Monday, 31 May 2010

Just Happiness Is Not Enough

There's a Vodafone ad in the cinemas now in which daughter calls father who drops his company social ("let's hear from our new Director") and takes a very expensive cab ride to some suburban high street where daughter is crying in her car. "He" has left her. She has no idea why. She "just wanted us to be happy. That's not asking too much is it?"

My reaction? It's not asking too much, it's not asking enough. Because when anyone say "I just want you to be happy" it means one of several things. At worst it means "I want you to stop upsetting me by being so restless and unhappy". At its most mediocre it means "I want us to be content". ..... What it does not mean is "I want you to be happy".

To be happy, in the immortal words of the very English philosopher Gilbert Ryle, is to be doing what you want to be doing and not wanting to be doing anything else. Happiness requires a huge chunk of self-knowledge, so that you know what you want to be doing, and a huge amount of luck, so you can do it and not have to do a day job where you can earn money. There is no guarantee that "following your bliss" will earn you any money at all. Happiness is just not a realistic option for most of us working folk.

You know that the daughter did not mean this kind of happiness because she says "just". In that context, it's a diminutive. She just wanted them to be happy, as if you could be happy somehow independently of what you did with your life. What she wanted was for him to be content being with her.

That's not enough. It might be enough for her, now, but it won't be in a few years. I'd love to be happy, but it's never going to happen: I have a day job I happen to be good at but it's not why I get out of bed. That would be fear makes me do that. Plus at my age I can't turn over and go back to sleep after I've woken up. Contentment is the anti-depressant of the emotions: you don't feel bad, but that's because you don't feel much at all.

The point is that happiness, like profit, is not something you can aim for. It's a by-product of doing something else well. You can't "just" be happy. It's way more difficult than that.

And I don't get the ad. If I use Vodafone, my relationship will break up? My daughter's relationship will break up? Vodafone is the Bad News Network? I know they want you to think it's the Network For Caring Fathers, but there are other more positive events they could have used. And if I let my staff use Vodafone, they will walk out on meetings the moment their dysfunctional but grown-up children call them for a shoulder to cry on? I bet it sounded great in the pitch, but it doesn't hold up.

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