WHEN Charles de Gaulle retired from public life, the American ambassador to Paris held a gala dinner in his honour. Chatting to Mme de Gaulle at the table, the ambassador’s wife asked, ‘What are you most looking forward to in these retirement years?’ Without hesitation Mme replied, ‘A penis.’ The ambassador hurriedly intervened to reassure his astonished guests. ‘Ah, Madame, I think you’ll find we pronounce it happiness.’

It seems Mme de Gaulle is not alone in her confusion about the concept.

The US Declaration of Independence contains the phrase ‘Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness’ – three inalienable rights which have been given to all humans by their Creator, and which governments are created to protect. 

Many other countries have adopted similar tripartite mottos, but have wisely side-stepped the happiness trope. France has its liberté, égalité, fraternité, and Germany its Einigheit und Recht und Freiheit (Unity and Justice and Freedom). The Canadian Charter of Rights extols ‘life, liberty, security of the person’, Japan much the same. Even the sacred Universal Declaration of Human Rights stops short at happiness, or even the pursuit of it. Its Article 3 reads ‘Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person’.

By the 21st century, with the western world beset with mental health issues, food banks for the starving, dysfunctional relationships and rampant drug addiction, it’s hardly surprising that Guardian columnists are quick to attack the underlying reason why happiness should be so elusive. Capitalism!

George Monbiot blames pro-capitalist ideology for making people sad, lonely and unhealthy. It could also be destroying the planet, but its real blight is that, in spite of the material plenty it delivers, it basically makes us miserable. It’s designed to isolate us, and turn us into soulless consumers. 

Ankita Singh also examines how capitalism creates a downward cycle of despair: ‘This persistent unhappiness is caused by the sense of alienation one feels in today’s urban corporate culture.’ The only relief is found in material acquisition, mindlessly promoted by advertising. 

Ryan McMaken of the Mises Institute roundly rejects this Marxist ideology, noting that by now, critics of capitalism have given up trying to claim that capitalism makes people poorer, finding this much ‘richer’ seam of social, ecological, and psychological ills, which can be blamed on capitalism.

He goes on to ask: Are we really more miserable than our forebears? It seems there a lot of people out there who remain convinced that people were happier – or at least had an easier time – in the past, but these views tend to be based on subjective reports and simplistic utopian fantasies. Facts known about the past – the working day, living space, life expectancy, homicide rates – don’t make our forebears’ lives look particularly wonderful.

Mediaeval communities could be wiped out by external aggression, kidnapping into slavery, virulent and devastating disease. Even in Victorian times, a farming family suffering a bad harvest could die of starvation. Early industrialisation saw families voluntarily flock to newly urbanised areas, to work desperately long hours (children included) for pitiful wages and live in vile slums, because it seemed an improvement on the unpredictability of rural existence. It didn’t work out for everyone, and in the absence of a capitalist-funded welfare safety net, the rock bottom of town life was the horror of the workhouse, prostitution, or death by starvation or sheer exhaustion.

Can’t see today’s snowflakes going for that. Not even an aspirin if you got a headache . . .

As McMaken points out, the ‘poverty of the good old days’ was not exactly a source of personal fulfilment and contentment. Living in abject poverty with no access to advertising or capitalism was hardly the key to happiness.

Murray N Rothbard suggests that anyone nowadays who wishes to flee capitalism is at liberty to do so.  Witness the utopian communes in the Victorian era and the 60s hippies. But ‘not only has almost no one abandoned modern society to a happy, integrated life of fixed poverty, but those who have, abandoned these attempts very quickly’. While it’s comforting to think there is some time or place where people were not troubled by feelings of unhappiness, emptiness or inadequacy, it’s unclear that such a place ever existed, and in the meantime few of us seem willing to give up modern comforts to investigate first-hand.

Perhaps what contentment people had then was a case of never missing what you’d never had, or even dreamed of. But now, to embrace seriously the carbon-neutral model, such as the Thunberg vision – essentially a return to pre-industrial, pre-capitalist existence – would prove unacceptable to those who have had it all from the word go. They would be rushing home, screaming for their smartphone, electric light, central heating, transportation, groaning supermarket shelves, NHS care, state education, and of course 24/7 entertainment.

But as we know from Professor Peterson, this is missing the point, since the Pursuit of Happiness is a pointless goal. He advises that life is a catastrophe, and the aim of living is not to be happy. In his 12 Rules for Life he explains that ‘Life is tragic; you are tiny and flawed and ignorant and weak. And everything else is huge, complex and overwhelming. Once we had Christianity as a bulwark against that terrifying reality. But God died. Since then, the defence has either been ideology – Marxism or fascism – or nihilism. Since happiness is a pointless goal, we should not compare ourselves with others, but with who we were yesterday. No one gets away with anything, ever, so take responsibility for your own life.’ Oh dear, that’s going to be so hard . . .

And it has always been hard for anyone – philosophers, poets, scientists, ordinary people – who have tried to define what happiness is, or should be. Professor C E M Joad, pundit of the 1940s BBC Brains Trust, was hard-pressed to nail it down. The explanation he suggested chimes closely with Peterson’s own: ‘Happiness is a great side effect. When it comes, accept it gratefully. But it’s fleeting and unpredictable.’

So even a superficial analysis shows that capitalism and unhappiness are not exactly joined at the hip. Capitalism has raised millions out of poverty, not relative poverty which is specifically designed to run and run, but abject, life-threatening poverty, as suffered by all unfortunates before the capitalist-afforded benefits of a welfare state were made available.

But that doesn’t mean capitalism makes us happy. It has enabled us to be more comfortable in hostile environments. So perhaps it just allows us to endure our spiritual misery within an acceptable degree of physical ease. The rest is up to us. So back to Professor Peterson, and don’t forget to sit up straight! (It works – my slouchy son has assured me . . .)

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