From the archive: Hugh Mackay on happiness


Hugh Mackay

The Good Life: What Makes a Life Worth Living? Hugh Mackay, Macmillan

The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer once said that it is a mistake to think we “exist in order to be happy”. He certainly lived what he believed – he was reputedly one of the gloomiest people to have lived. Though we may not want to emulate him, he has a point, and it’s a point taken up by social researcher Hugh Mackay in his latest book.

The Good Life is of course an ironic title, because we normally think of the phrase in relation to wine, women and song, luxury, a life of ease, or even just good reward for our labours. But Mackay is talking about the virtuous life lived for others, against our increasing narcissism and the mad scramble for wealth, and the disappointment that can come in their wake. This is complimentary to Christian teaching – we do good not ultimately for our own satisfaction or spiritual well-being (though they may be benefits), but simply because it is the right thing to do. We do good because God first loved us.

Yet it is hard for many Australians to get past the issue of how it is good for me. Much of the tone of recent environmental debates has been how something can be done without it affecting our lifestyle. And we are not immune in the churches. From America we are flooded constantly with (apparently Christian) books with titles something like ‘Ten Reasons God Wants You to be Happy’. Christians aren’t immune to our society’s push, partly through advertising, for thinking that the world revolves around me. Mackay notes that individual advertisements aren’t as effective as we might think (they simply confirm prejudices) but cumulatively they sing to us a “chorus of entitlement” and make us think we are a brand to be marketed, hence the hours wasted on Facebook [or blogs!].

Mackay also comments on the modern cult of “finding yourself”, which is like chasing your tail. A certain amount of self-knowledge is good, but it becomes deeper only when it moves from the personal to the social. The irony is that we understand ourselves better when we focus on others. This may not always make us happy. It can be difficult putting others first. It is a myth that altruists are all centred, satisfied individuals. They work on another premise – that it is the right thing to do. Just as many of us in the churches can be crotchety, broken individuals but are in church because we know we should be.

Our present society is under the illusion that life is about happiness. Even those who have otherwise good ideas about living – helping others, striking a balance, treading lightly on the earth – can think it is all to maintain happiness. But one of Mackay’s important points is that life has a variety of emotions, and we need to learn how to manage them. Grief, loneliness, disappointment, fear, anger – these are all appropriate responses to life at times. If we try to avoid the natural troughs that occur between the peaks we are in danger of finding ways to maintain an unnatural high, through comfort food, drugs, sex, or the accumulation of possessions. Or Facebook.

(Reviewed for The Lutheran magazine)


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