Certain novelties peculiar to our age sow doubts. One is the primacy of individual happiness. Happiness was always desirable, always hoped for, but it was secondary. Obligations deemed sacred, conventions considered “natural,” came first. They no longer do. – Michael Hoffman
A melancholy town where we never smile. – Gorillaz
I learn only to be content. – Inscription at Ryonaji in Kyoto
As an academic philosopher, I’ve always had issues with the concept of happiness, as much of that debate reduces happiness to a numbers game, where the sum total of good feelings minus all the negative feeling equals happiness. That idea always seemed unsatisfactory to me. I used to believe though, if it was to be something more than contentment with one’s life and work, that happiness was elusive.
At least I thought it was elusive until I came to Japan, where happiness can be found in your local convenience store, you’ll find it in bottle next to the vitamin water and cola. Happiness, as you see is peach and raspberry water, although it can sometimes contain pineapple. Happiness can be yours for less than two hundred yen. It is a bargain, I’m sure you agree. As a philosopher, this for me is truly a ‘Eureka’ moment, I now have something I can point to and see ‘this is happiness’; it’s a liberation of sort. And I can drink happiness at work and on the train, so that’s all good.
I’m only half joking, the ‘Happiness drink’ prompts an interesting question, one that is very difficult to answer, what does it mean to be happy in Japan,? As Michael Hoffman asks:
What is happiness? We seem to know it when we feel it, but a definition is elusive. Is happiness boisterousness? Gaiety? Quiet contentment? Resignation? Religious awakening? Freedom? Security? Prosperity? Love? Sex? A feudal lord’s favor? Death in battle? (Hoffman, Japan Times)
Try to define happiness, attempt to capture its essence, and happiness will always escape down a back alley beyond your reach. No philosopher has every really managed to define it. For Buddha, it was the avoidance of suffering. For Aristotle it was to acquire a medium or mean, to never be at the extremes of life, never too courageous or too cowardly. Kant, being a stick in the mud, doesn’t even think it is a moral good. Is happiness the acquisition and enjoyment of hedonistic pursuits such as sex or love? Or is it just contentment with work and your home life? If it is the latter as Hoffman also notes, Japanese men at least are certainly not happy, as many are choosing the single life:
Marriage traditionally was a matter of course, more or less forced on people who felt unsuited to it. You could resist, but it took very strong character. As recently as 1990, a mere 5 percent of men and 4 percent of women in Japan were “lifetime singles,” defined as people over 50 who have never married. By 2010 the percentages were 20.14 and 10.61, respectively. By 2030, demographers say, they will be 30 and 23. Nearly a third of all men and a quarter of all women, never marrying! The exclamation point seems warranted. From a historical perspective, it’s an astonishing development. (Hoffman, Japan Times)
It is perhaps astonishing, and worrying if your job is to monitor the population, worried about how Japan is getting smaller in those terms. But is truly surprising? Surely post 1992 and the recession, it is generally accepted there has been a change in values all over the world, not just in Japan, the more recent recession in America and Europe has produced not dissimilar cultural shifts. Times have changed and people with it. I’m sure that most Japanese people basically want the same thing that all people have since the dawn of time, to be loved and to be happy, and the occasional bar of chocolate.
And there’s that word again. I’m afraid to say that a definition of happiness is beyond even my philosophical abilities. I can tell you that here in Japan I’ve found happiness in a bar of Ghana dark chocolate, a can of chu-hi, a pitcher of Asahi, and in a measure of Suntory whisky. I am however no closer than any other philosopher to a definition of happiness, so in that regard, I cannot help you. But I can give directions to the nearest convenience store. There’s a good chance that some ‘Happiness’ can be found there, I’ll lend you the Yen.