The lies of happiness: living with affluenza but without fulfilment

Seeking constant distractions and identifying with brands and status symbols, we struggle to escape the superficial self. Shutterstock/Sean De Burca

This article is the first in a new series, On Happiness, examining what it means and how it might be achieved in the 21st century.


In a short story, Grief, Anton Chekhov tells of a wood-turner named Grigory Petrov, a drunkard and bully who for 40 years regularly beat his wife. One night he arrives home drunk and brandishing his fists. This time, instead of shrinking from him, his wife gazes at him sternly, “as saints do from their icons”, wrote Chekhov.

It was her first and last act of defiance.

Now driving a sled through a blizzard, Petrov is taking his dying wife to the doctor. He curses and whips the horse. He is seized by grief for a life wasted, and wonders how he will live without this woman who has sustained him for so long.

I may have been a drunkard and ne’er-do-well, he mutters to himself, but that was never the true man, and now my wife is dying on me, she will never know my better nature. I beat her, it’s true, but never out of spite. Am I not rushing her to the doctor because I feel sorry for her?

In Chekhov’s story, Petrov engages in grotesque rationalisations. His dignity will not allow him to face the truth of the sort of man he is. He engages in a litany of self-deceptions, even though the truth threatens to overwhelm him.

The myriad ways humans lie to themselves is a recurring theme of literature. Because we all engage in self-deception, we recognise ourselves in the characters. We are forever composing stories about ourselves and our world so as to smooth a path through life.

Benign fictions and the loss of freedom

The psychologist Shelley Taylor calls them “benign fictions”: the lies we deploy to defend our happiness. For a long time I have believed that if we deceive ourselves about our strengths and weaknesses, creating a veil that distorts our vision of the world so as to render it more agreeable, we may actually be sacrificing the opportunity to find a more authentic self from which to live.

But is that chasing a phantom? Does it really matter if we find contentment by deploying benign fictions?

The philosophers have always told us that happiness should be discounted if it floats on a mirage of lies. But maybe the thinkers are deceiving themselves, rationalising away their melancholy and inflating the value of their solemnity.

Perhaps. Yet there is another reason to question happiness built on self-deception. It opens us up to manipulation.

When we are not truthful with ourselves, we are driven by forces of which we are unconscious, but our real motives and desires can be discerned by others – advertisers, for instance. They can smell weaknesses to be exploited.

So, I am willing to argue, those whose happiness rests on fabrications risk surrendering their freedom. Happiness at the price of freedom is not worth it, unless the limits to one’s freedom are freely chosen after careful reflection.

But is the truth always to be preferred?

The Trade Practices Act outlaws deceptive and misleading conduct by companies making claims about their products. But what if we want to believe the lies? The essence of branding is that by identifying ourselves deeply with a brand – an Apple computer, Diesel clothing, a Volvo car – we take on the image associated with it.

We accept these commercially provided identities because our societies no longer offer other means of creating a sense of self that satisfies. And we are bored.

Increasingly, our attention is seen as a scarce commodity. As always, anything that is scarce has a value, and some are willing to pay for it.

There is even a new branch of economics called “attention economics”. When others thrust information upon us it can be regarded as a form of pollution. We sometimes try to stop this pollution harming us with devices like spam blockers, television mute buttons, “Do not call” registers and “No junk mail” stickers.

However, I think many of us watch television and listen to iPods to avoid paying attention to aspects of our lives that are uncomfortable. And we want our attention to be captured because we have developed a strong aversion to boredom.

It seems to me that the flight from boredom means our society as a whole is suffering from a form of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Movies and television programs have shorter scenes and more action to keep us “glued to the set”. Yet in order to transcend boredom it is necessary to get beneath the superficial self that is entertained by television and a thousand other distractions.

Is a more authentic life possible?

It is one thing to recognise that money and the consumer life are in some way shallow; it is quite another to find out what a more “authentic” life would be. Sometimes I doubt whether there can be such a thing in our secular societies. Are we destined to live out selves wholly given to us by the social conditions in which we find ourselves?

Still, there must be some identity more authentic than those constructed for us by the clever manipulators who make brands and produce popular culture. At a minimum, we must fight hard against those influences, for if we do not we will end up as mere cyphers.

Creating the illusion of independence is the most potent tool of the contemporary advertisers’ trade, but the irony is generally lost because most people are too busy congratulating themselves on “being their own person”. The essential ideology of modern consumerism is that we can all live freely and independently.

This is an idea that emerged from the marriage of modern consumerism and the ideology of the liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s. We now hear it expressed in inane phrases such as “be true to yourself” and “you are responsible for your own happiness”. So instead of pledging allegiance to God, nowadays a Girl Guide promises to be “true to myself”, a vapid pledge that nevertheless resonates with the inherent nihilism of individualised societies.

In Australia over the past 13 or 14 years we have engaged in a national conversation about happiness and how to get it. This was in large part stimulated by the work of my former colleagues and I at the Australia Institute, building on the work of Richard Eckersley.

When parents spend more time in traffic than playing with their children, is it worth it? Shutterstock/gemphoto

From the early 2000s we asked whether national wellbeing was rising along with rates of economic growth. We found that the answer was “no”. We built the Genuine Progress Indicator as a substitute for GDP.

We showed how advertisers were persuading us to go into debt and how they were increasingly targeting children. We pointed to an epidemic of overwork and estimated that one-third of Sydney fathers spend more time in their cars commuting than at home playing with their children. We measured the value of stuff that we buy and then throw out unused (billions of dollars worth).

We discovered a deep vein of discontent, with oppressive levels of debt, marriages under stress, overwork leading to illness and depression, children being neglected and a pervasive anomie. And then we uncovered the reaction against it all by describing the remarkably large numbers who had decided to downshift – that is, to voluntarily reduce their incomes and consumption in order to take back some control over their lives.

For a time we had some success, but then something happened. The 2008 global financial crisis brought to a sudden end the zeitgeist and the happiness debate that was part of it. The crash was the direct result of excessive consumption, unsustainable debt and the industries that made them possible; in other words, everything we had criticised.

I always saw the happiness debate we triggered as no more than a prelude to the real task of opening people to an examination of some deeper sense of meaning in their lives, and to precipitate reflection on the moral basis and behavioural structure of our society.

Yet here we are, in the embryonic stages of the next consumer boom, with no collective lessons learned from the last one.


This article is based on an essay in the collection On Happiness: New Ideas for the Twenty-First Century (UWA Publishing, June 2015).

You can read other articles in the series here.

Facts matter. Your tax-deductible donation helps deliver fact-based journalism.