Skip to content

Monthly Archives: July 2010

The Way

I walked the Camino de Santiago in May and June. I’ve been meaning to write something longer, but in the meantime, here is a short piece I did for Psychologies:

This summer, I walked the Camino de Santiago, or the Way of St James, which is a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in the north east of Spain, where the bones of St James are supposedly buried.

The route has been walked by pilgrims since the 9th century, when it was an expression of the transnational unity of Christendom, and also, later, a celebration of the liberation of Spain from the Moors – indeed, one of Santiago’s less politically correct nick-names is Santiago Matamoros, or St James the Muslim Killer.

The route fell into disuse during the decades when Spain was cut off from Europe under Franco’s dictatorship, but has come back to life under the EU, who have put funding into maintaining it as a symbol of Europe’s new transnational unity.

Today, around a quarter of a million pilgrims from all over the world do the Camino each year, by foot, by bicycle, by motorbike, by bus, even by donkey. They start in many different places, depending on how much time they have and how much they want to walk. I met one pilgrim, a lady in her fifties, who had started from her house in Geneva, and walked over 2,000km to Santiago.

I started in one of the traditional starting spots – St Jean Pied de Port, in the French Pyrenees – and walked the 800km or so to Santiago over the next four weeks. It was an amazing adventure.

People walk the Camino for all sorts of reasons. I met a Dutch lady walking the Camino while she considered whether to stay in her marriage (I think she decided to go back to her husband). I met an Austrian man wondering whether to change jobs to enjoy a more outdoor life (he got terrible blisters on the second day).

Some walk it for religious reasons – I met a crazy young Catholic convert called Oliver, who would sometimes walk well into the night and sleep in fields. He described himself as a professional pilgrim, and was adamant that proper followers of Christ should give up all their possessions and head out on the road. I asked him what he’d do after he reached Santiago. He instantly replied: ‘I’ll do another pilgrimage. A proper one this time.’

Some even walked the Camino to find love. I met a roly-poly Ecuadorean who’d been sent on the Camino by his mother to find a nice Catholic girl to marry. Others enjoyed brief romantic encounters – after all, pilgrims get their sins forgiven if they reach Santiago.

My friends wondered if the pilgrimage would be some sort of self-flagellating exercise in masochism, but nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, walking 25km every day for a month is demanding, but it’s not that bad. In fact, the majority of pilgrims were in their sixties or seventies. (It’s quite dispiriting being overtaken by a sprightly seventy-year-old on the road).

And the Camino is very social, quite boozy, and a lot of fun. You get to walk through mountains, through Rioja’s wine-growing valleys, through cities like Leon and Pamplona, through Galicia’s misty hills. You get the beautiful simplicity of having only one goal each morning when you wake up: head west.

And you get the solidarity of walking with your fellow pilgrims – Catholic, atheist, New Agers, yoga instructors…I even met a saleswoman from Ann Summers. Their reasons for walking the Camino are many, but we all share the fantastic experience, and we all help each other on the Way.

The World Book of Happiness

At the London Book Fair this year, one of the new books receiving the biggest hype was something called the World Book of Happiness, a mighty tome that brings together the insights of 100 Positive Psychologists (or ‘Happiness professors’) from around the world, in what the editor, Leo Bormans, hopes will be a ‘quantum leap’ in our understanding of happiness.

