As its subtitle (“Why Modern Life Makes it Hard to be Happy”) suggests, Michael Foley’s book begins by observing that, in spite of (or perhaps because of) this age of plenty that we live in, few people can lay claim to being truly happy. He then attempts to uncover exactly what ‘happiness’ really means, and discovers that it’s hard to arrive at a satisfactory definition. And although plenty of great thinkers throughout history (from Buddha through Spinoza to Nietzsche, and beyond) have given clear and concise lifestyle instructions that could help us, contemporary Western society has developed two serious glitches that mean these tips are mostly ignored.
Glitch 1: we live in an age of entitlement – to want something is to deserve it, be it fame, money, sex, beauty, respect, or (in recent years) the Christmas Number One.
Glitch 2: we have completely abandoned the concept of personal responsibility. If somebody does something wrong and is subsequently punished for it, the fault lies with whoever caused the offence to be punished. Being at fault is no longer your fault.
This new way of “thinking” reached its maddest point when Z-Un Noon took Newham Council to court for the ’emotional distress’ caused by receiving fines for illegal parking – and was awarded £20,000! The case, inevitably, was a little more involved than the book sets out, and common sense did eventually prevail when another court ordered Mr Noon to repay the money (although he then claimed he’d already spent it), but the point is well made.
Just when it looks like we have reached the nadir, the bottom drops further out of sight. Consider this: sales of oranges fell in Britain in 2008 because people just couldn’t be bothered to peel them. I mentioned this to some colleagues for a laugh and had two people tell me their husbands don’t eat oranges for that reason! While these ‘difficult foods’ are in decline, newspapers have reported that ‘lazy foods’ such as pre-boiled eggs, grated cheese and pre-sliced fruit have seen a 14% increase in popularity.
Like many so-called celebrities these days, Katie Price/Jordan is famous for being famous, and nothing will get in the way of her endless self-promotion. She preaches the modern holy trinity of sex, money and fame, and thousands hang on her every action. It’s as if Mahatma Gandhi’s Seven Blunders of the World list (wealth without work, pleasure without conscience, etc.) was a manifesto rather than a warning.
This isn’t, of course, an entirely new thing. The Sixties replaced post-war austerity with accelerated technological advances and an increase in available spending money for many. But the fabled leisure society has instead become an endless downward spiral. In the Monkees’ 1968 film Head, a suitably absurdist creation – written by a mostly-stoned Jack Nicholson – that begins at the end and ends at the beginning, a startlingly clear observation is made:
“Pleasure, the inevitable by-product of our civilisation … A new world whose only pre-occupation will be how to amuse itself … The tragedy of your times, my young friends, is that you may get exactly what you want.”
I feel that the book is mostly preaching to the converted, indeed I pondered whether or not to purchase it after reading a review and thinking it would merely reinforce what I already suspected, but it does quote a diverse range of sources and is entertaining and informative throughout. The conclusion may seem a little glib – basically life is absurd so why not go with the flow – but then the most obvious solutions are never the most appealing: take charge of your own affairs and work hard for the things you really want.
[Addendum – 22/09/2015 – the quote from the Monkees’ film might begin ‘leisure’, not ‘pleasure’ (according to the subtitles anyway). I based my interpretation on the American pronunciation of ‘leisure’ not sounding like that in the film, but I’m really not sure anymore!]
4 February 2010.
Simon & Schuster.