“There is a paradox at the heart of our lives. Most people want more income and strive for it. Yet as Western societies have got richer, their people have become no happier”.
These are the words of Lord Professor Richard Layard, whose book on “happiness” highlights the increasing problem of unhappiness and discontentment in western societies, despite their apparent wealth.
He argues, this is no longer a myth. His effort to consolidate considerable research shows that whilst average incomes have more than doubled in the last sixty years, people are no happier – and in the US, Britain and Japan, people have in fact become less happy.
This paradox deeply unsettles the west – it challenges their claims to delivering happy and content societies. The west has trodden a path that may have superficially yielded greater wealth through its focus on growth, but in parallel delivered an increasingly disturbed population.
The west is increasingly asking itself: what is the cause of this unhappiness and how can the situation be remedied? Has the disproportionate focus on economic growth as the measure of success been justified, or has it produced unexpected consequences?
This problem not only confronts the west however, but also Muslims who enter the trap of the western way of life – they cannot claim immunity by virtue of a superficial association with Islam.
Unhappiness in the west – the reality
Professor Layard points to a range of evidence to suggest happiness in western societies has not improved despite rapid changes in living standards.
The first is a series of surveys conducted over the last 60 years – in the 1950s, in 1975 and then most recently – in which people were asked how happy they felt. They show that in the US, for example, there has been no change in the proportion of the richest quarter of the population who say they are “very happy“ (45%) since the 1950s. This is despite the fact that over the same period, this group has seen a doubling in living standards. A similar trend is observable for the poorest quarter who say they are “very happy” (33%) – this too has barely changed. This trend also holds true for Britain and Japan, and whilst other European countries have seen a very slight increase in happiness, it simply does not compare with the rate at which wealth has increased.
The second body of evidence is a set of comparisons between countries of differing levels of wealth and living standards. It found that wealthier countries in Europe for example are no happier than poorer countries.
Thirdly, key indicators used by western researchers to mark-out of unhappiness have all increased rapidly in the post war period. These include depression, crime and alcoholism. In the US for example 15% of the population by the age of 35 will experience clinical depression. In the 1960s this figure was 2%. In any given year 6% of the entire US population will experience major depression. Deaths from the effects of alcoholism have been up in the US and every country in the Europe bar one since the 1950s. Between 1950 and 1980 crime increased by 300% on average across western countries, and although in some countries crime started to fall in the late 80s (and later still for Britain), it is still way above the levels seen in the 1950s. The contradicts what analysts assumed that through lowering unemployment and increasing wealth, crime would fall.
What is causing unhappiness in the west? Observations from western research
Western researchers point to a number of trends and attitudes they believe lie at the heart of some of this modern unhappiness:
- Increase in the number of broken families that have left children uncared for. In the 1950s the divorce rate figure was largely uncommon but now nearly half of all Americans, for example, by the age 15 of will not be living with their biological father. Some researchers point to changes in gender roles that have allowed break-ups to occur much more easily.
- Declining levels of trust in society brought on by the advent of rampant individualism. The Harvard academic Robert Putman described this phenomena in his book “Bowling Alone”, which sought to understand why people were increasingly “going it alone” and living lonely lives disconnected from family and community.
- The role television and advertising has played in normalising sex and violence, and unrealistic expectations around health and beauty as the cause of particular anxiety.
But surveys also provide insight into attitudes that underpin unhappy lives in the west – specifically when trying to understand why people are rich yet so unhappy:
- Economic and Social Rivalry: One of the foremost findings was that social and economic comparisons led to unhappiness. That despite abundant wealth, one may feel less successful and less happy simply because they have not achieved as much as their peers. Indeed, social and economic rivalry is at the heart of modern western life. One of the studies put a question to a group of Harvard students – they were asked if they would prefer to earn $50,000 when everyone else earned $20,000 or $100,000 when everyone else earned $200,000. They preferred the first – to earn less, provided it was more than others. And London mayor Boris Johnson recently placed envy centre-stage when he suggested, “some measure of inequality is essential for the spirit of envy and keeping up with the Joneses that is, like greed, a valuable spur to economic activity”.
