“A fly bothers me, I kill it: you kill what bothers you. If I had not killed the fly, it would have been out of pure liberalism: I am liberal in order not to be a killer.”
Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes
‘He was not to be described as a happy person,” Diana Trilling wrote in a memoir about her husband, the critic Lionel Trilling. “Indeed, he thought poorly of happiness and of people who claimed to be happy or desired happiness above other gratifications in life . . . seriousness was the desirable condition of man.” It is easy to make all sorts of assumptions about why an unhappy person would not value happiness; and indeed why seriousness might be seen as an alternative to happiness; or just to say that it was seriousness that made Trilling happy. One of the ways in which happiness is made to seem like an inclusive ideal – the ways it charms us – is by our asserting that by definition the things that matter most to us must make us happy, that that is how we know they are good. It’s as though one word could do the work of the moral imagination.
Or can we just say that if happiness is one’s aspiration, then learning about the history of the slave trade, say, or watching the news, or indeed ageing are all to be avoided. And yet learning about the terrible things people can do to each other, and the history of the terrible things people have done to each other, is important – we can’t imagine a life without it – and gives some people a great deal of pleasure; pleasure, as psychoanalysts might say, of various kinds. Anyone who has or knows children, or remembers being a child, will know how happy it can make them tormenting their siblings. And so if we value happiness we can’t help but wonder what morality it entails, what kind of morality it might involve us in.
It is not surprising, in other words, that happiness has always had rather a mixed reception. No one in their right minds we might think, especially now, would be promoting unhappiness; and yet the promotion, the preferring of happiness – the assumption of a right to happiness – brings with it a lot of things we might not like. And the desire for happiness may reveal things about ourselves that we like even less. “A people who conceive life to be the pursuit of happiness must be chronically unhappy,” the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins wrote.
What are we going to have to do, what are we going to have to become, what are we going to have to renounce or ignore if we want to be happy? Or if we are to propose happiness, or its pursuit, as some kind of right? We tend to make rights of things we assume to be in short supply, things perpetually under threat. Wherever there is scarcity now human rights are asserted; and the assertion of rights is reactive to a sense of scarcity deemed to be needless. Or, to put it slightly differently, calling something a right can be a way of rhetorically enforcing an important wish, a way of making a wish sound important.
I want to begin with three fairly obvious propositions that are also misgivings about the right to happiness or its pursuit. And I’d like to suggest that the right to frustration may be more useful and interesting – more enlivening – than the right to happiness. That’s to say I want to waylay the common, all-too-plausible idea that the solution to frustration is satisfaction, or that happiness is the answer to unhappiness, or that if we get rid of the bad things, the good things will start happening. Happiness and the right to pursue it are sometimes wildly unrealistic as ideals; and, because wildly unrealistic, unconsciously self-destructive.
Because happiness is not always the kind of thing that can be pursued, we should view it, more often than not, as a lucky side effect but not a calculable or calculated end. Making it such an end all too easily brings out the worst in us. If this is a version, to rewrite John Lennon’s famous line, of “happiness is what happens to you when you are doing something else”, it also suggests that scarcity is integral to a sense of reality; that we should be thinking of what Philip Larkin in “Born Yesterday” called “a skilled, / Vigilant, flexible, / Unemphasised, enthralled / Catching of happiness” rather than the engineering of it.
Our relation to happiness often betrays an unconscious desire for disillusionment. The wanting of it and the having of it can seem like two quite different things. And this is what makes wishing so interesting; because wishing is always too knowing. When we wish we are too convinced of our pleasures, too certain that we know what we want. The belief that we can arrange our happiness – as though happiness were akin to justice, which we can work towards – may be to misrecognise the very thing that concerns us.
