Posts Tagged ‘contentment’

On happiness (or contentment)

March 9, 2017

51s1OWZlFDL._AC_US218_One of the things that I find myself thinking quite a bit about as I grow older is happiness. Or perhaps I mean contentment, I’m not completely sure. And for me it’s quite a simple thing, a lot of the time. It involves lying comfortably on the sofa, reading a good book. There’s a glass of good beer on the table, and music playing, probably Bach, Beethoven or Chopin. The iPad is next to me, should I need to check something, or look something up about what I’m reading.

And that’s it. Except, not really, because being here in this state of contentment comprehends the people, the family and the achievements and satisfactions that have accompanied me to this place where I am today, and the feelings and loyalties they inspire, too.

The idea of contentment doesn’t seem to figure that prominently in fiction, at least not what I’ve come across. Hermann Hesse’s Siddartha is an interesting case, a fictional narrative that imagines the life and spiritual journey long ago, of a man – is he the Buddha? I don’t know; perhaps; it doesn’t actually matter. In his story we see him achieving what he thinks is happiness or contentment a number of times, and subsequently realising that it was not, that something was still lacking and it was time to move on to the next part of the search. It’s a short, tenuous book which is actually better listened to in the librivox recording, if you have the time.


One of my all-time favourite novels, to which I return every few years, is Ernst Wiechert’s The Simple Life. A sailor returns from the Great War to Germany, and quickly realises that he cannot fit back into the life he is expected to. So he ups sticks and leaves everyone and everything behind, and disappears into the forested depths of East Prussia, where he comes to find peace and contentment totally cut off from the world, living on a small island in a lake in the middle of nowhere. He makes no demands on anyone or anything, but he’s not a hermit, for he has a loyal companion and is tolerated by the owner of the estate in whose lands the island and lake lie. It’s a slow and lyrical novel – how I wish I could read it in the original German: I’ve tried but it is beyond me – and it’s gradually pervaded by the sense of a man at peace with himself and the world, genuinely happy. And yet, we know and can sense that lurking in the distant background is the gathering storm that will shatter and destroy everything. I find the novel astonishingly powerful.

When I think about the various utopian novels I’ve hunted out and read, I’m quite struck by the fact that I don’t recall much happiness or contentment in them, despite the genre and my expectations of it. If I feel anything about William MorrisNews From Nowhere, W H Hudson’s A Crystal Age, or more recently, Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, I have a sense of worlds which strive to be fair to everyone, which provide a sufficiency for everyone, and there is a general sense of satisfaction about them, but it doesn’t really go any further or deeper than that. Maybe a utopia is inevitably general because it has to convince us that the whole world is perfect; what I want to read is an interesting story set in a utopia, but I suspect that here is where the stasis of utopia might let down the necessary dynamics of a good story. And coming back to happiness and/or contentment, which was where I set out from, I also feel that is an individual matter, rather than a general one.

Robert & Edward Skidelsky: How Much Is Enough?

February 1, 2014

9780241953891A serious read, here, on a topic which exercises my mind a lot: how do we try and make a more sensible and fairer world? Though I have to admit, it feels largely academic now, as I’m hardly likely to get to live an a better, fairer world now, whereas I felt rather more radical and even revolutionary in my younger years.

The Skidelskys’ detailed review of economists and economic history leads to a summary of how we are all now stuck and embedded in a capitalist society from which there seems to be no escape. Adam Smith once described capitalism as “wrapping up selfishness in impartiality“, which I think is an excellent summary. I was introduced to the concept of the ‘stationary state’, which I’d not come across before, the idea being that development and wealth reaches a point at which we decide to stop, rather than go further, and instead focus on different things, and the Skidelskys explore what thinkers through the ages have meant by a ‘good life’. As public life has been moved out of the sphere of morality, there is no longer any distinction between needs and wants, between necessities and luxuries, no clear idea of what constitutes ‘enough’, leading to the disappearance of the idea of avarice, which was the subject of much moral stricture in the past. The key period seems to have been the Thatcher/Reagan years, when the restraints on individual greed were cast aside.

When I was much younger, economists wrote about how the working week was going to be reduced drastically as technology increasingly made our lives easier, and we would have so much more time for leisure; this hasn’t happened, and people seem to have to work harder than ever before. Meanwhile, leisure activities are made increasingly expensive as we are persuaded we need so many expensive gadgets and so much kit in order to pursue even the simplest activity, such as walking in the countryside. Thus, profit can be made from those at leisure, just as much as from those working…

The key word in the book, as it has been for me for a long while, is ‘enough’. Modern capitalism convinces us that there never can be enough: this is a twentieth century development. Our material wants, apparently, “know no natural bounds”, and the concept ‘enough’ has no application to money, if you think about it, as opposed to actual goods.

For me, the central point is that currently everything is totally focused on individual choice and individual freedom, forgetting that we are by nature a social species: individual autonomy should be merely one good among all the others, rather than the sole determinant.

There is a very interesting and thought-provoking chapter on environmentalism, which has me questioning some long-held beliefs, but when the authors come to discussing the issue of happiness, I think they are chasing the wrong hare, and really believe that we need to examine the question of contentment instead; I don’t think the difference is merely semantic.

When it comes to suggestions for what should actually be done, the book is at its thinnest: there are some ideas, including the notion of taxing consumption rather than income, which bears scrutiny. What needs to be done as a matter of urgency, it seems to me, is to address the question of democratic deficit: the idea that people have given up on politics and politicians because these are seen as having no power to effect change, given that business and corporations rule the world and dictate to governments.

In the end, the book is a provocative and stimulating read, which will probably be sidelined and ignored.

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