Friday, 23 October 2015

Drinking and happiness

I've been thinking quite a bit recently about happiness and drinking.  This was prompted by a call for papers on leisure and happiness I was interested in.  Initially I thought I could flog the dead horse of the carnivalesque again, thinking of drinking - or at least the night-time economy - as a form of leisure, but mulling it over I've started to wonder whether there's anything we can usefully say about drinking and happiness at all.

I've written before about drinking and pleasure, and how I can't see that the concept of 'pleasure' is much use analytically at all.  From some perspectives, notably economics, if we do something we must by definition find it pleasurable at some level.  On the other hand, if we start to try to develop the concept into something a bit more nuanced, then it falls apart.  Is anything we do solely about 'pleasure'?

I remember at school being asked a question as part of an introduction to philosophy pleasure: would you commit to spend the rest of your life in a pleasure machine?  Of course, plenty of philosophers would say no, as this wouldn't amount to 'fulfilment' (or Aristotle's 'eudaimonia'), but I've never quite been convinced it isn't better to be the utilitarian 'happy pig' than an unhappy philosopher.  It was suggested to me at school that it wouldn't be pleasurable to be connected to such a machine, as you need the lows to appreciate the highs.  But my response was (and would still be) that if that's the case, the pleasure machine is flawed.  Those lows are not pleasurable in themselves.

So immediately we have this idea that true pleasure or happiness comes from there also being 'lows' or unhappiness.  And in practice that's the case not just with opposing leisure (pleasure) to work (unhappiness and/or fulfilment) - and there's plenty of academic work on this.  In fact, almost any action, or leisure activity, is imbued with something more complex than happiness or pleasure.

If we think of drinking, the whole reason I've employed the concept of the carnivalesque is that people aren't completely happy and comfortable just feeling pleasure on their nights out.  Part of the thrill and excitement is the discomfort, uncertainty, risk and so forth.  And the feeling of drunkenness is certainly something more than simply happiness or pleasure.  There might be a stage of drunkenness people describe as being pleasurable, but it's only one element of drinking, and not many would equate it with being (necessarily) happy.

At first sight, drug use is the ideal example of something that might approximate a 'pleasure' machine - the substances supposedly stimulate our nervous system to give us chemically-induced pleasure.  But it's all a bit more complicated than that.  There aren't many drug users who would simply talk in terms of pharmacological pleasure - and as a recent posting on Points reminded me, we do actually have to learn how to find certain experiences positive rather than disconcerting and unpleasant.

But perhaps once we've done that learning, drug use might make us 'happy'.  However, I'd suggest that people's 'happiness' isn't directly related to their substance use, and they wouldn't discuss it in those terms.

And it's not just about nights out.  In leisure studies there's an idea of 'serious' leisure, where the activity as seen as requiring practice, expertise, knowledge and so forth.  It is a form of working on one's body and/or life.  Such a model of leisure might make sense of some approaches to wine or craft beer - there is a canon of knowledge the expert needs, this isn't about pleasure or even happiness quite, and there is work and distance from pleasure required to 'achieve' connoisseurship.  In fact, it's not so different to the learning and expertise required if you take the approach of Drug, Set, Setting.

Of course, one way round this analytically is to say that true 'happiness' or 'pleasure' is closer to Aristotle's eudaimonia, or fulfilment - but that's basically saying these concepts as we actually understand them are redundant.  'I was happy in the haze of a drunken hour but heaven knows I'm miserable now' only works if these are neat binary positive/negative concepts - and in this context (and most others) what it really means is momentary pleasureThat's not eudaimonia.

Most of the time, we don't live our lives in those black and white terms - or maybe that's just me.  Certainly it's very hard to look at a particular drinking practice and say that it leads to happiness.  But maybe, again, that's just me.

Unless, of course, you're watching a drinks advert.  Certainly those images familiar from brands such as Thatchers tempt us to see drinking with friends as being a moment of happiness.

But I'm not sure that works in quite the same way for the actual drinking we experience.  I think any discussion of drinking in terms of happiness misses the point - but in exactly the same way as it would for any other aspect of our lives.  Watching Swindon Town doesn't (very often) make me 'happy' - but that's not really why I do it.  I'm not sure listening to music makes me 'happy', though some specific songs might do.  And should we be aiming for happiness in any case?  That's a question for philosophers and sociologists like Will Davies to answer.

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