My three fairly obvious propositions are: first, in Freud’s formulation from Civilisation and its Discontents, “happiness is something essentially subjective” (subjective I take it, in the sense of being not only personal but idiosyncratic). We can be surprised by what makes us happy, and it will not necessarily be something that makes other people happy. This has significant consequences not least in the area of our lives that is sometimes conducive to happiness, sexuality. And this makes happiness as a social or communal pursuit complicated. We have only to imagine what it would be for someone to propose that we had a right to sexual satisfaction to imagine both how we might contrive this and what terrible things might be done in its name.
Second, bad things can make us happy – and by bad things I mean things consensually agreed to be unacceptable. It clearly makes some people happy to live in a world without Jews, or homosexuals, or immigrants, and so on. There are also what we might call genuinely bad things, like seriously harming people and other animals, that gives some people the pleasure they most crave. I remember a very unhappy boy of 10 telling me in a psychotherapy session that he was only happy when he was cutting the feet off rats that he had caught. He said it made him feel “really awake”, that it was like “turning on the light in your favourite room in the world”. Cruelty and humiliation make some people happy, perhaps lots of people happy some of the time; and this issue is not dealt with merely by saying that they are not really happy or that they are in some way perverse or sick. We tend to pathologise the forms of happiness we cannot bear. If we are to have a right to happiness or to its pursuit – two different things – we must then acknowledge the full range of things that make people happy. This means taking them at their word. Cruelty can make people happy. And we might then want to think about what problem, or rather problems, happiness is deemed to be the solution to. It is not, for example, incidental to our predicament that so many of our pleasures are, or are felt to be, forbidden (this is what Freud’s account of the Oedipus complex is a way of thinking about). So put briefly – as every child and therefore every adult knows – being bad can make you happy. Happiness is subjective, it takes many forms, and one of its forms is immorality.
Last but not least – though the least exciting – is the third point: some people like being unhappy. Indeed for some people their lives can be construed as the pursuit of unhappiness. It is astounding the lengths to which some people will go to be unhappy, to contrive their own misery, as though happiness itself were a phobic object and held terrors. And we don’t talk of the right to be unhappy, when we should. Unhappiness can, after all, among many other things, be the registration of injustice or loss. At its best, a culture committed to the pursuit of happiness might be committed, say, to the diminishing of injustice; but at its worst, the culture of happiness may proscribe a whole range of feelings and perceptions.
It is sometimes said that psychoanalysis is one of the last places in the culture where people are allowed to be unhappy. And clearly psychoanalysis protects, if it does not actually foster, a person’s right to be unhappy. The subjectivity of happiness, what it is that the individual really loves and gets pleasure from, the immorality of pleasures and the lure of transgression, happiness as a perversion, the fear of pleasure and the masochistic solution – all this is the material of psychoanalysis, and not only of psychoanalysis.
Yet, historically, psychoanalysis is the inheritor of a set of political propositions it would seem to be at odds with; or at least at a very odd angle to. If Freud and happiness doesn’t sound like a very promising subject, Freud and rights seems even less so (there’s only one reference to the rights of man in Freud’s work). Rights, like class, have never really been the thing for psychoanalysis; omissions, one would think, of some significance. Don’t have much confidence in the so-called rights of man, Freud seems to say in his New Introductory Lectures; they are no match for the ferocity of inner morality – the super-ego, or “conscience”. The whole business of rights only turns up when the individual, the melancholic individual, is briefly released from his internal regime (“For after a certain number of months the whole moral fuss is over, the criticism of the superego is silent, the ego is rehabilitated and again enjoys all the rights of man till the next attack.”) Morality, at least in these patients, is periodic, as are the rights of man, the gift, as it were of a higher power.
“Our normal sense of guilt,” Freud writes, “is the expression of the tension between the ego and the super-ego”. This translates as: our happiness depends on the distance between who we are and who we should be according to the dictates of our internalised morality. We are mostly unhappy because we are rarely as we should be. When the internal authorities are so implacable and sadistic — over-severe, abusive, humiliating, as Freud writes — what are the possibilities for happiness?
