Today the driver of a small bus almost hit a woman on a bicycle. He did so with conscious disregard, so after checking she was okay I pulled alongside him to have a brief word. He was an angry man, so rather than argue I simply said that he might become a happier person if he treated others better. That got me to thinking for the next hour. I thought about my words, questioning whether being a better person actually does make us happier?
As usual there are two opposing and extreme positions that get it wrong. On the one hand are those who think that hard work and decency necessarily lead to happiness. On the other side are those of us who think that life is ruled by chance, that happiness and flourishing do not follow from decency and hard work, and that it is morally corrupt to believe otherwise. It is important to get this issue right, as it serves as a compass, inspiring you to act while protecting you from delusion.
The idea that if you are decent and hard-working then things will necessarily work out for you is a tempting thought. But let’s be straight about this: it quickly becomes a cowardly and self-serving notion. It is cowardly because often it is really just a mask, a way of fantasising that you are safe from the dangers of living. Safe from human vulnerability. It is self-serving because it is callous; for it follows from this belief that those who do suffer misfortune have brought it upon themselves. That is to blame the victim of circumstance, in order to feel safe and self-righteous. In psychological terms that is narcissism. In economic terms it is neoliberalism. In class terms it is a petty bougersie morality. In spiritual terms it is superstition. In philosophical terms it is the belief that people are more rational and free than they actually are, a crude misconception that enables you to judge other people.
Of course some people do bring misfortune on themselves. Narcissists regularly do it. But of course to be a narcissist is to suffer a kind of emotional and moral disability which is usually rooted in early childhood, so even their shitty ways are a consequence of misfortune. That offers little consolation to those who have been hurt and want to respond by simplistically blaming and hating, but think of it this way, would you want to be a narcissist? Does anybody put their hand up and ask for that personality disorder? I am not denying that they also have responsibility, but when we consider the human condition with some depth and sophistication we find it hard to discover a person who is free enough to be truly blame-worthy. And so we must accept our universal vulnerability to chance and misfortune. And we must recognise that decency and hard work does not automatically lead to good fortune. That much about who we are and what we achieve is out of our hands. We are somehow free, but also very much determined.
And this is what many people in my circles rightly say. That we must “look upon the human condition in an accent of pity.” With a tragic sense of how chance can rob us of the things that matter most. But people who say these things can go too far.
They go too far when they say that hard work - in life, in work, in developing moral character – does not make a difference to happiness and flourishing. They are wrong. These things do make a difference, as research shows. What these things do not do, is guarantee happiness and flourishing. What they do do, is make it more likely. In different ways and to different degrees. There are no guarantees in life, but there are probabilities. It is a matter of genuine wisdom that we build and invest. Often the world does bend to our cleverness and hard work. We can be in friendship with reality. Sombre existentialists might bemoan the absurdity and cruelty of the world, and there is certainly much suffering and coldness in it, but there is also beauty and abundance. Both sorrow and joy. Both sweat and ease. Both chance and probability. Determinism and freedom.
The primary reason for being decent is that it is good in itself. We create a meaningful life by doing things that are meaningful. But there is a secondary reason and it matters greatly. Kindness leads to happiness and flourishing of different kinds. Or at least it tends to. It certainly makes them more likely. So too does creating a wise plan of life and persevering. So too does working on one’s own character.
As Dickens said, character is fate. It may not determine external forces and prevent misfortune, but a profound and large part of your life is what goes on in your heart and mind. And it is there that you can create much more happiness. And it is from there that you begin to shape the world around you.