This article is part of a series, On Happiness, examining what it means and how it might be achieved in the 21st century.
We live in a time of positive psychology, where the path to happiness is apparently paved with the right thoughts. At its most bizarre, this manifests itself in the popularity of snake oil salesmen like Deepak Chopra, who – for a healthy fee – will grant you eternal youth, and The Secret, which using hitherto unknown laws of physics will bring you health, wealth and happiness.
If these were merely further examples of human’s extraordinary capacity for self-deception, it would be laughable, but the climate in which positive psychology flourishes has a more sinister aspect. If poverty, oppression and ill-health can be overcome by positive thinking, then what are we to make of those who succumb to them?
Our political system appears to have drunk the positive psychology Kool-Aid, when it lauds aspiration and industriousness and increasingly comes to regard those who fall through the cracks, be they refugees or the urban poor, as weaklings with insufficient mettle.
The proper response to suffering should be compassion. To be virtuous, compassion obviously needs to be tempered by the occasion: a doctor in an emergency room confronted by the drug addict clutching his stomach and demanding opiates may, in considering both the long-term needs of this patient and justice towards the community, rightly set aside compassion.
Nevertheless, good people give those who are suffering the benefit of the doubt. How then are we to take the apparent fact that, for large segments of the Australian population, the suffering of refugees such as the Rohingyas and of our own Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people seems more likely to invite apathy or disdain? Australian politics increasingly resembles a grim contest to prove who can be the most mean-spirited.
Are we really a country utterly lacking in compassion? The charitable impulses of ordinary Australians are beyond doubt. We saw it in the large numbers of health professionals who risked their lives to save others after the 2004 tsunami or the more recent Ebola outbreak, and we are among the highest charitable donors in the world.
Yet the dominant political discourse seldom reflects this. How do we explain this paradox?
Our sad culture of victim blaming
The work of American social psychologist Melvin Lerner gives us a clue. In the 1970s, Lerner and his collaborators were struck by the widespread phenomenon of “victim blaming”.
Lerner’s explanation is that we are equipped with a cognitive bias he dubbed the Just World Hypothesis. Its implied proposition is that the world distributes rewards and punishment equally. In situations where we are confronted with suffering and are unable to do anything to alleviate that suffering we tend to resort to the assumption that the victims somehow brought their fate upon themselves.
Perhaps even more shockingly, his subsequent studies showed that women were even more likely than men to blame victims of sexual violence. The observer’s rationale seems to be that if she can convince herself that the victim made herself a victim, the world becomes a safer place; she would not dress that way or act provocatively.
The stark realities are that the simple fact of being a woman in the wrong place at the wrong time is all that is required to become a victim – and more often than not, that place is the woman’s home.
Lerner’s conclusions look bleak and it is easy to lapse into despair at the human condition. There is, however, another way of interpreting them. The crucial variable is agency.
We victim blame in response to our own powerlessness, perhaps as a way of assuaging our guilt. It is true that individually we are powerless to deal with the problems of refugees, racism, domestic violence or the ecological catastrophe which Pope Francis has so eloquently denounced.
We can always do something
Yet collectively we can and must do something. As Pope Francis writes:
Hope would have us recognise that there is always a way out, that we can always redirect our steps, that we can always do something to solve our problems.
The Pope’s remarks echo St Augustine, who wrote:
Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are anger and courage; anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are.
Collective action requires the right combination of anger and courage. As Augustine understood them, these are virtues rather than feelings. One can have a surfeit or a deficit of them. In the wrong combination or in the wrong setting, they can be disastrous; anger can lead to bitterness and courage can become foolhardiness.
Viewing Augustine’s comments in this light enables us to understand a striking feature of those who would have things remain as they are: their bombast and their fury.
Behind Andrew Bolt’s twisted grimace or Miranda Devine’s patrician sneer, a sensitive and compassionate observer can recognise the frightened child hiding under the blankets. For the most immediately obvious fact about such figures, their wealth and fame notwithstanding, is how very unhappy they seem.
Understandably so, for a life with neither hope nor compassion is not properly human. Their message amounts to saying that nothing can be done, that nothing should be done and if something is done then the consequences will be dire.
For those of us who are philosophers and thus have a certain faith in human rationality, any attitude, whether utopian or cynical, must answer to reality. The conservative attitude, whose advertising copy is hard-headed realism, amounts to little more than abject cowardice in the face of avoidable evil. Like a crutch, cognitive biases such as victim blaming can serve us for a while but eventually they distort us.
Every time we deny the suffering of others, some part of ourselves dies. To move forward in tackling the enormous problems that confront us, in the ways recommended by the African Saint and the Argentinian Pope requires courage. Above all, it calls for us to replace an ethic of blame with an ethic of compassion and mutual responsibility. Through these we might find genuine happiness.
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.