As always with Positive Psychology, the emphasis is on the hard-nosed science of the enterprise. “No philosophical or spiritual speculations’, says the book’s blurb, ‘but clear insights based on worldwide scientific research…No spiritual philosophy, but evidence-based knowledge of recent experiments’.
Facts, in other words. Hard, crystal, indisputable facts and scientific data. Away with thousands of years of ‘philosophical speculation’, away with the messy imprecision of beliefs, values, opinions.
Unfortunately, beliefs and opinions are quite hard to do away with. As I argued in my last post, there’s a glaring philosophical mistake in Positive Psychology, so large you could drive a truck through it.
All the hard-nosed evidence of Positive Psychology consists of questionnaires about subjective states of well-being. They rate how happy or satisfied someone feels at a particular moment. But these questionnaires, inevitably, simplify the very complex range of human emotions, and reduce them to a seven-point scale (from very unhappy to very happy).
Measuring happiness in this sort of simplistic way only works if you assert, as both Jeremy Bentham and happiness scientists like Daniel Kahnemann and Ed Diener do, that happiness is one, single, homogeneous emotion, that varies only in intensity and duration.
If you believe that, then you can argue, as Jeremy Bentham did, that it doesn’t really matter what makes you happy – it could be poetry, it could be XBox, it could be Prozac. Whatever makes you feel good for longest.
Now, first of all, this sort of ‘scientific’ approach to happiness is based on a huge moral assumption: that the aim of life should be simply feeling good. Many people would disagree with that, and say the aim of life is something else, such as improving the world, or achieving something that will outlive you, or helping others, and so on.
To this Positive Psychologists will rush to reply: ‘Yes, but we’ve proved that helping others and improving the world actually makes you happier. Isn’t that great?’ Not really, if people are only helping others because the scientific data tells them they will feel happier. That’s using other people as an instrument to our own gratification.
And what if experiments discovered that, actually, bringing up children doesn’t make us happier? Should we then simply abandon our children, and go off to do something more pleasant? Are Positive Psychologists really saying that, when confronted with messy moral choices, we should simply look to questionnaire results to see what has on average made people feel more pleasant?
Second, even Positive Psychologists like Martin Seligman (who invented Positive Psychology) now admit that, actually, happiness isn’t one single experience. Seligman now distinguishes three main types of happiness: hedonic happiness (feeling pleasant), engaged happiness (feeling absorbed in your activity) and meaningful happiness (the happiness that comes from feeling you are serving something bigger than you).
He says that only the first kind of happiness can be measured using well-being questionnaires. The second type of happiness can be measured to some extent, according to how much ‘flow’ a person experiences while doing an activity – in other words, do they become so absorbed in an activity that they lose track of time and their surroundings.
But the third type of happiness – meaningful happiness – which Seligman personally believes is the ‘highest’ form of happiness, can not be measured scientifically. You can’t measure it based on a person’s subjective reports of well-being, because a person could be unhappy most of his life, like Abraham Lincoln, and still have what objectively appears to be a fairly meaningful life.
How can we know if someone is meaningfully happy? Seligman writes: “Meaning is assessed by some combination of societal judgement, factual consequence and subjective state.”
This is clearly incoherent. ‘Some’ combination? What’s the ratio? 30 / 20 / 50? How do you measure societal judgement? Another questionnaire? How do you measure the factual consequence of someone’s life? How do you measure the subjective state of someone’s whole life?
Simply saying that meaningful happiness comes from ‘serving something higher than the self’ is morally incoherent as well. The head of PR for BP serves something higher than the self. Goebbels served something higher than the self. A heroin addict, arguably, serves something higher than the self.
Whether that ‘something higher’ is genuinely worthwhile is, ultimately, a question of belief, value, and morality. In other words, you can’t escape from the messy controversy of ‘philosophical and spiritual speculations’. Sorry, but you can’t.
You can’t even get away from questions of value and higher and lower forms of happiness in the second type of happiness, engaged happiness. Positive Psychology has made a big thing of ‘flow’, of activities that absorb us so completely we lose track of time and space. We should do as much as possible of flow activities, they say.
But what if I get ‘flow’ from gambling? From playing XBox? From shooting junk? Should I just do that all the time? If I get absolutely no flow from spending time with my kids, should I not spend any time with my kids?
You can’t take all the complicated moral choices that face human beings, and reduce them to ‘do whatever makes you so absorbed that you forget time and space’. That isn’t science. It’s a whopping great moral assumption.
John Stuart Mill said of Bentham that he displayed the empiricism of ‘one who has not experienced very much’, and that seems to be true of some happiness professors as well. For all their bumptious optimism, they seem, really, to have a very povertive and narrow view of human experience.
They remind me of Nietzsche’s Last Men, the moral pygmies that survive in the twilight of the Gods: ‘We have invented happiness’, say the Last Men, and blink.
Here’s the trailer for the Happiness Book. I love that the secret to global happiness has been discovered in…Belgium! Where else?