The Ineffability of Happiness

Is happiness the phylum in the kingdom of hope?


June 6, 2008

Is happiness the phylum in the kingdom of hope? It’s a little hard to tell, since the subspecies of happy things for different people include both this and this.

The Atlantic for July/August has a piece on “Inconspicuous Consumption,” “a new theory of the leisure class.” Virginia Postrel looks at research by economists at the University of Pennsylvania, who find, somewhat unsurprisingly, that “Visible luxury…serves less to establish the owner’s positive status as affluent than to fend off the negative perception that the owner is poor.” That is, bling does not indicate you’re rich; it probably means you’ve diverted funds from “education, health care, entertainment, and home furnishings” to buy something more visible, and, “The richer a society or peer group, the less important visible spending becomes.” As an African-American preacher I saw once said, “If it’s on your ass, it’s not an asset.”

Postrel says, “That’s why a diamond-encrusted Rolex screams ‘nouveau-riche.’ It signals that the owner came from a poor group and has something to prove.” All this goes back to Thorstein Veblen, who invented the term "conspicuous consumption" to help explain why the less affluent would “habitually screen their private life from observation”: They scrimped on it in order to be seen as richer in public.

Of course, the rich like to be seen fondling their money too, as in this piece from 60 Minutes on the world’s largest privately-owned sailboat, called a “big boatload of ego.” But Postrel points out that signs of the aspirations of the middle class are increasingly private. Others might readily see the “Jacuzzi or media room, but unless you’re on HGTV, only intimates will tour your master bathroom. A slate shower stall may make you feel rich, but it won’t tell the world that you are.”

I’m not sure the owner of that slate shower stall hasn’t simply concentrated his hopes for being known as tasteful, successful—happy—within a smaller social group. Who cares if the poor think you’re doing well? You want your in-laws to know—and they will, of course, once you give them the tour—as well as everyone they might tell. And don’t pretend you won’t stand in the copy room in the department, sighing about how hard it is to care for slate, either.

Many academics in this country are highly privileged, but the public forms that that privilege takes can be confusing. Rory has a good story about two academics who neglected their house while one or both got books written. By the time they let a contractor in to estimate damage from a leaky roof, the house was ruined and should have been demolished. The contractor thought them goddamn fools, but they refused to feel the shame of what he viewed as spoiled incompetence. Such material matters were inconsequential to their lives of the mind (and to job offers the books might bring, which would take them out of that house and on to the next one they could screw up).

Time too is an obvious sign of privilege—summers, holidays, sabbaticals, other breaks—as is self-management of time, including the school year. Other visible signs of privilege include mental, not physical, labor; ponytails; Teva sandals; and beat-up Swedish cars. Many academics flaunt these as blatantly as gold teeth; through them they can be seen to be in a group thought to be hyper-educated and therefore too savvy to worry about status.

All this is a prelude to asking: Are you happy with all you have? It often doesn’t seem so. Or are the neuroses of academics aired in order to become additional signs of what they wish to be known for?

I thought of this when I ran across an old commencement speech at Kenyon College by Bill Watterson, creator of the perfect comic Calvin & Hobbes. Watterson retired—some have said became a recluse—after refusing to sell merchandising rights to his artwork and deciding he’d done what he wanted with the strip. He says:

If you ever want to find out just how uninteresting you really are, get a job where the quality and frequency of your thoughts determine your livelihood.… You may be surprised to find how quickly you start to see your life in terms of other people's expectations rather than issues. You may be surprised to find out how quickly reading a good book sounds like a luxury.

[H]aving an enviable career is one thing, and being a happy person is another.

Creating a life that reflects your values and satisfies your soul is a rare achievement. In a culture that relentlessly promotes avarice and excess as the good life, a person happy doing his own work is usually considered an eccentric, if not a subversive. Ambition is only understood if it's to rise to the top of some imaginary ladder of success. Someone who takes an undemanding job because it affords him the time to pursue other interests and activities is considered a flake. A person who abandons a career in order to stay home and raise children is considered not to be living up to his potential—as if a job title and salary are the sole measure of human worth.

You'll be told in a hundred ways, some subtle and some not, to keep climbing, and never be satisfied with where you are, who you are, and what you're doing. There are a million ways to sell yourself out, and I guarantee you'll hear about them.

To invent your own life's meaning is not easy, but it's still allowed, and I think you'll be happier for the trouble.

You happy?


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