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How the pursuit of happiness can lead to misery and pain

18 May 2013 2,146 views One Comment

What makes a human life worth living? Now there’s a question that would, to quote the short poem ‘Days’ by English writer Philip Larkin (1922-1985), bring ”the priest and the doctor / in their long coats / running over the fields”.

In ‘The Good Life’, the prolific social researcher Hugh Mackay usefully focuses our attention on this crucial question. Although in some ways Mackay’s most recent book is familiar territory, he nevertheless creatively explores how incorporating into our lives the Golden Rule (treat others as we would like others to treat us) gives us at least the possibility of enjoying a deeply satisfying existence.

Yet, as Mackay claims, our actual experience of life soon teaches us that the Golden Rule is ”easier to admire as an ideal than to put into practice”. As he says: ”We may aspire to lead a life animated by kindness and based on respect for others, but, for all kinds of reasons to do with our personalities, our temperaments and our circumstances, our life often falls short of that gold standard.”

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The most important sections of this crisply written book deal with the ultimate futility of our seemingly relentless pursuit of happiness and of self-regard. Indeed, in a key chapter entitled ”How the pursuit of happiness can make you miserable”, Mackay deals fairly and squarely with the ultimate emptiness of ”pursuing happiness as the main goal of our life”.

The Zurich-born essayist Alain de Botton has previously dealt with this subject in his books of popular philosophy, and with Mackay’s proposition that, as humans, we can often learn a lot more from pain, sadness and loss than from pleasure or happiness – which in the main are transitory emotions.

Still, it is hard to dispute Mackay’s contention that ”the measure of a good life [can] hardly be based on some assessment of how happy we are; it will depend primarily upon how well we treat others, regardless of how that makes us feel”.

Thus, although Mackay does not mention it, the ”felicific calculus” of English philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) is sorely lacking as a measure of how worthwhile our lives are. An advocate of utilitarianism, Bentham maintained that the rightness or wrongness of any human action is a mathematical function of the amount of pleasure or pain that it produces.

In contrast, Mackay puts it thus: ”Happiness is at best a by-product, not the goal, of a well-lived life.”

While Mackay and I may be as one on the above, there is also much to disagree with in his latest offering. For example, his proposition that ”no one is easier to con than a conman” is, to put it mildly, doubtful. Nor do I think that a so-called ”selfless life” necessarily leads to more satisfaction than a life sometimes strongly motivated by self-interest. I have long been sceptical of the life and work of seemingly ”selfless” souls, such as Mother Teresa (1910-1997).

I am also puzzled that in this, his 14th book, Mackay does not pay any attention to hugely successful self-help groups, which also encourage fellowship, community, and a sense of active empathy, help and service to others.

Despite this, it seems to me possible, if not likely, that thinking about this book might enable some of us to engage in a more thoughtful discussion about how best to live our lives. Perhaps more importantly, careful reading of ‘The Good Life’ might enable us to change our attitudes to other people and, in particular, to listen to other people’s needs more attentively.

Finally, even though it may not seem crucial to some readers, I should record that in ‘The Good Life’ Mackay indulges in two of my pet personal hates – calling children ”kids”, and unnecessarily using that annoying phrase ”of course”.

Hugh Mackay is at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, May 20-26.


Hugh Mackay

Macmillan, 272pp, $29.99

‘The Sydney Morning Herald’, May 18-19, 2013, Spectrum, pp 28-29

One Comment »

  • Dr Peter Smith said:

    Dear Editor

    Ross Fitzgerald’s excellent review of Hugh Mackay’s latest book (‘The Sydney Morning Herald’, May 18-19, 2013, Spectrum, pp 28-29) homes in on the core conclusion of Mackay’s book that “happiness is at best a by-product, not the goal, of a well-lived life.”

    A very similar message is given by Ross Fitzgerald in his valuable autobiography (‘My Name is Ross: An Alcoholic’s Journey’, NewSouth Books, 2010) which highlights Alcoholics Anonymous and its many offshoots as a prime example of people putting self-interested altruism into action.

    The world wide spread of AA as by far the most successful self-help group in the 20th and 21st century is strong evidence that happiness is indeed a by-product of a life well-lived.

    Dr Peter Smith,
    1/576 Norman Road
    Rockhampton, Qld 4701 (tel: 0407309387)

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