The right to happiness, or to its pursuit, would mean the right to a generous super-ego, the right to a super-ego that was on the side of one’s pleasure: one that promoted the view that feeling alive was more important than being right or good. It is one of Freud’s more horrifying ironies that the pursuit of pleasure incites, calls up, the super-ego. And, of course, when and if pleasure is forbidden its pursuit requires punishment. There is no such thing as a free lunch. Virtue has to be its own reward. To pursue pleasure is to be pursued by punishment. There is no one more moralistic, more coercive, than a hedonist.
As the right to happiness or its pursuit is my subject, and I am by training a child psychotherapist, all this is by way of a lengthy preamble to putting together the famous sentence from Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence with something from the paediatrician and psychoanalyst DW Winnicott‘s story about child development. I want to ask what, if anything, the right to happiness or its pursuit has to do with the child’s development; whether Jefferson’s founding declaration has anything to do with the declaration of independence that is the child’s personal development.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness”. Some of us might not believe in the Creator part now, and some of us might find more and more difficult the idea that people are born equal when the conditions in which they are born are manifestly so unequal; and most of us would want to assume that by “men” Jefferson meant “people”. And yet, as many people have noted, the pursuit of happiness – something not mentioned in the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, nor in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – seems peculiarly salient; it is the only one of the things listed that is a pursuit.
What exactly might it mean to have an “unalienable right” to “the pursuit of happiness”, given that it is fairly obvious that the pursuit of happiness is so morally equivocal – could be, among other things, a threat to the society that promoted it? At first sight it seems to be a pretty good idea; if we are convinced of anything now we are convinced that we are pleasure-seeking creatures, who want to minimise the pain and frustration of our lives. Or at least a “we” could be consolidated around these beliefs. We are the creatures who, possibly unlike any other animal, pursue happiness. But the pursuit of happiness, like the pursuit of liberty – the utopian political projects of the 20th century – has legitimated some of the worst crimes of contemporary history across the political spectrum.
In Jefferson’s Declaration, the art critic Dave Hickey has noted, “Happiness is not assured, but its pursuit is protected . . . the government will act to ensure our safety, and it will stand back as we act on our own behalf in the ‘pursuit of happiness’. When that pursuit putatively threatens our safety the government invariably steps in. Safety trumps happiness, the government always wins.” It is not too much of a stretch here to see, in this account, the government as the parents, and the citizens as adolescent children; the governmental parents protect the pursuit of happiness, but prioritise safety. The developing child pursues his own happiness under the rules and conditions provided by the adults. Children cannot bring themselves up, and children cannot bring up children (in Lord of the Flies the question recurs: “are there any adults?”).
If it is said, or written, that we have a right to be happy or to pursue happiness, it is assumed that happiness is something we are capable of, something that is available, if certain obstacles are removed. If liberty is there when tyranny is taken away, happiness is there when whatever makes us unhappy is removed. From a pragmatic point of view the art of a good life involves removing the obstacles to happiness; the picture, if we visualise it, is of something looked for, something looked forward to, and of there being something in the way. And this something in the way could be called an unavailable mother, a prohibitive father, competing sibling, not having enough brains or beauty, or charm, or money, or education, or luck. We would get closer to our happiness were these things acquired; and a reality sense would be something to do with acknowledging which of these things cannot be acquired. It is all about, in short, our relation to obstacles; our distinguishing the intractable from the changeable, what we have to acknowledge from what we can influence; whether our desire is forbidden or not – whether we want a cream cake or another man’s wife. It is, in pragmatic terms, about knowing what is possible. And everybody, it seems, is shadowed by an imaginary other person, a lucky counterpart, who gets all the happiness going; Lacan writes of “the jealousy born in a subject in his relation to an other, insofar as this other is held to enjoy a certain form of jouissance or superabundant vitality”. This other person presumably enjoys his happiness, his super-abundant vitality with no conflict, with no thought of safety, with no consideration of the rules and conditions required by the good of the rest.
