What right do we have to be happy when things are so bad?

Warisa asked:

Why should we be happy instead of depressed or sad? We live in a horrible society don’t we?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

This is a good question. I take it that what you mean is, what right have we got to be happy, given that the world is in such a bad state, which is a question about justification and our sense of right and wrong, rather than the question why, as a matter of fact, do human beings manage to remain cheerful in depressing circumstances.

However, as a lead in I will start with this second question. As a matter of empirical psychology, it has been observed that human beings need to keep a moderately upbeat mind-set in order to function at their best. This claim is borne out by most people’s everyday experience. That long list of chores that you had planned to do today, is much harder to tackle if you are feeling down and depressed.

This claim can be contested. I was having a conversation with one of my students this morning about a view which is also widely accepted, without any sense of inconsistency, that for artists, writers and poets, the feeling of melancholia is an important spur to creativity. There is painful tension in the artist’s life which their creative activity seeks to resolve.

Rather than try to solve this conundrum, let’s just assume that moods, both positive and negative, can have a useful function. Human beings are complex creatures. It is better to experience the highs and the lows, rather than only the highs or only the lows. That’s not a philosophical claim, just an empirical one. I don’t even know if it is necessarily true, at all times. It seems plausible.

Your question is different. Philosophers, psychologists etc. tell us that we ought to strive to be happy. Even the great philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote a book about it (‘The Conquest of Happiness’). But what right do we have to be happy, when there is so much misery around?

Take a concrete example. Let’s say a new movie has come out describing the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 where up to a million innocent people were slaughtered in a frenzy of violence that lasted 100 days. The movie has received tremendous critical acclaim. You go with your best friend. Emerging, shattered, two hours later, you are distressed by your friend’s reaction, ‘Wow, what a fantastic film! I really enjoyed that. Where shall we go to eat?’

There is something inappropriate about your friend’s reaction. You would have to have a skin as thick as a rhinoceros to react in that way. How did you ever get to be friends in the first place?

I want to put the case for happiness. We ought to try to be cheerful and keep our spirits up, because we do live together in society. Being cheerful doesn’t just benefit yourself, it benefits others as well; directly, because as a matter of empirical fact mood is infectious, and also indirectly for the reason I gave above: that it makes you more effective in carrying out necessary tasks that benefit others as well as yourself.

If we ought to strive to be happy, then it follows a fortiori (from the stronger premiss) that we have the right to be happy.

As the example of the Rwandan movie shows, reactions can be more or less appropriate in the circumstances. As a volunteer with refugees you hear a harrowing tale of persecution and torture first hand, with tears in your eyes. That’s an appropriate reaction. But that human response is fully consistent with maintaining (or struggling to maintain, given the adverse circumstances) a cheerful and positive mind-set.

The problem with the argument I have just given, is that it assumes that things aren’t too bad. There are still ‘reasons to be cheerful’ (as the rocker Ian Durie observed). How bad would things have to be, before, any feeling or expression of cheerfulness was felt to be a travesty? Let’s not debate about exactly how bad things really are in society today. The point is that the argument that we have the right to be happy, if valid, ought to be valid in any circumstances, not only in those that are favourable. – I don’t have a ready answer to that.


One thought on “What right do we have to be happy when things are so bad?

  1. Personally, I believe that we all have the right to feel anything we want too, it’s our bodies and our experiences. As far as what we should feel, I think our “moods” should be whatever is appropriate and helpful for that particular situation. Emotions are fleeting and unstable, but they serve a purpose (maybe more than one). Also, I think it is important to have a good grasp on the meaning of happiness and knowing what exactly that is. Nietzsche made a distinction between happiness and contentment. As a final thought, if you also view things as Nietzsche did then perhaps our society isn’t really that horrible, all of our “struggles/conflicts” are helping to further pave the way to the Ubermensch.

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