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Review-a-Day
Times Literary Supplement
Sunday, October 26th, 2003


 

The Happiness Paradox

by Ziyad Marar

I'm happy, if that's alright with you

A review by Paul Crichton

Ziyad Marar has put forward an audacious and innovative thesis about the nature of happiness. His aim in The Happiness Paradox is not to give practical advice about how to achieve happiness, but to elucidate the concept itself and try to understand why it is elusive. Underlying the question of whether I am happy are two more fundamental questions: "what do I really want?" and "how ought I to live?". Marar takes the first of these to be about freedom; the second has to do with morality and what Marar regards as the basis of morality, namely "justification" — ie, approval, trust and love.

The paradox of happiness is that we want both freedom and justification, but the freer we become the less we depend on the approval of others, and the more we want the approval of others the less free we become. This would suggest that freedom and justification are mutually exclusive, and that happiness is elusive precisely because it poses this apparently intractable dilemma. Marar's response to the problem is to suggest that freedom and justification are not mutually exclusive, but are in fact intimately intertwined. The underlying assumption seems to be that our sense of self is constituted by our interactions with others and our social roles. The self that wishes to escape from society is itself a product of society (and presumably also cannot exist without society). If we are essentially social beings, then this could explain why we want both to escape from some of the constrictions imposed on us by society and also want to win the approval of that society. (Marar does not make this point explicit, but his general line of argument seems to imply it.) Thus the desire for happiness consists in the desire for freedom and for approval and this is why happiness is paradoxical. We can live with this paradox only by having the courage both to face the judgement of the audience and the courage to be independent of its judgement and risk humiliation.But courage does not make us happy: it is merely the motor which keeps us going. Happiness is not a goal, but a process: "It's a retreat from security and an advance towards risk, while being a retreat from risk and an advance towards security — a perpetual oscillation".

What I find most attractive about The Happiness Paradox is the ingenuity and toughness of its central idea: the paradox of happiness. It resists simplistic explanations and prescriptions, and insists that life is difficult and will always be so. It contains two chapters with thoughtful, and at times unsettling, observations on love and work, the two main ingredients, according to Freud, of a happy life. There is an impressive second chapter which, through exploring certain aspects of freedom, attempts to explain why the need to feel free sometimes seems overpowering. It contains arresting remarks, for example, "charisma is context-dependent" (Marar), "love is created by love denied" (Martha Nussbaum) and "sincerity is technique" (W. H. Auden).

But my main reservations also concern this central thesis. It seems to me quite plausible that we oscillate between the desire to be free and act in ways unconstrained by the opinions of our peers on the one hand and the desire to gain approval and be loved on the other, but why should we call this happiness? This sounds more like a state of unremitting torment than what most of us take happiness to be, namely something more positive and less volatile. Secondly, Marar does not consider the possibility that we can freely and rationally choose to have our freedom restricted in certain ways and come to experience this voluntary restriction as a relief from crushing responsibilities. Thirdly, in drawing a sharp distinction between the two questions "what do I really want?" and "how ought I to live?" Marar seems not to have noticed how closely connected they are: only if I am a free agent, can I be held morally responsible for my actions. But aside from these misgivings, Ziyad Marar's book contains a great deal to enlighten and engage anyone interested in happiness, and that probably includes most of us.

Paul Crichton is a Consultant Psychiatrist in private practice and is doing an M.Phil. in philosophy at Birkbeck College, London



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