The achievement of happiness is the cornerstone of all philosophy, and so it’s no surprise that it’s an important subject on the screen. Philosophy argues not simply how we should live life but about the importance of happiness; it suggests where the balance should lie between satisfying ourselves and considering others, the reasons for those perspectives, and the journeys you can take towards achieving or rejecting happiness. But cinema and television have not existed as long as the millennia-spanning history of recorded philosophical thought so, in their short existences, what have they had to say about happiness?
Great suffering, however paradoxically, has been positioned as essential to happiness. It’s deeply rooted in Western thinking and tied to religion, with Christianity founded on the idea of Jesus Christ having been agonisingly executed to absolve humanity of sin. But it’s not just a religious perspective: even Nietzsche, a much more contemporary thinker, disdained the self-sacrifice of Christian society but still venerated suffering as the key to self-actualization and meaning. A lot of works have, unsurprisingly then, taken on such a perspective; and this is particularly noticeable in those centering women.
Lars Von Trier’s work, always morality-testing, worthy of consideration, and often viewed as grotesque, is questionably and disappointingly predictable in its fetishisation of women’s suffering. Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark provide the two most egregious examples, the women being driven by moral purity that leads to self-sacrifice for the perceived greater good. It’s particularly regressive to keep returning to the idea when it does nothing to unpick the patriarchy that forces them into those positions. Why should people not expect happiness in their own lives?
Male happiness has generally been culturally prized and the happiness of women incidental, even going back to the redemption of self-absorbed Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ widely adapted novel A Christmas Carol. This formula has become particularly self-centered with Groundhog Day and About Time, two stories where the protagonists repeat experiences until they get things right. It’s cruel from an in-story perspective for them to make people suffer their experiments again and again, and it immorally implies we should expect to view others as mere extensions of ourselves. It’s not their failings here that are the flaw but that, as in solipsism, everything exists around them.
Individualism wasn’t a perspective supported by 18th century philosopher David Hume, who saw that happiness was a by product of moral good. He refuted Epicurean ideas, a philosophical school he saw tied to an unhealthy need to force happiness; he recognised instead that we feel good when we do good and, as such, the two are inextricable. Virtue, of course, might include self-flagellation to some, but he seems to put a focus on feelings developing with ease rather than through dogged the Nietzschean will which that would entail. Happiness, to a follower of Hume, is not some distant, strived-for goal, but something variable and the result of calm but enthusiastic engagement with the world.
This approach to happiness goes back to the foundational ideas by Epicurus, the Ancient Greek philosopher that Hume superficially dismissed. The former is credited with the philosophy of hedonism, and hedonism not as pure, selfish pleasure – the warped contemporary definition – but simply viewing happiness as life’s main goal. He knew that happiness cannot be found through the impossibility of unabated pleasure and that pain is necessary to maintain a more consistent contentment. Perhaps more importantly he didn’t prise moral goodness, principles that have been warped by societies in the hundreds upon hundreds of years since.
LGBTQ+ entertainment often exemplifies Epicurian ideals in action, the stories showing people rejecting the impossible strictures of society for their honest instincts. But…I’m A Cheerleader is a perfect example, the arbitrary rules of society so ingrained that the protagonist believes or, at least, wants herself to be straight; otherwise known as compulsory heterosexuality. She ultimately rejects the stifling rules of the patriarchy to follow the truth that she is a lesbian – achieving happiness by using her feelings to tell what is really the morally correct route to follow.
Hume failed to parse his own ideas down to that level, however, not addressing the tendency he noticed of humanity to form like-minded groups can lead to the “tyranny of the majority”: John Stuart Mill, best known for his book On Liberty, is the philosopher who pinpointed the deep social flaw of the majority being drawn to pursue its needs above minorities. That selfishness is self-defeating; our experience in society tells us that any large group contains a multitude of minority groups within it. If happiness is to achieved then all groups, and all aspects of the self, must be given room to healthily coexist.
Lost is surely the most relevant show in this regard, an openly philosophical series about the conflicts and cooperation of strangers forced to live together on a tropical island. The tensions that arise, however, stem from elsewhere, each character grappling with the inner struggles that they’ve brought with them to the island. The show regularly flashes back to previous moments critical to forming the attitudes they display; an extension of the Jungian idea that our greatest enemy is ourself, and that we must confront the parts of ourselves that we keep hidden away in order to be happy. Here, the happiness of the individual and of wider society are shown to be intimately, inextricably linked.
But the best part of that show is that it doesn’t present growth or challenge as a one time event, and it mostly avoids making reductive statements about good and evil. The characters are forced to confront themselves again and again, not only peeling further and further back into the layers of their psyches but often seeing their faults rise back to the surface. However, this is a natural process of being part of society, their sins forgiven and their ability to ultimately be a positive contributor to the group implied to be more important than their past failures. Happiness, here, is a constant individual and societal effort, but one that brings catharsis rather than reckoning and judgement.
Happiness is something we can and should achieve for the benefit of ourselves and others. A reflection on the route of art and philosophy shows suffering not to be an inherent part of that but a modern concept, the inevitable result of tyrannical, hierarchical societies that don’t see the need for collaboration. But the most insightful work today acts as a reminder that it’s the unity of society and the individual in seeking happiness that allow both to grow. Art’s challenge, then, is to reflect that; to present the truth of the failures of individualism, and to imagine personal and universal happiness where it hasn’t been possible before.
Header image courtesy of ABC