The Pursuit of Happiness

(December 2008)
Published as “Joy to the World” in Good Weekend/Melbourne Age/Sydney Morning Herald

It’s Christmas morning and the March sisters are waiting for their mother’s return. With little money for gifts, they have worked hard to prepare a meagre breakfast feast. Outside, there is a blizzard and when Marmee pushes through the door, her grey cape is covered with snow. A woman has given birth in a cold barn, and her family has no money, and no food. Amy hesitates, but the others leap up immediately, insisting they take their feast. And so off they go, the four girls and Marmee, out into the snow, delivering cream and muffins and buckwheat pancakes to the poor.

We are lying together, my daughter and I, on her bed, reading the beginning of Little Women to the sound of cicadas. Like early shopping centre tinsel, they are our first sign of Christmas. A poinsettia is blooming, and the Christmas gift list is pinned to the fridge downstairs. Separated from the world of Little Women by a hemisphere and by well more than a century, our own route to Christmas goodwill seems clear: buy more stuff.

In the nineteenth century Louisa M. Alcott’s brand of moralising literature was common. Novels should have a lesson, often about helping the poor; the impulse to do so often connected to “that gentle Friend who hears and sees all.” Nowadays we don’t hold with that sort of exhortation. For the last fifty years, our instructions, such as they were, involved earning more in order to spend, mostly on ourselves. In the words of Polly Toynbee, “When God died, GDP took over and economists became the new high priests.” In an unprecedented period of prosperity and technological growth, our moral compasses have been fixed pretty firmly on acquisition. Believing that the market would serve us, we have, in fact—like so many soldier ants—been serving the market. Daniel Gilbert in Stumbling on Happiness writes: “Economies can blossom and grow only if people are deluded into believing that the production of wealth will make them happy … Economies thrive when individuals strive, but because individuals will strive only for their own happiness, it is essential that they mistakenly believe that producing and consuming are routes to personal well-being.” In other words, we have been duped. We have never been as obsessed with happiness as we are now, yet, judging by the demand for anti-depressants, we have never been less happy. In a much cited 2004 study by Ed Diener and Martin Seligman, the researchers wrote: “Although economic output has risen steeply over the past decades, there has been no rise in life satisfaction … and there has been a substantial increase in depression and distrust.” The money-doesn’t-buy-happiness research does have one caveat, though. Most researchers agree that for people below the poverty line there is a measurable and sustained increase in happiness when their income improves.

Back in the seventeen hundreds, the Parisian philosopher Denis Diderot was given a new dressing gown. Sitting in his study, pleased with himself and his new “imperious scarlet” garment, Diderot began to notice the shabbiness of his straw chair beside the showy silk of his new look. The chair was sent to the place that bad chairs go, and a new leather chair installed in the study. Alongside the chair, the much-marked table began to look cheap and was replaced by a handsome new writing desk. A cycle was set in place leading to a total refurbishment of Diderot’s study (and, he writes, some debt), along with a decrease in satisfaction. Of his beloved, original dressing gown, he asks, “Why didn’t I keep it?… I now have the air of a rich good for nothing.” Diderot was tracking what is these days known as the Hedonic Cycle—basically, the more we have, the more we want. In fact, Seligman says, “Economic success falls short as a measure of well-being, in part because materialism can negatively influence well-being.” Which might turn out to be just as well, given the direction we’re currently heading in, economically speaking.

Clinical Psychologist Sally Neary, of the Sydney Anxiety Disorders Practice, has observed a significant upturn in referrals since the recent downturn in the economy, and evidence suggests citizens of developed nations stopped gaining in happiness decades ago—well before the big boom we have now outlived. So, puzzlingly, neither economic growth nor economic decline seem to create happiness. Our obsession with happiness—as though it were yet another purchasable product—is relatively recent. As a child I once tried to stand in the end of a rainbow, to feel the colours on me, running back and forth across a wet field with friends shouting directions across the cowpats. But rainbows can’t be seen from close up. And the irony of happiness as a ‘product’ is that it disappears when we look directly at it, as ephemeral as that rainbow. Perhaps fulfilment, or well-being, are more useful terms. Happiness as a goal implies a self-absorption which many researchers suggest is at odds with the likelihood of actually discovering it. Increasingly, new observations confirm what the March girls knew—helping other people is what increases your own well-being.

In a 2001 study of almost four thousand people by American sociologist Peggy Thoits, volunteers with charitable organisations were clearly observed to have lower levels of depression and illness, and higher levels of well-being. Alan Attwood, editor of The Big Issue, observes that dynamic regularly in the magazine’s Melbourne office. Of his own experience of volunteering—at the Collingwood Children’s Farm during a period of sorting priorities—he says, “when you stop putting a monetary value on what you do it is immensely liberating. Why are you doing something? Because you want to. It’s so simple.” Novelist Mark Haddon, who spent a year after university working in Scotland with Community Service Volunteers has similar sentiments: “Being at Oxford was three years about me me me, which felt like a lot of birthday cake and I needed a glass of water.”

