A few thoughts on the conflict between happiness and achievement….

Over the past couple of weeks i Have been reading and listening to some of the new Happiness Gurus. Last weekend The Guardian gave away Happier, a slim, aggressively yellow book by Tal Ben-Shahar ; this morning, I watched a TEDX speech on line given by an American psychologist, Shawn Anchor, who really should be – is, already – a stand up comedian, on the same subject.

What strikes me, increasingly, is how much these happiness messages run directly counter to the values, both explicit and covert, that young people are taught to hold, particularly at this rather mean spirited point in our society, and particularly within schools. These are, that results matter above all else; only A stars really count: Oxbridge or a Russell Group university are the only places worth aiming for etc

In terms of paid work, the goals are similar. What is prized? Work in some highly visible occupation such as politics, law, media or banking ( yes, even now, although, personally, I have yet to understand what any of these milk-round graduates are actually doing in these glass palaces of post crash capitalism.) And these careers are only worth something if you climb to the top. ( Who salutes a back bench MP who has campaigned hard over many decades to create a fairer society?)

Leave aside the massive issue of inequality of access to these same so called goals; is Super Achievement worth aiming for at all?

Not according to the Happiness Gurus. Ben-Shahar urges us to throw off the Rat Race mentality while Shawn Anchor claims that concern for success actually blocks productivity. (An interesting footnote: only those who have succeeded in the Rat Race can repudiate it. So Shawn Anchor’s talk carefully emphasises his Harvard career while Ben-Shahar begins his book with a story about winning a top athletics tournament as a highly driven, and unhappy, sixteen year old.)

Still, there’s a lot of sense in what they say. It is hard to learn to relish the ordinary moments of life when culture rewards only those ‘mountain top moments‘ of an extraordinary goal achieved.

But what neither the Stressed Over Achievers nor the Laid Back Happy Ones seem to address is the question of meaning. Neither seem to ask: what does happiness or achievement mean if neither are grounded in a life, or actions, based on the things that really matter: strong, honest relationships: kindness ( ‘the ruling principle of nowhere’ as the writer Jan Morris once memorably observed) and deeply held moral and political values, even those these might well lead you far from the centres of power, status or money.

A final footnote: I have long noticed that while contemporary culture rewards those who seek glory and status, history tends to reverse the equation and honour those who advocate, and uphold, justice. So, incidentally, does some of our most substantive, moving and enduring literature: cf George Eliot or Theodore Dreiser.

3 Responses to A few thoughts on the conflict between happiness and achievement….

  1. Employment is completely over rated but purposeful work (from bringing up children to doing what you love/campaigning or indeed being kind) utterly under-rated. How fascinating that being happy is the new goal.I met a former colleague (ie, a boss) recently who reminded me at an office away day in 2008 he’d asked everyone where they wanted to be in five years. Five years on he has nearly achieved his goal (to keep on saving up and buy a house in cash, incredible) which will mean that he probably leaves his job. He told me he’d asked the question to find out if the organisation was helping his team meet their life goals. How thoughtful (although I have to admit I guessed it was a trick question and dreamt up an answer I thought a boss might want to hear!). It’s tougher to be honest if you are performing for an audience.
    Nicola http://homemadekids.wordpress.com and http://aroundbritainnoplane.blogspot.com

  2. I’m a bit like a broken record on this topic. I love my work, yet hold the organisation I supposedly work for in contempt. In fact I do not regard myself as an employee of the organisation but a loyal practitioner to the tax paying public who finance my income working within an essential public service (despite ongoing attempts to privatise us). I have heard similar rants from my friends employed in the NHS who may adore helping their patients, but speak with vitriol about interfering managers and politicians of every party. Nicola’s comments above about “purposeful work” resonate well with me. Helping others is an integral part of my working life and has always been the bit that is most rewarding and most fun. Just as well as I enter my fourth year on a pay freeze – nice to know the bus fares and my weekly food shop are being held static in the same way! Despite these observations I am actually very happy. The kids are in good health and there’s still fruit in the bowl. Most of the really wealthy people I know are so miserable I don’t know why they pursue more money and power.

  3. There’s an interesting philosophical book on happiness, meaning and well-being by John White on this very subject; and two very narrow minded letters in today’s Telegraph from heads of academic private schools. There is little public debate about the point of education or indeed work/life balance, simply systems, logistics etc etc

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