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Happiness may come from within, but employers need to help

By Steve Dow - posted Tuesday, 30 January 2007

What the hell is happiness, and where can I buy me some? Movies and magazines propounding the great American - read Australian - dream of entrepreneurialism are fessing up that it simply isn’t the job of capitalism to make us happy. Rather, the onus of happiness falls upon our own scalps.

White goods and red sports cars per se won’t make you happy, of course. We know that. Not even, it seems, if you invite your neighbours to show off your personal home theatre to see the latest release blockbuster or double-park your wheels in front of a Chapel Street café so that diners can salivate with lust over their lattes. The superiority factor ain’t what it used to be, according to a recent editorial in The Economist. More on that in a moment.

Recently a new film about struggling with very little opened in cinemas. The Pursuit of Happyness [sic] stars Will Smith and his real-life son Jaden, and is based on the true story of a US father and son forced into homelessness in 1981, against a backdrop of Reaganomics, after the father tries to climb the corporate ladder.


Smith, one of Hollywood’s leading men, sheds his thick wallet in real life to play a man in reel time who cannot even afford to buy his son an ice cream. The film opened in the number one spot in the US box office last month [December]. Its title, misspelled on a sign but later corrected to reinforce the hero’s journey, comes from the US Bill of Rights’ promise of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Locally, the critics are giving Smith and his progeny thumbs up for avoiding the expected sentimentality or mawkishness, and Smith seems to have an Oscar nomination in the bag. On the ABC’s At the Movies, Margaret Pomeranz and David Stratton each gave the film four stars. Said Pomeranz: “This is a film that, to its credit, doesn’t demonise anyone accept the system.”

But Smith himself suggests we need to look at ourselves, not the system, for our happiness. He said in a recent US television interview: "It's not life, liberty and happiness, you know? You know, Thomas Jefferson was, was a, a real poet. He was slick with that pursuit of happiness. Because the pursuit puts it back on you. You know?"

The Pursuit of Happyness is thus more dedicated to self-belief than commenting on how the American system treats its poor. Smith wants the world to be better place via people chasing their dreams, and “the first step before anybody else in the world believes it is you have to believe it. Failure is not an option. There's no reason to have a plan B 'cause it distracts from plan A”. To be merely “realistic”, says Smith, “is the most commonly traveled road to mediocrity”.

But in the US, or Australia, the best a buoyant free market economy can offer for many in 2007 is a mediocre slice of pie, for which we must work longer hours and accept impermanency, or else navigate the strictures of mutual obligation through work for the dole. Increased wealth of an economy never meant sharing it around for wider personal wellbeing. Alas, Will, we can’t all get off the mediocre highway; some of us have to stay behind to let others overtake.

Yet it turns out that those pursuing their plan A (for alpha?) are not necessarily jumping for joy, either. Affluent countries have grown richer, noted The Economist in a recent editorial, but they haven’t become happier. Figures for wellbeing in western countries haven’t budged, even as the world economy has grown at an annual rate of 3.2 per cent per head since 2000.


Capitalism “can make you well off”, suggests The Economist. “And it also leaves you free to be as unhappy as you choose. To ask any more of it would be asking too much.”

The poor petals at the top of the A heap, it seems, have become inured to the spoils. Elite schooling, the best car or address - those “positional goods” that are luxuries by nature of being unobtainable to most people - have come to be seen as necessities by those that can afford them.

But don’t think this humdrum conundrum of the rich means they’ll be easing up on their workers on the treadmill anytime soon. “It is not self-evident,” sniffs The Economist, “that less work would mean more happiness. In the US, whenever the working week has shortened, the gap has been filled by assiduous TV-watching.”

The answer to happiness of course lies in teaching ourselves to be optimistic. But that requires a sense of control over our lives, the opportunity to be together in a society, more time out to enjoy our increasingly limited leisure. Those controlling the wealth have their hands on the wellbeing lever for the rest of us holding them up there, seemingly ungrateful for what they’ve got.

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About the Author

Steve Dow is a Sydney journalist.

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