The glass of water doesn’t have to be a large one. It doesn’t have to be a big project, or even a big commitment to make a difference. An act of kindness, the result of thinking about someone else’s well-being, can be enough to improve your own well-being too. Sonja Lyubomirsky of the University of California recently carried out studies which involved students performing five random acts of kindness each week over six weeks. By the end of the period there was a marked increase in the recorded levels of well-being of those who had carried out the acts of kindness, as opposed to a ‘non-kindness’ control group. It seems there was a direct link: the more acts of kindness, the more significant the increase in happiness.

But perhaps there remains room for altruism to be on a larger scale. In Edwardian England, the newly comfortable middle class gave rise to a group of women who were not content merely with charity: they wanted to change society through the suffragette movement. Similarly in 1960s America it was very often well-educated Jewish lawyers, themselves immigrants and the children of immigrants, who somehow found the time and energy to support the civil rights movement and end the segregation of African Americans. And how have we made use of the time and energy granted us by more than two decades of prosperity? We’ve decorated.

After the Misses March deliver their Christmas feast, they return home to a breakfast of bread and milk, but “there were not in all the city four merrier people.” Won over by Alcott’s sharply drawn characters, my daughter asks me if we can help someone this Christmas, so I phone the Wayside Chapel in Kings Cross. Wayside does a large lunch for homeless people every Christmas day, a climax to their year working with the disenfranchised. Volunteers travel from as far as Queensland to take part in the day, returning year after year, inspired by a renewed sense of meaning. Stephanie, the Volunteer Co-ordinator, says that for their Christmas lunch the call for volunteers opens on the 1st December. When they reach five hundred they close registration. The time of real need is during the rest of the year, when the emotive power of Christmas isn’t baubling overhead. “Without volunteers on a daily basis in our centre we would not be able to keep our doors open. At Wayside we run shifts with paid and unpaid staff and we simply could not survive without them.” Wayside volunteers speak of the pleasures of being part of a team, of seeing their contribution make a difference, and of having their own preconceptions challenged.

It’s true that the sentimentality of nineteenth century writers flourished at a time of great poverty and social division. With hindsight we can sneer at the literary sugar-coating of ‘charity’ that thinly disguised a deeply iniquitous social structure. Yet the irony is that we have now returned to similar levels of social division, in relative if not absolute terms. Even with the economic slide affecting property owners and share holders, the gap between rich and poor has never been wider.

In Bethlehem around 30 BC, a corrupt Roman client state was extracting, by means of a census, maximum taxation for minimal public benefit. It was a time of famines, wars, political instability, religious turmoil and enormous divides between rich and poor. Plus ça change… An economy veering out of control can lead to a range of worrying consequences, and the temptation is understandably to close in on oneself and one’s immediate tribe. We can too easily repeat the mantra, ‘charity begins at home’, without noticing that the saying sets no limits on where charity may end. I find hope in the words of Auschwitz survivor Hermann Gruenwald: “I have come to realize that during inhumane times, helping others makes us feel human again.”

One of the most mortifying memories of my childhood happened during the build up to a Lake Macquarie Christmas. It was during the glory days when New South Wales had refunds on soft drink bottles, when elderly neighbours would donate their empties to well-spoken nine-year-olds. Over the course of six months, I’d built up a spectacular collection. One morning, while my family slept, I counted up the refunds from the bottles and realised I had enough to purchase—immediately!—the makings of extraordinary gifts, made up of tinfoil and sweets, for all the neighbours on the street. Imagining their delighted faces on Christmas morning, I gathered up the bottles—there wasn’t a moment to waste!—and set off to the local corner shop, bags of bottles in either hand. Halfway to the shop, I noticed a group of boys from the class above me at school, loitering behind me in fits of giggles. Assuming they were impressed with my lucrative bottle stash, I put a bit more swagger into my walk. A block away from the shop, I looked down and suddenly realised that I was wearing my large, baggy, blue Cottontails, with a short baby doll pyjama top. Inspired by Jo March, eyes fixed on the non-existent horizon, I turned back the way I’d come. In my nonchalant “Excuse me,” as I passed, I hoped to imply that I’d simply stepped out for a knickers-wearing, bottle-carrying stroll.

When I remember that morning, though, the feeling that comes swimming back is not the embarrassment, but the exultation in the moment of gathering the bottles, the thrill with which I imagined making the gifts and delivering them. It was a moment of self forgetting. I was a girl like Jo, “quite regardless of everything but her own happiness”. And while I don’t plan on wandering into the city in my night attire any time soon, I’d welcome that state again, the deep pleasure of knowing that I am delivering something useful, and longed for, asking nothing in return.