Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar

July 27, 2012 by 
Filed under: Social Economy

Amidst all the commotion caused by this quarter’s uninspiring growth figures, you’d be forgiven for having missed the announcement of the first results from the new ‘happiness index’. Somewhat predictably, the findings from 165,000 or so respondents show that the average life satisfaction rating in the UK is 7.4 out of 10. Despite the murmurings over the cost of the whole exercise – I believe it stands at some £2m – it does actually reveal some useful findings about the levels of wellbeing across different localities, ethnicities and age ranges (see my colleague Gaia Marcus’s blog on LFF for a roundup of the RSA’s own research on wellbeing).

While we would hope that this measurement tool heralds a new era where government takes wellbeing and mental health more seriously, it would be a pity if this led us all to become that much more obsessed with our own happiness and conscious of our daily actions. Admittedly, to say that wellbeing should be our national priority but not something we should focus on as individuals sounds overtly contradictory. Yet as Olive Burkeman persuasively argues, the more we reach for happiness and perfection in life the more it seems to slip away from us.

Sadly, it seems as though we are already well on the way towards ever increasing introspection, driven in part by a culture of perfection but also by new technologies that allow us to reflect on the minutiae of our lives. Take the new Quantified Self Movement.Showcased in one of Nesta’s ‘hot topic’ discussions, this is a new group of technology and science enthusiasts whose aim is to make it easier to measure more of our personal metrics, from sleep patterns, to alcohol consumption to fluctuations in daily moods. I know that information tracking of this kind can be incredibly useful for certain groups of people – there is a great app called Moodscope that helps people suffering from depression to monitor their mood and share their data with friends and family – but I can’t help thinking that some of these initiatives may be a step too far in the pursuit of perfection.

This isn’t just a modern phenomenon. You can see within the literature of the 1920s and 30s that there was already a battle emerging in the early twentieth century between, on the one hand, the hedonists whose goal was to live as freely as possible with no concern in the world, and on the other, the intellectual and scientific ascetics who sought to ‘vivisect’ and take apart every aspect of human life in the hope that this would lead to some kind of ‘higher truth’. This battle is nowhere better described than in Aldous Huxley’s Point Counter Point. In one of the many elongated soliloquies dotted throughout the novel, one of the characters, Philip Quarles, delivers his take on what he sees as the false intellectual pursuit for perfection:

Till quite recently, I must confess, I took learning and philosophy and science – all the activities that are magniloquently lumped under the title of ‘The Search for Truth’ – very seriously. I regarded the Search for Truth as the highest of human tasks and the Searchers as the noblest of men. But in the last year or so I have begun to see that this famous Search for Truth is just an amusement, a distraction like any other, a rather refined and elaborate substitute for genuine living; and that Truth-Searchers become just as silly, infantile and corrupt in their way as the boozers, the pure aesthetes, the business men, the Good-Timers in theirs. I also perceived that the pursuit of truth is just a polite name for the intellectual’s favourite pastime of substituting simple and therefore false abstractions for the living complexities of reality. But seeking Truth is much easier than learning the art of integral living.

Of course, reading a book and thinking about philosophy is not the same as tracking wellbeing data. But you can see the parallels in how both are in some way or another, as Huxley puts it, ‘searching for the truth’. The problem with this is not only that perfection is unachievable and therefore pointless to pursue, but also that too much introspection leads us to believe that our unhappiness is borne out of individual error and lack of ‘effort’ rather than the real structural barriers of our age: inequality, poverty, unemployment, discrimination and so on. Barbara Eheinrich articulates this very well in her book, Smile or Die (see her RSA animate here).

What all of this is intending to get at is a simple message: that perhaps we should just learn to live with our individual faults and imperfections and try and enjoy life as much as we can with what we have. Thinking too deeply about things will only lead to trouble. As Freud, of all people, once said, “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar”.

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar : RSA blogs.