David Brooks, Expertise, and the Fetishization of Happiness
People have been giving attention to David Brooks’ latest column. This is good, because I have a soft spot for the incorporation of Yiddish into daily life, particularly the word “bagel,” and especially on those mornings when cream cheese is nearby. He talks about heimish, homeyness, in a sense; from his experience it comes from the warmth of the used, familiar, or the intimate as opposed to the sterility of the new, the expensive, and their distance. He considers his experiences and writes a column attempting to glean meaning from them. But then his penultimate paragraph:
I can’t resist concluding this column with some kernels of consumption advice accumulated by the prominent scholars Elizabeth W. Dunn, Daniel T. Gilbert and Timothy D. Wilson. Surveying the vast literature of happiness research, they suggest: Buy experiences instead of things; buy many small pleasures instead of a few big ones; pay now for things you can look forward to and enjoy later.
Nothing that comes before the colon is heimish. Allow me to explain.
After several hundred words, after time accumulating experiences and considering them, Brooks still needs to turn to “the vast literature of happiness research” before he draws final conclusions about what his own experiences tell him. (About, indeed, what he has just said his own experiences tell him.) The validity of this advice rests not his knowing by having done or lived (though he may well have) but on his knowing by having read—or, in the more appropriate passive voice, his having been told.
I have no inherent objection to research or expertise. (I research books with the aim of becoming an expert on some of them.) I do have an objection to the idea that they are sufficient guides to happiness—or that happiness itself is something that can be studied, quantified, and dissected. Happiness cannot be understood objectively because it is not an objective category (or, as the popular consensus seems to treat it, an objective good). Happiness is dependant on the individual—the individuals whose aggregate experiences were distilled into the pithy advice above—and therefore by its nature in thrall to the subjectivity of individual experience.
As a guide to happiness—or heimishness—rightly understood, personal experience holds more authority than an aggregate thereof. One retains the nuance of individual experience (and through this the ability to carry meaning); the other flattens it. Of course, Brooks does not think that personal experience holds no value. If so, his column would be a waste. But his conclusion indicates the belief—not limited to himself—that, even in matters of happiness, expertise is to be trusted over experience and the focus group over the individual. And as the rulings of expertise fade into (as they inevitably do) the not-so-soft Protean tyranny of consensus opinion, we find unhappiness and discontent more plentiful—as our ability to be happy (or, more properly, content) as individuals, in and through the experiences of an individual life, diminishes.
What this is symptomatic of (not causal to) is the fetishization of happiness. Rather than an experience-dependant category, it is an objective good in and of itself, an end entirely self-sufficient, a suitable target for armchair dissection and expert roadmaps. This kind of happiness cannot be bound to any formulation of a good life. I would go so far as to say that the two are mutually incompatible.