November 2, 2014

Philosophizing on happiness in the West vs East

A few days ago I wrote about an article in Scientific American, wherein they haphazardly wrote about people having a right to be happy. No, they have a right to pursue happiness. There is no Constitutional guarantee that everyone must be granted happiness. None whatsoever. In any case, the mistake was worth pointing out but it was not central to the rest of the article, which I promised in my commentary that I would circle back to touch on. A few days later than intended, here goes.

The thrust of the article's title was that not everyone wants to be happy. But the notion behind that claim was that not everyone viewed happiness the same way. It makes less of an eye popping headline because clearly, everyone knows that already. While one person might derive a great deal of happiness from playing golf, for other people that might induce an entirely different emotion (e.g. frustration, boredom, or anxiety). But the article takes a slightly more macro view and looks at how we in the West define happiness and compares it to how Eastern cultures define or view happiness.
In Eastern cultures, the emphasis is on attainment of social harmony, where community and belonging are held in high regard. In Western cultures, the emphasis is on attainment of happiness, where the individualistic self tends to be celebrated.
That's not an unimportant discussion and not an unimportant distinction. The point the article raises is how we arrive at happiness and how that ties into sociology of a society. 

While this could be regarded as a chicken and egg argument - which came first, beliefs or social structure - the research found that happiness in the East was based on how the individual contributed to the common good. That differs from in the West where we place a higher degree of satisfaction on individual pursuits.

That's not surprising really - it's exemplified in the relative attitudes towards socialism, communism and capitalism in the East versus the West. In the East the individual is subordinate to the family and on a larger scale, to society. In the West, while this has increasingly come under pressure in recent decades, society has been seen as subordinate to the individual. In it's basest form we see government as an instrument to serve the people (even though many people go about that notion by mistakenly granting more and more power to the state). In the East, people often see people as an instrument of government.

While that certainly is a generalization, there is some critical stuff in there not to be overlooked.

Firstly, the Western concept that led to the "Me generation" and afterwards the ever-increasing self-indulgence of Western society could ultimately go too far and actually promote the decay of the societies that enable those liberties and opportunities for self-indulgence. In other words, individual before state does have it's limits, and with every passing generation, it appears that those limits are being tested further.

It's worthwhile to note that being able to put the individual before any sort of collective is aside from occasional loners and/or sociopaths throughout history, a relatively new concept from the perspective at least, that a society could possibly enable that sort of structure to the extent that it has in Western culture. That's likely because certain Western societies have been so successful economically that they have allowed us that opportunity. Adam Smith realized that the Invisible Hand of everyone doing what is in their own best interest actually served society more effectively and efficiently than any other method could possibly do. So far he's been correct. But we could still become victims of our past successes.

On the other hand, the notion of the greater good as espoused in Eastern cultures is the better bet for a long term success, or at least survival of a society. The greater good view of the world (and the sense of fulfillment and happiness that inevitably accompanies it) means that more effort is put into what is necessary for the survival of the society. So why has the West outperformed the East economically for the last couple of centuries?

While the Eastern view of the greater good promotes doing hat's best for everyone rather than yourself, there's a specific consequence from it. It promotes normalization and conformity. And conformity inhibits outside-the-box thinking and that curbs innovation, development and progress.

But that doesn't mean that the relative success of the West is guaranteed. If the fraying of social norms becomes so severe that society itself falls apart, then it cannot continue to support the very individuality that allowed it to thrive. Creative destruction turns to just destruction. The problem with self-interest as a driving force is that it has engendered a sense that happiness is indeed a "right". That's not self-interest, that's selfishness. And perhaps a bit of sloth added to the mix. We want everything given to us. Too many people view government as a parent beholden to us as children who will, who must, give us everything that we want.

That myopic view overlooks the fact that someone, somewhere has to work to to provide for us. There is absolutely no free lunch, at least not for very long. The sense of entitlement is what has become wrong with our philosophy. We've somehow melded our view of working in our own best interest, with the idea that the government, enabler of the greater good, can give us not only security, but anything else we want. It's really the worst of both worlds.

Which worldview is better? Pick your poison - it's not a black and white choice. A mix of a healthy self-interest and societal cohesion based on some level of collective good is probably best. What that balance should be is not simple to find. But it's pretty obvious that we've tilted too far in the direction of selfishness, as opposed to self interest, and it is not good for Western societies. Liberty however is in our DNA and should forever remain a guiding principle in the West.  We have the foundation.We just need to get it right.
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