The festive season returns again, with its mandatory merrymaking, whatever our personal vicissitudes. As if wanting to contribute, only last month – indeed on the very day my book Radical Happiness: Moments of Collective Joy was launched – those who have been monitoring our happiness for two decades now reported that people are generally slightly cheerier since the Brexit result, at least in England. 1 Are they serious? I keep my ear to the ground, and everywhere I hear only the gnashing of teeth over the Brexit vote. True, I’m a Londoner, and perhaps even the tens of thousands I encounter in the virtual world are a select bunch of cosmopolitan folk. Yet, no-one can deny that their gloom echoes the ongoing fears and miseries found within this very same population issuing from numerous other government statistics.
When not measuring happiness, a different set of government statistics informs us that one in four girls are suffering from clinical depression by the age of 14, another reveals that 50 per cent of young women between 11 and 18 experience on-line bullying, undermining their self-confidence, while we also learn that suicides are rapidly rising among men, especially young men – closely correlated with unemployment and burgeoning inequality. 2 From all sides, we hear about people’s fear of the future, young and old alike, with economic experts reporting that the global economy is stagnant because of this mistrust of what lies ahead of us, even as our usually restrained British security service, MI5, warns that Britain is facing the worst ever terrorist threat, with attacks on civilians inevitable. 3 Alongside this daily diet of gloom, quite calamitous for those not disavowing the plight of asylum seekers and the related effects of ongoing military combat, I also note that it is disaster scenarios that saturate the popular imagination nowadays, never expectations of a better world. Blade Runner, The Hunger Games, The Handmaid’s Tail enthral the crowds, watching ominous futures where the human race spins ever closer to disaster.
Measures of ‘happiness’ are thus being collected and fed back to us despite, or is it because of, misery and foreboding all around us, feeding dystopic visions that become only ever more compelling when imagining the future. Moreover, there are reasons to suspect that the current stress on happiness itself promotes new forms of social anxiety and control. Smile or Die is how some have described that pressure to show a cheerful face; start frowning and you may well lose your job, especially in the burgeoning service sector – however insecure and underpaid your employment. Worse, despite the tight correlation existing between escalating rates of depression and the social disorders of the present – unemployment, poverty, housing insecurity – we have seen a further pathologising of misery. 4 The cruel pretence is that that each of us can be held personally responsible for furthering our own well-being, regardless of our social situation.
Yet, even while it may prove hard to escape those ‘glad tidings of great joy’ blasting out in Christmas carols over the next few weeks, there is actually scant mention of joy around, least of all of collective joy – those moments we can treasure together with others with whom we have shared them. Instead, the push towards a perpetual inward-looking self-monitoring, long associated with personal survival in competitive capitalist arenas, has never been fiercer than today. We are everywhere being measured for the speed of our outputs and encouraged to pursue projects of self-improvement, while nowadays further scrutinised by a near-ubiquitous virtual gaze.
Despite it all, however, it is just those moments when do manage to push aside that gloomy tyrant, the self, that I am celebrating in Radical Happiness. This is often when we are looking out at the world, whether at its suffering, or forging communities addressing the harms of the present or sometimes trying to build better alternatives. Here, I draw upon the thoughts of Hannah Arendt, who emphasized the importance of ‘public happiness’. By this she meant the opportunities created within any society for people, whoever they were, to move outside their own personal concerns – happy or miserable – into some conscious participation in public life and politics. It is then that more of us can gain some real sense of agency in the world, often bringing with it sources of fulfilment, resilience, including moments of shared joy, alongside the inevitable frustrations and conflicts that emerge in political life and struggle.
It was the sudden appearance of just such political collectivity that provided the mood and momentum of my younger life, in the passionate beginnings of women’s liberation at the close of the 1960s. The lasting significance of those years has helped many an ageing feminist keep a certain political optimism alive, whatever the gloom we may feel about the present. Sharing those stories still hurls us back to the hopes of that time, when together we shared the miraculous revolutionary power of joy’. This is what I call ‘radical happiness’, capturing those moments of shared involvement and resistance which themselves embody different and better times, celebrating our role in helping to shape them. Such activities do not in themselves dismantle the insecurities so many of us live with, but so long as they last they spread shared energy and hope. To take just one recent example, we saw this energy again when hundreds of thousands of people globally joined the massive protests, all led by women, the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration as US President in January 2017. There was surprising joy afloat that day, with people expressing a world-wide solidarity which has had many spin-offs since, all opposing a man whose contempt for women presided over his whole election campaign.
Ironically, we often renew our energies and attachments to life by embracing its sorrows as well as its joys. Politically, it requires a determined optimism of the will to encourage the solidarities necessary for confronting all we see as impeding a fairer sharing of the world’s resources. Moreover, any such collective engagements will undoubtedly need to be endlessly repeated and refreshed for them to remain progressive. However, if we are ever to face down those looming dystopian scenarios to help to create liveable human futures, or simply to try and ensure that fewer people end up depressed and discarded, we must surely work together for change, grasping what joy we can along the way. It is when we share some sense of agency and meaning in life that we feel most at home in the world, which generates it own ties of love between those who can support us in the process. This is why love, in its broadest sense, is also intrinsic to moments of shared joy.
Lynne Segal teaches at Birkbeck, University of London. Her latest book Radical Happiness: Moments of Collective Joy was published in November.
1. Richard Partington, ‘Are we happier after the Brexit vote? Only in England’ The Guardian, 7 November, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/nov/07/are-we-happier-after-brexit-vote-only-in-england-ons
2. Denis Campbell, ‘One in four girls have depression by the time they hit 14, study reveals’, The Guardian, 20 September, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/sep/20/one-in-four-girls-have-depression-by-the-time-they-hit-14-study-reveals; Sarah Marsh, ‘Half of UK girls are bullied on social media, says survey’, The Guardian, 14 August 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/aug/14/half-uk-girls-bullied-social-media-survey; Sam Parker, ‘What Can We Do About Britain's Male Suicide Crisis?’, Esquire, May 9, 2017, http://www.esquire.co.uk/culture/longform/a9202/britain-male-suicide-crisis/
3. Patrick Butler, ‘Levels of child hunger and deprivation in UK among highest of rich nations’, The Guardian, 17 June, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/jun/15/levels-of-child-hunger-and-deprivation-in-uk-among-highest-of-rich-nations; Robert Shiller, ‘The economy is stagnant because people fear for the future’, The Guardian, May 23, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/business/2017/may/23/the-economy-is-stagnant-because-people-fear-for-the-future; Vikram Dodd, ‘UK facing most severe terror threat ever, warns MI5 chief’, The Guardian, 17 October, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/oct/17/uk-most-severe-terror-threat-ever-mi5-islamist.
4. Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson, ‘Income inequality and health: A causal review’, Social Science and Medicine, vol.128, March 2015,pp. 316-326.