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Thursday, 2017-08-24, 1:00 AM
The Happy Society
The Happy Society
Most people in Britain are miserable. In a society that's obsessed with fun and instant gratification, it's odd how rates of stress and depression are rising relentlessly. We crave happiness, yet we're seemingly further from it than ever. What's gone wrong? Why is happiness so elusive?
One thing's certain: we'll never be happy if we don't know what happiness is. Of course, most people have their own working definition. They might say that things like family, friends, fame, relationships, holidays, job, health, holidays, clubbing, money, sex etc are what make us happy. The problem is that all of these things have been tried exhaustively and they've all failed or we wouldn't be such a bunch of moaners and whingers.
We have to seek a radically new path to happiness, and maybe we should start by identifying what definitely makes us unhappy. We don't have to look far for one of the primary causes. As Sartre said, 'Hell is other people.' If only we could avoid all the people we dislike, maybe that would clear our path to happiness. But why do we dislike others anyway? Why aren't we just one big happy Brotherhood of Man?
The answer may lie in the pioneering work of Carl Jung. Jung divided everyone into extraverts and introverts; extraverts being people who look to others for stimulation, while introverts are on the whole inner-focused. Introverts are likely to be uncomfortable when surrounded by extraverts, and vice versa. They look at the world in vastly different ways, and usually hold negative opinions about each other. Introverts often regard extraverts as vulgar, shallow and stupid while extraverts may consider introverts boring, stand-offish and neurotic. Instantly, the battle lines are drawn. Providing there's a good enough mix of introverts and extraverts in a group, they can all rub along reasonably well, but even then they probably split off into introverted and extraverted sub-groups.
Jung said we can be further subdivided into four categories: thinking, intuition, sensation and feeling types. The difference between the four may be best illustrated by imagining what each type would say if they witnessed a fight between two men outside a nightclub. The sensation type will give the police the best account of what took place, describing the men's appearance in great detail, and accurately conveying everything that was said. These sensation types are preoccupied with the physical world around them, with what their senses tell them.
The feeling type will provide a much poorer physical description of what happened. He will emphasise instead how he felt about the whole thing, how the violence sickened him. Feeling types are preoccupied with their own emotional responses.
The thinking type also misses a lot of detail. His preoccupation is with interpreting what he sees. He carefully explains to the police what he thinks was happening, rather than simply telling them what he observed. Each event is analysed in terms of cause and effect.
The intuition type tells a grand narrative. He tries to place everything in context. He tells the police what he thinks happened before the event, and after too. It's a speculative account, but often surprisingly accurate.
The police would obviously prefer the sensation type's witness statement since it concentrates on the observed facts. The others all contaminate their accounts by giving their own feelings, interpretations or intuitions. We can see how court cases can easily become a lottery. Witnesses to the same event might give wildly different accounts because they've been busy tuning into different aspects of the incident. Equally, the jury will assess the evidence based on their own particular psychological types, and there will be yet more confusion since the various types have a very different take on the world.
Jung's scheme produces eight personality types: extravert thinking, extravert sensation, extravert intuition, extravert feeling, introvert thinking, introvert sensation, introvert intuition and introvert feeling. Jung further suggests that thinking and feeling are opposite pairs, as are sensation and intuition. If thinking is dominant in a person, feeling will be suppressed (but will dominate the unconscious), and vice versa. If sensation is dominant, intuition is suppressed, and vice versa. An extravert thinking type is likely to get on quite well with an introvert thinking type because they have thinking in common, but the extravert thinker may dislike an introvert feeling type.
The different ways with in which these eight types interact with the world raises a profound question: can we genuinely empathise with people of significantly different types from ourselves? Can sensation types relate to thinking types? Can feeling types step into the shoes of intuition types? Or are the minds of other types essentially alien to us? Wittgenstein famously said, 'If a lion could talk, we could not understand him.' Perhaps he should have looked a bit closer to home. Perhaps at a deep level we simply can't understand the types that are different from us.
Jung's work was taken up and modified by Myers and Briggs. Their scheme revolved around four dichotomous pairs: introversion/extroversion, sensing/intuition, thinking/feeling and judging/perceiving. The basic idea is that from each of these pairs, one of the choices is more relevant to you than the other. So, you might find that introversion/intuition/thinking/judging are applicable to you. This would make you an INTJ type. Sixteen personality types are possible in total.
