “pursuit,” and reflects the Right Hemisphere’s broad interpretation of reality. It’s a view that as McGilchirst says, should be the “master” in the interplay between the hemispheres, with the LH serving in a subordinate role as “the emissary” that can momentarily focus on “the trees” while the RH takes in “the forest,” reviews what the LH has taken in, and re-integrates that into the mind’s perception of reality.

It is the result of “leading a more ‘other centered’ life, rather than a self-centered life, of self-restraint—in short, living unostentatiously what has traditionally been called a virtuous life.” And that, in turn, leads to a sense of fulfillment, a vitality not otherwise possible. McGilchrist noted that an other-centered life is a hedge against depression, and “lowers all case mortality.” Living such a life may not bring “happiness” in the hedonic sense. It does not prevent the catastrophes and disappointments we all experience from taking place. And it is no guarantee of “success.” What it can do is build a sense of purpose and meaning in life, and that, in the end, is what has been missing. It requires adopting a certain disposition to reality, and to God.

In a previous piece, I noted a surprising, by today’s standards, level of contentment among my older relations that I had noticed as a boy. They were poor by modern standards, and they suffered from certain vagaries of life we are so often insulated from nowadays. I envied them.

As it turns out, you do have to lose your life in order to gain it. There is happiness.

Chronicles contributor Wayne Allensworth is the author of The Russian Question: Nationalism, Modernization, and Post-Communist Russia, and a novel, Field of Blood

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Wayne Allensworth

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