True Happiness

In my recent post on Gertrude Himmelfarb’s book about Victorian virtues I was a bit surprised by the lack of response because Himmelfarb’s take on the Victorian era is so out of step with the take of many other historians who have studied that same era. Most have concluded it was a sexist age reeking with poverty and squalor on the part of the majority of unhappy and exploited people in Victorian England; this view is echoed in most of Charles Dickens’ novels and the writings of Karl Marx who saw capitalism in England as the devil’s work.

Himmelfarb bases her conclusions on thorough research including, but not restricted to, the reading of countless diaries written at the time and the summaries later written down of oral histories spoken by members of the poor and middle classes. She concluded that if you take a closer look the people themselves regarded their lot as a happy one. And who are we to say they are not? Indeed, she insists that they were happier than we are. This is an astonishing claim and it raises an interesting philosophical question (if you will bear with me). Can we judge of another era that they were happier or less happy than we are? If they insist they are happy can we reasonably argue with them? We look back from the perspective of our era where happiness is identified with pleasure and possessions. Feminists look at the “plight” of the women who were little better off than slaves in their view. We read Sigmund Freud and are allowed to peek into the private lives of a handful of Victorian women and men with neuroses that make us shudder, hang-ups about sex that we laugh at with our more sophisticated outlook on sexual activity.

The question I raise is very hard to answer, perhaps impossible to answer. We cannot judge another era looking at it through 21st-century lenses. But we can look at Third World countries today and we can see the same sort of poverty and squalor, the huge divide between the very rich and the very poor, the tin houses and the lack of drinking water or mosquitoes nets. And we shudder at how unhappy those folks must be. But those who take a closer look, those who actually move among those people are struck by the fact that they have nothing but they seem happy, for the most part. They are generous to a fault and accept their lot and delight in what little they do have that in a manner that strikes many of us as simply unfathomable.

For example, our blogging buddy Lisa lives and writes about Ecuador where she has chosen to live and create her beautiful works of art. Her posts are filled with news about and pictures of the happy people she lives among. They seem to delight in what they have rather than to worry about what they do not have. They live in the moment and find joy in the fullness of their existence, their friends, and their families. Are we to say that they are not as happy as we are? Is it possible that they are happier than we are?

The point is that we might be better off looking at our own era and our own view of sexual permissiveness and happiness as pleasure from the perspective of Victorian England or even the Third World countries. It is quite possible that those folks would scratch their heads and wonder what the hell we are talking about. Our notion of happiness is so shallow, so many of us identify it with material possessions that no one seems ever to have enough of; and our sexual “revolution” doesn’t seem to have made families any stronger or time in bed spent by countless couples as a sure sign of close, loving relationships. Our happiness resembles in important respects that of the citizens of Huxley’s Brave New World.

In a word, if folks insist they are happy can anyone else reasonably insist they are not? Himmelfarb insists that the family was central to the people of the Victorian era and that it provided a firm basis for solid relationships — among the poor perhaps even more than among the rich. It made it possible for them to appreciate the small things that comprise true happiness while we are lost in dreams about second homes, large cars, vacations at the seashore, and more money than we can possibly spend in our lifetime. And rabid feminists today find demons in every action taken by the male of the species and insist that Victorian women were miserable even though they themselves swear they were not.

It is worth a second or two of thought. It is wise to step back and take a look at ourselves form time to time and ask where we are going and if we really want to get there — and whether it makes sense to turn a blind eye to another era that just might have been better off, in important respects, than is our own. A culture that may well be able to teach us something important about ourselves.


17 thoughts on “True Happiness

  1. Hugh, very interesting. I would have to ask Lisa to opine on this with her perspective. Where people in need have a greater sense of community, such as a small village, are the attitudes different from a place that does not? Thinking of the Summer Olympics in Brazil, there were many hopeful people in poverty in Rio who saw the Olympics as a panacea. It woefully fell short and now they are even more disillusioned.

    A friend who lived in Sao Paolo and Rio as an expatriate said the middle class in those cities in non-existent, at least when they were there. It seems like it is still true. Keith

      • I agree. I remember that documentary called “I Am.” It’s conclusion was money does not buy happiness, but it’s absence can lead to unhappiness. Their point was as long as basic needs of shelter and food were met, people would be in a bette position to be happy.

    • Hi Amigos!
      Hugh, as i read your post, the more i read the more I suspected that yesterdays’ post (of mine) contributed to what you were sharing today. The internet has been horrid for the past week – so it’s often easy to read a post via the email, yet following the link to the page ends with a ‘you must be connected to the internet’ message! Comments go AWOL, and a search sometimes brings up the list of options, but the links don’t work.

      I suspect if most people who use internet often were isolated in a room with equally-frustrating internet speed, one would quickly find out how much patience one has, and how well one can adapt to frustrating challenges. Perhaps this is one reason that people in less-developed cultures seem (or are) happier. They have learned to dodge the frustration, through various ways. I, for one, remember when I had to drive for an hour in Costa Rica, just to reach a cyber ‘cafe,’ and oftentimes the internet service would be down for that day… As another friend said here in Ecuador, “I learned to either accept that’s how it will be (about many things) or be upset and angry all the time

      Of course I now have that lovely reminder of friends on the coast who are still living in tents – if only their worst problems were those of slow internet!

