Happiness is political

Right now I’m reading the book Flow: The Classic Work on How to Achieve Happiness by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. I’m only a few pages in, but I got really surprised by his discussions on how happiness can affect the importance of religion and our ability to judge societies without being ethnocentric. I’ve read a lot of books on happiness because I’m a self-help junkie, but this is the first time that I have ever encountered this point of view. It startled me, but it also intrigued me.

To cope with the challenges of life, “every culture develops protective devices” and one of them is religion, said Mr. Csikszentmihalyi. When I read this I thought, so maybe that’s why it’s so hard for people to let go of detrimental religious beliefs because the religion itself provides them happiness. If they chip off one block, then their protective wall becomes vulnerable, and their happiness is threatened. On the flip side, if we can give people another protective device that is as effective as religion, then people won’t need religion anymore. But what belief system can be as palliative as god?

Another idea that he discussed is how people have moved away from judging societies. This was a reaction against the prejudicial point of view of ethnocentrism and has led to the rise of cultural relativism. He makes an example by saying that these days we can be against a suicide bomber for killing innocent people but we can no longer condemn him for his belief that he will get virgins in paradise.

Mr. Csikszentmihalyi proposes another way to judge societies without being ethnocentric. He said that we can do that by judging whether society’s system gives “members of its people” the “access to experiences that are in line with their goals.” This is an interesting proposition, but I wonder what his response would be if confronted by societies that believe that the collective good is more important than the goals of each individual? Or maybe, by using his method, we will realize that the said belief system is fundamentally flawed because sacrificing individuals for the “greater good” in itself diminishes the society’s level of collective good, and thus defeats its own goal.

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