These different types probably reflect underlying differences in how our brains are wired. It's self-evident that some of us are much more cerebral than others, some more emotional, some more intuitive, some more sensual. If we carried out functional MRI experiments to analyse brain activity in hundreds of people while they were subjected to sources of stimulation such as philosophy books, emotive novels, pictures of beautiful landscapes etc, we'd probably see that their brains fire up in markedly different ways depending on their Myers-Briggs personality types.
Imagine that an INTJ person encountered his opposite: an ESFP (extroversion/sensing/feeling/perception). These two come at the world from two such divergent perspectives that there's little room for mutual comprehension. Would they inevitably clash? In fact would all opposite types find it impossible to get on with each other because they simply can't relate to the other's take on things?
Why is it that we instinctively like some people and dislike others? Almost instantly we can tell if we're going to get on well or not with new people we meet. Is 'liking' really just a matter of recognising compatible Myers-Briggs types, while 'disliking' is what happens when we encounter our Myers-Briggs opposites?
Myers-Briggs experts claim to be able to tell us who would make the best lovers, friends, advisers, companions etc for us. They maintain they can also tell us who our enemies will be, the people who will seem baffling to us, those who will rub us up the wrong way. They can tell us which jobs we'll like and which we'll hate; what sorts of experiences will appeal to us and which will prove a nightmare.
Many people are sceptical of these claims, but what if they're true? What would happen if we gave everyone in Britain a Myers-Briggs test? Instead of having sixty million undifferentiated people, we'd be able to divide the whole population into sixteen distinct types. Perhaps we'd discover a huge amount about our society. We might find that nightclubs were mostly filled with extravert sensation and feeling types, that these are the types most likely to drink, take drugs, smoke, have casual sex. They might even be the most criminally orientated. The professional classes - lawyers, architects, journalists, engineers, managers, doctors, architects etc - might turn out to be overwhelmingly extravert thinking and intuition types. University academics might be predominantly introvert thinking and intuition types. As for introvert feeling and sensation types, they might be artists, writers, priests etc.
Rather than subject kids to IQ tests and eleven-plus exams at an early age, it might be far more sensible to give them Myers-Briggs personality tests. Academic kids on the whole will be thinking and intuition types, artistic kids feeling types, and non-academic kids sensation types; probably future soldiers and police.
Instead of packing kids off to schools full of all the various psychological types in an indiscriminate mass, perhaps we need to introduce a revolutionary new concept: Myers-Briggs schools designed for specific personality types. Forget about public schools, comprehensives, grammar schools, City Technology schools and City Academies. They're just different approaches to a failed educational model. With Myers-Briggs schools, a phenomenon such as bullying would be eliminated since this is almost certainly a manifestation of a clash of different Myers-Briggs types (for example, extraverts mocking the most sensitive and vulnerable of the introverts). Academic children could be given a far more high-powered education, without being held back to cater for the non-academic. Artistic children could be put in far more creative environments, tailored for their specific needs. Non-academic kids could be given the kind of education best suited to them, involving an abundance of outdoors activities, and sensation-filled experiences.
Every schoolchild will have a far happier educational experience. They will be surrounded by people with whom they are on the same wavelength, and separated from those likely to antagonise them. Educational services can be far more tightly focused rather than having to be dissipated by the need to address an undifferentiated pupil population.
Britain would have the chance to gain a massive advantage over its competitors by creating the world's first example of a Smart Society, designed and engineered to optimise the abilities of all of its citizens by understanding what makes each of them tick. Currently, most state schools are unselective environments (except perhaps in terms of back-door selection relating to parental wealth), and this is what renders them inefficient and often counter-productive.
Of course, if schools are transformed, all parts of society will in due course be transformed too. The workplace will be revolutionised, as will policing, health, law and order, defence, politics, university education etc.
By being radical enough to create a Myers-Briggs society, Britain would become the first advanced country to focus on the key concept that we all belong to different 'tribes' based on how our brains are configured (which is in turn reflected in our personalities). We can happily coexist with those of our own tribe, and those of compatible tribes, but we will have little or no empathy with those belonging to tribes too alien from our own.
