The Daily Devil’s Dictionary: “Happiness” for Girls and Women

Girls in the UK are increasingly unhappy. But what group in our narcissistic culture isn’t?

Girlguiding, a British charity, has done a study of girls in the United Kingdom that may have implications for our understanding of one of the major trends in Western civilization itself, beyond girls and the UK. The Guardian reports on a “sharp decline in happiness among girls and young women in the UK in the last decade.”

Here is today’s 3D definition: 

Happiness:

One of the three basic rights in a modern democracy, first formulated in the US Declaration of Independence by Thomas Jefferson, not as a right in itself, but as the object of a pursuit that every citizen is entitled to 

Contextual note

The study identifies behavioral trends as the root of the problem. Girls are “socialising less in person and spending more time online.” The statistics are startling: “[M]ore than a quarter (27%) of young women aged 17 to 21 said they did not feel happy, up from 11% in 2009.” Of course, an optimist would say that it means 73% did feel reasonably happy. But a 250% increase over 10 years should give us pause.

In contrast to all the bad news, one of the guides in the study saw some silver lining: “Young girls were more likely to consider themselves a feminist.” The article doesn’t tell us whether it’s the happy or unhappy girls who have discovered they are feminists. It leaves the curious impression that feminism depends on unhappiness, as well as the dangerous idea that thinking of oneself as a victim is in itself desirable.

The one thing the study and the article avoid telling us is what they mean by happiness. In recent years, happiness has become a theme in the corporate world. It has been lauded as a condition for maximizing productivity. Thinking like managers, the experts have even put a precise figure on the gain (12%), as well as estimating the annual loss for the US economy ($450-550 billion). And they have done this without defining happiness as anything more than “positive feeling.”

The recent focus on happiness comes after years of disappointment with the equally indefinable and once trendy concept of “social responsibility,” introduced as a counterweight to economist Milton Friedman’s insistence that the sole responsibility of a corporation was to the shareholders. Friedman’s initial reaction to the idea of social responsibility was to call it a “subversive doctrine.” To his mind, only shareholders need to be made happy.

Historical note

When Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, he had a clear understanding of what life was, a relatively stable concept of liberty (at least in relation to the English monarchy), and only a vague and relativistic philosophical and cultural notion of what happiness might be. He thus avoided speaking of the right to happiness itself. Our right was to pursue it, not attain it. It was a convenient distinction. After all, even Jefferson’s slaves — whose happiness was severely constrained if not nonexistent — had the opportunity to pursue it. For example, by fleeing the plantation (while hoping not to be “pursued” themselves).

The philosophical roots Jefferson appealed to dated back to Aristotle, who actually did take the trouble to define it. The cultural roots were encapsulated in the expression, “An Englishman’s home is his castle,” signifying that “a man can do as he pleases in his own house” — in other words, pursue his own version of happiness and not have to justify what it turned out to be.

Sean Illing, interviewing Carl Cederström, the author of the recently published book The Happiness Fantasy, sums up Aristotle’s view: “Happiness consisted of being a good person, of living virtuously and not being a slave to one’s lowest impulses.” We suspect this is not the definition that was in the minds of the researchers who conducted the study on girls in the UK.

The Greek word for happiness was eudaimonia. It implied a link, through virtue, to the community making it quite different from the individualist orientation of modern happiness, or pleasure-seeking. Cederström explains the concept: “[B]y living our life to the full according to our essential nature as rational beings, we are bound to become happy regardless.” “Living our life to the full” means living in society and interacting with others.

Could eudaimonia be the key, as Umair Haque appears to suggest? The opportunities for “living our life to the full” appear to be diminishing, at least for girls and young women in the UK. Could this be an indication of a general historical trend that affects men as well as women, across borders, in our increasingly individualistic societies?

Cederström realizes that “it’s impossible to actually know what happiness is.” But he does believe that our ideal of happiness is a cultural construct. Since the middle of the 20th century. a certain “vision of happiness [became] the dominant cultural norm in Western society.” It was quickly exploited by the corporate world and the advertising industry” to create our “mania for individual satisfaction and this idea that buying and collecting more stuff will make us happy.”

It has produced a society “where people feel constantly anxious, alienated, and where bonds between people are being broken down, and any sense of solidarity is being crushed.” Cederström’s hope is that if we “care more about equality, community, vulnerability, and empathy” we might be able to “build a better world.”

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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Author: Peter Isackson