19 October 2010

Happiness Part 1 – Let’s get pissed

1750 -- Gin Lane, an engraving by English artist
 William Hogarth, helps spur social reform.
The engraving depicts a drunken mother
surrounded by a scene of squalor. A year later, the
Gin Acts give magistrates control over licensing pubs
in Britain.

 Happiness, ah happiness. What a strange and wonderful notion is it not? Who or what may have influenced Thomas Jefferson when he penned the line "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?" Who invented the term “happy bunny?” Is it possible to attain the Buddha's “enduring happiness” by controlling the mind through breathing and yoga and eliminating “craving”? Is all life really mental dysfunction?

Can Socrates version of happiness be obtained “through human effort”, like he suggests, and is this all linked to other concepts such as virtue, justice, and the ultimate meaning of human existence?

No wonder going out on a Saturday night for a “bit of fun” carries with it so much moral and philosophical baggage often discussed ad nauseum when one is well the worse for wear at stupid o’clock with your arm around your “bezzy mate”.

Why does not being happy make us so miserable? Is going out in pursuit of happiness - drinking and dancing, the cinema, copping off with someone you fancy, arsing around with your mates, pursuing a hobby - a genuine philosophical and ethical movement? The very idea of asking such questions about happiness, as Socrates did, was seen 2500 years as “corrupting the youth?” Socrates was accused of this at his trial before they killed him. Does seeking to explore and understand the world lead to happiness? Or death?

Let’s start in the pub. Craving a pint. Can’t eliminate that, can I Buddha? At best we’re social alcoholics, binge drinking at weekends; or “British” for short. A thoroughly modern phenomena of working all week and getting pissed at the weekend. Or is it, or does it have parallels with the moral panic produced by the 'Gin Crisis' of early-eighteenth-century England?

Have British people changed all that much? Of course they have. The past does not repeat itself or offer miracle solutions to today's problems. Although to see some UK High Streets on a Saturday night does often remind one of Hogarth print 'Gin Lane'. At the time, 1751, there were concerns about “the impact of rapid urbanization, upon law and order and the social fabric, the effect of rising levels of wealth in society as a whole, but in particular the growth of working-class real income, upon patterns of consumption, the will to work, and the fulfilment of domestic responsibilities. Also there was a widespread anxiety about the breakdown of the family; there was a growth in xenophobia, especially in relation to the French and a general anxiety about the failure of government to grasp the seriousness of the problems facing society and take effective action to remedy them”. (1) So, nothing like today then? So it’s still not our fault either? We still drink to try to improve our happiness don't we? And of course by ‘drink’ we include any substance that provides an altered state of mind and removes us from the day to day grind of existence and can elevate us to another plane. As Arthur "Don't let the bastards grind you down" Seaton said in the film ‘Saturday Night, Sunday Morning’ (1960); "What I want is a good time, all the rest is all propaganda". The film, which I just re-viewed the blu-ray version at the weekend offers a terrifying glimpse into an age where work, booze, and death were all that Britain's young men had to look forward to.

It was in the 1700’s where they had the ‘capacity’ to link the rise in gin drinking to the wider concerns of society that transformed a potential social problem into a full blown 'moral panic'. So, not like today at all? Nowhere in the media do they link the pursuit of happiness to binge drinking either. In this sense binge drinking could be said to “operate within rather than outside the boundaries of social norms” (1). People are choosing to drink heavily, in all likelihood knowing the consequences of doing so. They are investing a substantial portion of their personal wealth, not just in the drink but also the package of recreational props that accompany it - music, dancing, clothing, etc - because it gives them a tangible and considered return. Happiness! Phew, that’s ok then. Let’s get pissed.

Thanks to:

• (1) Binge drinking and moral panics: historical parallels? by Peter Borsay at http://www.historyandpolicy.org/papers/policy-paper-62.html


---------------------------- next time on TV Cabbage - Happiness Part 2