Having to mix with people who are very different from us is the essence of our unhappy society. These 'aliens' present us with nothing but problems. They don't behave as we would, we can't identify with them, they do things that aggravate us, their behaviour seems wrong, inexplicable and quite baffling. They make us nervous and anxious; they even frighten us. Potential conflict is always in the air. As soon as one of them enters the same room as us, the atmosphere changes and we become uncomfortable. All dysfunction in society arises from conflicts between incompatible personality types.
To address this fundamental issue is to give us the opportunity of a lifetime: to be delivered from the essential cause of our unhappiness. With the Myers-Briggs methodology we can design society to optimise the happiness of its citizens. The result will be better relationships, less conflict, more understanding and tolerance, better friendships, better dating, higher job satisfaction.
It will be much easier to organise society, and study social trends. We might, indeed almost certainly will, discover that different Myers-Briggs types have significantly different taste in movies, novels, newspapers, magazines, TV programmes etc. For the first time ever, we'll have a proper handle on how to target material at the relevant audiences. It will mean a revolution in the publishing, movie and TV industries. Society will become more efficient, more focused, and we'll all be able to get on with what counts rather than with being dragged into conflict with those to whom we can't relate.
Happiness is largely about being surrounded by people you like, and separated from those you don't. At the moment, society throws us into a maelstrom of conflict, and many of us struggle to find a group of like-minded friends. If society were designed to maximise our opportunities to be with compatible types, the effects would be radical. For the first time in history, humans would have created a truly happy society.
One definition states that happiness is a mental state composed of three elements: pleasure, absence of displeasure, and satisfaction. There are several problems with this definition. For a start, the moments of greatest pleasure that many people experience are often associated with the possibility of acute distress. Take the example of a penalty shoot out in a World Cup final. For one team and their fans, ecstasy awaits, while for the opposing team and their fans, despair is the outcome. Yet, until that final moment, the identities of the winners and losers - the happy and the sad - are unknown.
If one team had won the game 10-0, the match would have involved no tension, no excitement; it would have been a tedious procession to the finishing line. So, the possibility of catastrophic defeat i.e. the shadow of extreme displeasure, must be present in order for pleasure to be maximised. The early days of a love affair are the most intense for precisely the same reason.
Equally, a feeling of satisfaction is often associated with the overcoming of tremendous obstacles. The mountaineer gazing out over the world from the peak of Everest didn't get there by not courting pain, exhaustion, fear, danger, risk. His satisfaction is bound to the effort expended, the amount of sacrifice, the degree of danger. If he could just stroll up to the summit, or fly there like Superman, he would enjoy no satisfaction at all. And what of John Stuart Mill's assertion that it's better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied? Who would be happy being a pig?
Also, the definition of happiness with which we began pays no attention to the element of time. Isn't happiness fundamentally ephemeral? The mountaineer who has conquered Everest doesn't go home and spend the rest of his life being happy about that single accomplishment. He sets himself a new target - a new mountain to climb, a new, more difficult, route to the summit, attempting the climb without oxygen canisters etc. And, until he achieves this new goal, he's again unhappy. So it goes on: an endless chain of targets set, and only fleeting enjoyment of happiness as each is accomplished. This observation led Schopenhauer to the conclusion that no one is ever truly happy. Life, in his opinion, was unalleviated misery, to the extent that he actually regarded it as malign.
In fact, happiness may actually be absent as each goal is met. Some footballers have talked about being disembodied after winning a cup final. They can't connect with what's happening: the experience has bypassed them somehow.
Kurt Cobain, admired and envied by millions, took a gun and blew his head off at the peak of his powers. For most other people, all the ingredients for 'happiness' would have been firmly in place if they were in Cobain's position, but Cobain himself endured only depression that he tried to keep at bay with heroin.
The person lying on his deathbed surrounded by trophies and tributes may take satisfaction in what he has achieved in life, or perhaps he finally places no value whatever on those things. The ancient Greeks liked to say, 'Count no man happy until he is dead.' Perhaps that best sums up the elusiveness of any satisfactory definition of happiness.