We popped to Italy for the International Festival of Literature Leggendo Metropolitano 2016, and found Zygmunt Bauman musing on the nature of happiness.
What happiness is and how we can achieve it is an age-old fascination. It goes on the same list as the search for eternal life and the quest to completely eradicate human sickness.
During his speech at Leggendo Metropolitano, world-renowned social theorist and Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the University of Leeds Zygmunt Bauman looks at the search for happiness, how we can define the subjective state and the ways that modern, consumerist societies actually create profound unhappiness as a means to endure.
Bauman observes a “strange melancholy” haunting Western democracies, with an epidemic of loneliness stretching across the corners of the Western world and an exponential increase in the use of antidepressant drugs.
For Bauman, part of the reason for this change is the economic shift from a society of producers, to a society of consumers. The pursuit of happiness in an unequal society, where there is an abundance of consumer choice and people feel increasingly inadequate by comparing their lives to those around them – a state heightened by the internet, where we adopt the position of voyeur, always looking into the lives of others – produces alienation.
Conversely, the idea of a ‘happy customer’ is actually a catastrophe for consumerism. It is dissatisfaction that creates desire.
[Zygmunt Bauman at Leggendo Metropolitano 2016]
Bauman draws on the mythological tale of Tantalus, an inhabitant of the underworld who is punished by being made to stand in water beneath a fruit tree, but is unable to drink or eat because he cannot grasp the fruit and the water recedes before he can drink it. This tale reflects the way happiness is always just out of reach – you buy a new product that you’re ‘happy’ with, but, soon enough, you will need to buy a new product to regain that feeling. And those who are unable to accumulate goods are always on the precipice looking out at a life they will never be able to attain.
According to Bauman, tech entrepreneurs are making a lot of money by capitalising on people’s fear of loneliness and being abandoned. From incessant pings as messages are delivered to our phones, to one-night stands set up through dating apps, we’re looking for the brief illusion of human company while creating a growing problem as screen time inhibits conversation with another real human being. The extreme conclusion of this can be seen in Michel Houellebecq’s dystopian novel The Possibility of an Island, where clones communicate without emotion and pornography replaces real relationships.
What is Bauman’s answer to the eternal question of how to be happy? Part of his answer lies in creating strong and complex social relationships, in finding a communal way of life apart from the individualised nature of the online world.
He concludes by quoting the Greek philosopher Aristotle, who said: “Man is by nature a social animal [...] Anyone who either cannot lead the common life or is so self-sufficient as not to need to, and therefore does not partake of society, is either a beast or a god.”
Zygmunt Bauman spoke at Leggendo Metropolitano on Friday 3 June 2016