- The wealth “treadmill”: This is the direct impact of those who base their happiness on materialism. A person may feel happiness at the acquisition of some wealth, but the feeling soon wears off. This urges man to acquire new wealth to regain the sense of happiness, then again and again. Observations found possessions had to be better each time to provide the same level of happiness. This clearly does not secure happiness and only places man in a perpetual race for wealth, only to find happiness evasive as he rides the “treadmill”. In the sphere of work many perhaps refer to this as the “rat race”. The singular focus on economic productivity has meant people are working harder, longer, earning more, but less happy. To seek ever greater wealth, the modern workforce compromises family, free time and health. Studies found many of the things that made most people unhappy in the west were often wealth and work related, whether it was the jobs they do, the travel, the hours, the boss, the pay and so on. A recent survey in the UK found that up to 60% of the workforce was either neutral or unhappy at work.
These are some observations from research in the west, including material compiled in Professor Layard’s book. Whilst they provide outward observations of happy and unhappy people, to holistically explain such observations or get to their root causes, it is increasingly clear that a set of ideas and values lie at the core the problem: the priority given to material gain at the expense of all else, the pursuit of self-interest and the advent of individualism has all led to an increasingly selfish, materialistic and rivalrous society that distrusts itself.
The view towards happiness in the west
Jeremy Bentham is held as the key post-enlightenment thinker to argue that society’s ultimate purpose was to attain the most amount of happiness. He coined this the Great Happiness principle, and some of his words found their way into opening passages of the American Declaration of Independence – the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness.
Economic growth however has been the primary goal in western societies since the early twentieth century. The single-minded focus on market efficiency has promoted the unashamed pursuit of self-interest and individualism. Indeed Adam Smith, who laid the foundations of much of current Capitalist thinking, originally suggested: “It is not the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves not to their humanity, but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities, but of their advantage”.
There have however been recent calls to re-include ‘happiness’ as a measure of society’s overall wellbeing. Even David Cameron briefly flirted with the idea, proposing a General Wellbeing Index. But there is serious pressure from economists in these gloomy economic times not to stray away from growth as society’s primary – if note the sole – focus.
They fail to realise that the west is sitting on a ticking time bomb of mental and physical health issues brought on by stresses and anxieties of modern working life and economic pressures that may one day – and indeed already do – result in equally disastrous consequences for national budgets.
Even Adam Smith, predicted such negative consequences. He suggested society’s focus on growth and building the labour structure to achieve this, such as through the division of labour, would result in “mental mutilation”, caused by a workforce focused on mundane, highly repetitive roles. He likened its effect to that of an outbreak of leprosy against which governments must act.
But whilst some argue it’s time to re-balance society’s priorities and adopt happiness not growth as its success criteria, the question remains – what is happiness for the west? There is no agreed framework to answering that question in the west however – whether ethical/religious/humanist or otherwise. People are left to define happiness for themselves. And so adopting the somewhat nebulous aim of being happy can result in quite the opposite as society fractures over what it is and how to achieve it.
Islam and the Happiness
Professor Layard’s surveys suggested that one of the major causes of happiness was having a stable set of values and, more fundamentally, a purpose in life. Interestingly, this is where the Islamic position starts. In Islam, happiness is achieved first through settling the most fundamental questions about life, correctly: Where did I come from, what am I doing here and where am I going? The failure to satisfactorily answer these questions leads to man’s most fundamental anxiety, whilst answering it correctly satisfies the mind and provides tranquility in the heart, the foundations of any sustained contentment.
The issue is not however left here –there are beliefs that specifically relate to happiness and preventing discontentment. Islamic culture is immensely rich with literature on this topic. Imam al-Ghazali dedicated a whole book to the topic: Qimiah as-Sa’adah – the Alchemy of Happiness. Ibn al-Qayyim al-Jawziyah wrote on the topic of the “ways to happiness” in his book Al-Wabil al-Sayyib min al-Kalim al Tayyib – the Invocation of God. If one believes in Islam, but doesn’t understand these specific ideas, their day-to-day lives may be left to follow western attitudes and therefore make them just as susceptible to the anxieties, stresses and worries that plague so many in the west. Indeed, perhaps we sense that Muslims can sometimes hold the same worries over the same issues as those who are immersed in the western way of life. Some of the many specific beliefs are summarized as follows.
(1) Pleasure vs happiness:
There is clear distinction between the two. Pleasure – as opposed to happiness – is merely the excitement of the senses, which results in feelings of enjoyment. This pleasure ceases when the sensory excitation diminishes. Those who believe this is happiness are constantly in need of stimulation – eating, drinking, doing, seeing, listening, because without it there is no pleasure. This is clearly temporary and does not explain how people can feel hardship and physical pain yet not feel unhappy, like the Sahaba (ra) during battle and during the difficulties in Makkah. The Prophet (saw) never saw his father, lost his mother at an early age, then his grandfather, uncle, wife and then six of his seven children. Such severe personal tragedy did not lead at all to the consequences such a life would in the modern west.