A right to the pursuit of happiness must be a right to remove the obstacles to happiness. This, at least, is the logic of the case. The man called the happiness tsar, Lord Layard, says we now know what makes children happy (the book he co-authored last year is called A Good Childhood). What, then, are the obstacles to the child’s happiness, and why can’t we set about trying to remove them? And some of them we can remove. But what if the so-called obstacles to happiness are, or sometimes are, among the things that matter most to us? If, say, we love both luxury and justice? What if two mutually exclusive things make us happy, and one has to be abrogated? And what if some obstacles are immovable, untransformable into anything other than obstacles?
There is something about the sexual drive, Freud suggested, that makes it intrinsically unsatisfiable. There are not infinite resources of food, of energy, of medicine. It is, for example, true, as every mother knows, that the mother cannot give the child everything that he wants, and that if she could it wouldn’t be what he wanted. That everyone feels left out of something. It is misleading to think that one’s parents have been the obstacle to one’s happiness, even if they have radically thwarted it. Indeed we might end up thinking that a right to irresolvable conflict might be the most realistic right we could come up with. That the attempt to resolve at least some conflicts was a distraction from finding better ways of living them; that the right to pursue happiness has seduced us into pursuing happiness when we could have been doing something better.
If the alternative to happiness is not, in the binary way, unhappiness; and if happiness has become so insidious, so hypnotic a single end for a good life, why have we wanted this strange narrowing of our intent? What have we lost, or forgotten, or ignored, or paid insufficient attention to, or protected ourselves from by wanting happiness? Happiness, it would seem, is the most plausible of our aims in life. But what psychoanalysis can chip in with here is that we are at our most defensive when we are at our most plausible.
One of the other things we most want is to be able to feel frustrated; to register what we feel deprived of. Frustration issues in many things only one of which is happiness; and happiness can be, at its worst, a pre-emptive strike against frustration, a refuge from it rather than any kind of productive, unpredictable transformation of it. If we want to talk of a right to pursue happiness there needs to be a prior right, as it were, to feel frustration; to be able to bear and to bear with a sense of what is lacking in one’s life. And not simply because frustration makes satisfaction possible in the way that hunger can make a meal delicious. But because frustration and satisfaction do not only or always have a logical, a causal, a pragmatic relationship with one another. Or to put it rather more obviously, what we are lacking when we are unhappy is not always happiness, any more than what an alcoholic is lacking is a drink. And proposing a right to the pursuit of happiness may seduce us, by a kind of word-magic, into thinking that happiness is just the thing.
It is of interest that when Winnicott writes about deprivation in children he too talks about rights. “Let us consider the meaning of the anti-social act,” he writes in a paper called “The Deprived Child”: “for instance, stealing. When a child steals what is sought . . . is not the object stolen; what is sought is the person, the mother from whom the child has the right to steal because she is the mother. In fact every infant at the start can truly claim the right to steal from the mother because the infant invented the mother, thought her up, created her out of an innate capacity to love.”
For Winnicott, the child makes the mother he needs and gradually, through disillusionment and hatred, disentangles her, to some extent, from the mother she happens to be. But it is “the mother from whom the child has the right to steal because she is the mother” that I want to consider. Because the thing stolen is not quite or even nearly the thing wanted – which is not a thing, but a mother – it can never satisfy. What we have is a picture of the right to pursue happiness getting stuck, something I think it is prone to do; as though there is something about the pursuit of happiness that sponsors and endorses addiction. In this sense, consumer capitalism is a system tailor-made for deprived children.
The theft requires communicable translation; it requires, as it were, someone to be able to say, or otherwise communicate what it is that is really being pursued. In Winnicott’s declaration the child has a right to the pursuit of a mother to get what he needs for his development. He is entitled to a mother; she belongs to him in the sense that his own development belongs to him. A good-enough mother or parents might give you the wherewithal for your pursuit of happiness; they might have backed your desire, helped you to believe in and not only be fearful of your pleasures. But it is more complicated than this. Lives are not the kind of things that can be guaranteed by mothers. And this is where the idea of a right to pursue one’s own happiness becomes more interesting.