      One problem that many of ‘us’ witness is that the tourists bring fancy cameras and gadgets, wear expensive shoes and trendy clothes, so the USA becomes the Land of Oz, where mysteries are solved, where one works and is rewarded with magical amounts of money – what one makes a day here, some make per hour (or more) in the land of plenty. Of course they think the answers are to live elsewhere, or they ask that those people who have so much might share with those who have so little.

      Those less fortunate adapt on perhaps a daily schedule, depending on what surprises land on their doorstep. They do what they can, and when times are going well, they enjoy sharing their blessings.

      Here in many Andean cultures, the locals have work ‘mingas’ where the neighbors go out and perhaps clean a clogged ditch/’artery of water, which I witnessed near Otovalo where a big lake spilled down that ditch and to a waterfall. Some of the Indigenous cook and others are cutting tall grasses, others hauling those grasses away; children are playing… it’s a feast for the eyes, but if an outsider stops to photograph – oh no, that’s crossing an unspoken line and infringing on their privacy… I do not see that community partnership on the coast – too bad, because it’s a very healthy way to keep a community together.

      Do communities work together in the USA anymore, to clean up problem areas, or does someone pay someone else to do it? I think that’s where the problem is – people only work if there’s a monetary reward… the ego is involved…

      As for happiness in the more advanced societies, I think that material ‘things’ are the elusive carrot on the stick.. and clever marketing keeps those always wanting more, to have what others have, so they measure up, feel better about themselves, their status symbol, but none of that makes their character stronger. That’s where the challenge is – to find a way to make giving from the heart becomes what builds their status in the community.

      I’ve beeen trying to find via a slow search , which has been spinning since I started this comment.. perdon the length of this epistle, and I’ll lob that link whenever it’s found!

  2. It’s an interesting thought – we are a social people, but oftentimes the influence from outside ourselves can make us more dissatisfied than we would be if we just kept our worlds very small. I think that may be one difference – people in less-developed communities are more focused on what is nearer (family, close community, keeping the household going) and less concerned with the things they cannot change. Hmmmm – a nice reminder to me 🙂

    • I think Lisa is right above: we identify happiness with the things we don’t have but want, whereas other people are able to find happiness in what they have — even if (from out point of view) it’s not much. We seem never to be satisfied. Arthur Schopenhauer developed this thought at great length.

  3. As someone who studied history at university at a time when the trend had veered firmly away from ‘social’ history, I think the first thing I dare to venture is that the writing of history has its own modes. The Dark Ages are no longer Dark, there were many Renaissances not just one, the Reformation – no, perhaps I’d best not go there – and so on. New academics have to (and do) find new ways of seeing things to make their mark and after sifting the evidence start to judge by different rules – or values – and later we, their audience, begin to see things differently. A judgement on the quality of life of others, whether far back in time or remote in terms of culture or living standards is almost impossible to make. And I don’t necessarily believe first hand accounts are reliable sources. I recently read a first hand account by an academic of a project I was involved in and know how far people can stray from the ‘truth’.
    Even an innocent diary entry can be self-deluding dreaming.
    I have spent a lot of time in Africa, mostly in Zambia, where I have often been close to the lives of the very poor in remote rural areas. The more cut-off from things like TV that people are, to this outsider it does seem the happier children – at least – are. Seeing what others have inevitably makes people want a more comfortable existence.
    This is a huge subject and I for one didn’t want to dip in after your Himmelfarb post as it is easy to respond with comments that sound facile and are open to misinterpretation when I don’t have the time to think things through properly. But well done for delving into it and daring to ask the questions!
    By the way – I was at a women’s rally in Liverpool at the weekend and noticed you used the expression ‘rabid’ feminist? How do you define one of those? Just asking for a friend 😉

  4. The article eludes me! It mentioned a study comparing people from a previous era, who worked hard each day just to survive from the land.. and compared their level of happiness to those who live today where there’s takeout food, etc – everything is easier, even doing the laundry… the people from earlier years were happier – which puzzled them.. why could a harder life make one happier? the logical answer was that they worked with their hands, they worked hard, yet, but they had something to show at the end of the day… clean just-folded laundry taken from the line, food on the table that probably came from their garden which they planted, tended, harvested, etc etc…

    having lived that most of my life, i agree – at the end of the day, sometimes one is so tired that skipping dinner is tempting.. just to get clean and crash/ go into a healthy and deep sleep, awaken with rhythms of nature, and greet the day with anticipation of the many tasks…

    if i ever find the article, i’ll send it to you!

    • There is tremendous satisfaction seeing the fruits of one’s labor. That is one of the things I missed as a college professor — and enjoyed when I was working to renovate two houses!

  5. On reading this line: “But those who take a closer look, those who actually move among those people are struck by the fact that they have nothing but they seem happy, for the most part. ” I immediately thought of this: “What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store. What if Christmas…perhaps…means a little bit more!” GASP … is it possible … just maybe … that the old saying “Money doesn’t buy happiness” is correct after all? 😀 Good post, Hugh … thought-provoking as yours always are!

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