You are familiar with the words usually attributed to Bob Marley: “In every life we have some trouble/ But when you worry, you make it double/ Don’t worry, be happy.” This famous line—adopted as a mantra by stoners everywhere—was actually written by an early 20th century Indian mystic named Meher Baba, who spent the last 40 years of his life in total silence, communicating with his followers via alphabet board. “Don’t worry, be happy,” has virtually become the modern enjoyment ethic. This consists of roughly two principles: 1) Pursue happiness. 2) Don’t interfere with others’ pursuit of happiness
The idea of the pursuit of happiness has a long philosophic tradition, from Epicurus to Jeremy Bentham, who believed that happiness was the only intrinsically good quality, that it was the best common denominator in the context of liberal values like equality, liberty and tolerance. The beauty of Bentham’s idea is that the more we embrace a simple ideal like enjoyment, the more we encounter others who share our ideal, which in turn produces more enjoyment.
But taken to an extreme, this doctrine makes us passive and apathetic, distorting the traditional ideal of tolerance. For instance, suppose you meet someone at a party who you consider not only bigoted and ignorant, but aggressively so, and you say: “Hey, if that’s what makes you happy, great!” Bentham’s position creates a passive social space, where there is no longer any reason for internal conflict if the ethics of enjoyment are followed.
An ethic is an internal dialogue, in which we repeatedly ask ourselves, “Am I doing what I think is right?” The enjoyment ethic puts the cart before the horse; before we jump to the creation of an ethic, we should determine what it stands for.
A useful ethic should be like a good sports coach. A good coach will tell you to do more than just “score a goal,” unless he wants you to run around the field aimlessly muttering, “How do I score a goal?” A good coach will tell you how to score and his explanation will involve an appraisal of how your abilities can be used effectively toward that end. Similarly, ethics aren’t about constantly asking ourselves, “How can I enjoy myself?” A person becomes ethical when they can play the whole game.
The blind pursuit of enjoyment or happiness demands something inherently unnatural from its surroundings: it requires total control of a situation which is generated from involvement and investment of desire in the outside world. Real enjoyment is a by-product of the creative process, rather than the pursuit of a Zen-like state of pure consciousness and bliss.
Seeking enjoyment has become a cultural imperative. Although enjoyment is great, it doesn’t ask us to care, to direct our energy outwards, to form opinions, to disagree, or to fight for a cause. It leads us to prioritize “how” we are doing over “what.” It bypasses the need to ask why we are pursuing happiness, because that answer is already part of the question. An ethic is a dominating force in our lives, a standard by which we measure our self-worth; it is a terrible thing to waste.