An article by Emily Sargent in The Sunday Times weekend supplement on Sunday, August 6th, 2016, called “Why are the millenials so unhappy?” failed to answer its own question convincingly. Leaving aside the question whether millenials are less happy than anyone else – it is at least arguable that they are not – it raises the more general question of the source of happiness and its significance. It is not – contrary to popular belief and the opinions of the author of the article – completely self-evident that happiness is even a desirable state to aim for.
What is happiness? If “to be happy” is to be living the life one wants to live, rather than the life circumstance forces upon us, then it is one thing; if it is to experience life as a persistent frothy pleasure-garden, it is another. None of this, of course, is at all new: Aristotle thought about it more and better than most in the Nichomachean Ethics over 2,000 years ago, and came to the conclusion that eudaemonia as he called it (literally good-spirited-ness) consisted of opportunity to spend one’s life contemplating truth on an adequate but modest income (a summary borrowed from Alasdair MacIntyre). Later writers have developed eudaemonism as the pursuit of self-interest (Hobbes) and service of others (Mill), thus setting up the eternal tension between self-centredness and other-centredness as the purpose of life and the source of happiness.
But let us return to our unhappy millenials, because whatever happiness may be, and whether or not it is a legitimate objective of the mature and wise life of a citizen in a free society, any strong sense that it is either not achieved or, more alarmingly, not achievable, presents serious challenges to the social and political stability of a society.
In “On Storytelling” I make the point that most human activity only makes sense within a framework defined by some kind of over-arching story, some meta-narrative, that integrates all our other stories and purposive discourses. In particular, in order to be able to understand our existence to any extent at all, we need to be able to tell our personal story as a part in a greater story. (I will turn to the question of the possibility of a completely narcissistic self-centred and self-generated story subsequently.) When we are unable to locate ourselves in such a meta-narrative – and it is very important to appreciate that we do not need to do so consciously and deliberately, and usually do not – we are unable to satisfy any of the conditions that might be construed as happiness because those conditions will necessarily appear empty.
We used to be able to take some such meta-narrative for granted: it was the Judaeo-Christian story; it was the British Empire; it was the East-West stand-off; it was various thinly-veiled metaphors for what everyone thought to be “success” according to a particular socio-economic meta-narrative. All of these stories have gone, the latter least surprisingly because it was never a real meta-narrative in the first place but just took a couple of centuries to be exposed as the fraud it was. So what do we now do? The angst exhibited by our millenial soul-searching is only more pronounced because their exposure to older meta-narratives has left even less residue than it has with older fogies who can still remember religious, imperial and economics metaphors with sufficient force to allow them some continuing influence, albeit either illusory or delusory. But millenials – perhaps there is a clue in the name – have had no exposure to any of the defining meta-narratives that have shaped our world, and therefore have no over-arching story within which to make sense of their lives. A glance at the trivia that passes for journalism in today’s papers confirms that it is predominantly negative, dismissive, complaining and prejudiced; there is no substance to it at all because there is no meta-narrative within and on which it can find any purchase.
Recent events serve only to emphasise the seriousness of the situation. The Brexiteers had a story to sell of island Britain standing against the bureaucratic forces that are wresting power from Westminster and locating it in Brussels; the Remainers had no such compelling story, and certainly failed to tell it persuasively if they did. It mattered not one jot that the Brexit story was a lie, or rather a network of lies; what mattered was that it was easy to understand and had a simple three-word slogan everyone could grasp: “Take Back Control”. Over the pond the most frightening thing about the Trump campaign is that it tells a story over against which Clinton has nothing to offer; the story may be incoherent, racist, prejudiced, demonic and ignorant, but it is a story, and the fear is that bad and destructive stories will win if there are no good and constructive stories to set over against them. And it has an effective, if vacuous, slogan: “Make America Great Again!” or, worse, “Just nuke ’em!” On that count, Clinton is a busted flush offering reasoned, socially-orientated arguments for long-term economic growth that nobody can get enthusiastic about. The most extreme and distorted elements that proclaim themselves Islamic also have a story to tell so powerful that it lures innocents to offer themselves as suicide-bombers and assassins in pursuit of momentary infamy because their meta-narrative provides them with a justification for such action that over-rides even the value of life itself, their own and that of others. And it is important also to realise that these outrages (as we right-minded people call them with our vague recollections of an alternative meta-narrative) are not the actions of people who are mentally ill or deranged – to think this is fundamentally to misunderstand terrorism – but the actions of people who are rationally persuaded by the power of a story which nowadays “civilization” has nothing to set against.
Of course, this reveals the dark side of narrative theory: that it is not the presence of a story in itself that occasions the good, for there are stories that occasion and justify what some of us would regard as the unspeakably bad. So it cannot be our objective merely to rediscover or reanimate our older meta-narratives, or merely to invent new ones – the invention of a new meta-narrative is not the stuff of an afternoon’s work, anyway – but to weave together the best of the past and the present to create whatever future meta-narratives we may think it worth living by. And if and when we can invent them – and it is a big “if” and an urgent “when?” – they will need to be at least as compelling as the stories told by the advocates of Isis without reproducing the horrors that civilization once endorsed when it thought positively of the Inquisition. And, of course, pace Donald Trump, Adolf Hitler, Lenin, Napoleon and Thomas de Torquemada, there is always the danger that if we do not find a positive, uplifting, noble meta-narrative, someone will enthusiastically offer us a very dark alternative to fill our purposive void.
Millenials or not, if the millenials are unhappy, it should concern us all.