Do children want to be happy? And if they don’t want to be happy what else might they want to be? This would seem to be of some importance because they are growing up in a world in which their parents mostly want them to be happy, or at least don’t like them being unhappy, admittedly for a variety of different reasons. And by a world I mean the particular cultures for whom happiness has become the preferred object, or the preferred fetish. Children are supposed to be anti-depressants for their parents.
Happiness is something parents often demand of their children; we, as we say, want our children to be happy; we were once children whose parents wanted us to be happy. And that means the whole spectrum, from not being a worry to them, not making their lives more difficult, being curative of their woes, to the pleasure our parents could take in our pleasure and our wellbeing. We are more dependent on our children than they are on us; and we are dependent, in brief, on their happiness. What makes the child happy is not going to be unlinked to what makes the parents happy. Clearly if a parent lives as if their child has a right to happiness, or a right to its pursuit, and that they are the guardians of this right, they are going to have a difficult, an even more difficult, task on their hands. Lovers often feel that they should be making each other happy when they are in fact making themselves a problem to each other.
So by way of conclusion I want to suggest that a right to the pursuit of happiness is asserted when a capacity for absorption has been sabotaged, when there is a loss of confidence in people’s passions. Happiness becomes important when the possibility for absorption is under threat. That the child does not want to be happy – or perhaps, more exactly, the child doesn’t want only to be happy – the child wants first to be safe, and then to be absorbed. There are, for example, only two reasons for children to go to school – apart, that is, from acquiring the werewithal to earn a living: to make friends, and to see if they can find something of absorbing interest to themselves.
There is an interesting moment in Lord of the Flies when Henry, one of the “littluns”, wanders away from the main group of children. “He went down to the beach and busied himself at the water’s edge.” William Golding writes: “There were creatures that lived in this last fling of the sea, tiny transparencies that came questing in with the water over the hot, dry sand. With impalpable organs of sense they examined this new field. Perhaps food had appeared where the last incursion there had been none . . . This was fascinating to Henry. He poked about with a bit of stick, that itself was wave-worn and whitened and a vagrant, and tried to control the motions of the scavengers . . . He became absorbed beyond mere happiness as he felt himself exercising control over living things.”
The adult narrator can see Henry as in some way identified with these rudimentary scavengers; and the narrator intimates that without adults the children feel how much is out of control or under-controlled. And then there is the remarkable sentence: “He became absorbed beyond mere happiness as he felt himself exercising control over living things.” He feels himself exercising control, but he is not, and his absorption is beyond, in excess of, mere happiness. Something else is wanted more than happiness by Henry, and it seems to be the exercise of control over living things, one of which is himself. It would be easy, and partly true, to say that what Henry is absorbed by here, what is beyond mere happiness, is power, control over living things. But Golding is clear about two things; it is an illusion of power – Golding refers to Henry having “the illusion of mastery” – and it is also the absorption itself that is beyond mere happiness. “He became absorbed beyond mere happiness.” It is an illusion that absorbs him beyond happiness; in other words, he is playing. Absorption is not in and of itself a moral good; in the novel the tyrannical, sadistic Jack absorbs the attention of a lot of the children who do his bidding. But in proposing, in the context of the novel, that there is a beyond to mere happiness, something else or further that is wanted; and that indeed happiness may be a poor substitute for something else, that happiness may be something that can get in the way of whatever is beyond it; by proposing this Golding is saying something about what can override the pursuit of happiness, and what may be lost in its pursuit. For better and for worse, being able to feel our frustration is the precondition for becoming absorbed. When this is impossible the pursuit of happiness tends to take over. The right to pursue happiness may be, at its worst, the right not to feel frustrated. And if frustration is not allowed to take its course, to take its time, there is no absorption, only refuges from unhappiness. The child is fobbed off with happiness when what she really wants is to get her appetite back. The right to the pursuit of happiness can be a cover story for the wish to hide.