(2) al-Qadaa wal-Qadr
It is key for Muslims to understand that there are many things in life one cannot control. In the sphere of life in which we do not control things – such as when things happen to us or on us that we cannot control – we believe the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ is from Allah (swt). This has the effect of reducing the things man worries about. One does not concern himself with what is not in his control, with what happened to him, what may happen to him, why things are the way they are, why they are not as wealthy as others and the like because these are not in their control. The Prophet (saw) advised us: “Do not say: ‘If I had taken this step or that step, it would have resulted in such and such’, but say only: ‘Allah so determined and did as He willed. The word ‘if’ opens the gates of satanic thoughts.” [Muslim]
Those bereft of this idea are also characterised by dwelling over the past – opportunities missed or lost as these thoughts eats-away at their mental capacity. For the west this is a particular problem, for the predominant view is that most things can be achieved if one makes the right choices, one is motivated and adopts the right behaviours. Given this is untrue, most people find that despite their best efforts, their hopes are eluded, making them bitter, resented and ultimately discontented.
(3) Contextualising wealth and status
Given the influence of western materialism, beliefs related to wealth are particularly important in our current age. It is clear that a lot of the findings related to unhappiness highlighted in this article are wealth-related. Whilst some simplistically conclude this points to an inherent evil characteristic of wealth itself, Muslims believe in no such material-spirit dichotomy. The issue is about the attitudes one takes to towards wealth, not possession of wealth itself.
In Islam there are many texts that relate to wealth, the foremost amongst which are related to our fundamental belief that Rizq (Provision) is from Allah (swt). The Prophet (saw) also gave much practical advice. He advised us: “Do not look to those above you. Look to those below you, as it will more likely remind you of the favours Allah has bestowed upon you” [Muslim]. Islam also warns against envy and jealousy, both ideas that produce feelings of considerable discontentment with one’s own state, as one fails to count their blessings simply because they feel deprived of things others have. The Prophet (saw) warned: “”Beware of jealousy, for verily it destroys good deeds the way fire destroys wood.” [Abu Dawood]
(4) Do not become attached to the life of this world
Most crucially, if one were to understand and contemplate their goal in life, they would soon realise there is no time to become engrossed or too attached to the life of this world. That clearly doesn’t mean we become monastics, but that our hearts are not attached and therefore not too troubled if things don’t go well, badly, unexpectedly, if we suffer gain or loss. Most Islamic literature on this topic starts with this as its opening gambit. All too often, people forget their stay here is temporary, take events too seriously and worry too much over stuff that just not matter in the long run. To this end the Prophet (saw) advises us: “Be in this life as a stranger, or a passer-by!” and Allah (swt) advises us about the truth of this life when He (swt) says: “Know that the life of this world is but amusement and diversion and adornment and boasting to one another and competition in increase of wealth and children” [TMQ 57:20]
Perhaps, beyond the statistics, we anecdotally sense the “happiness” problem all around us. People long to exit the rate race, to be liberated from their mundane jobs and lives, to give life greater purpose, to achieve their potential, to be rid of their financial burdens. But their ideas don’t let them, and place them in a trap, in a prison that makes them fearful of the future, anxious over things they can never do anything about, and paralysed to act.
The west is bereft of a way to fix this problem – the plurality of moral codes prevalent in society obstructs agreement on a way forward. People are trying to fill the moral/ethical void created by the rejection of religion in the west but they have been unable to find an alternative that sticks – as a result some have peculiarly called for the return of religion in this space, even if it were without God, like in Alain De Boton’s book “Religion for Atheists”.
But more importantly, in a capitalist system economic targets will always trump, and so a more balanced measure of society’s wellbeing will continue to remain elusive.
It is perhaps for Muslims then, not only to holistically embrace the Islamic way of life and avoid the pitfalls of pursuing a liberal Capitalist life, but to project and present their values to those around them, in the hope others too are led to a path that liberates them from the shackles of misery and discontentment.
To end with a quote from Professor Layard: “When the financial crisis struck…on the one hand it made people worry about No. 1 and paying the bills. But the crisis also raised issues of values – and this will have long-lasting effects”.