ISBN 978-1-84737-524-7. “The Age of Absurdity: Why modern life makes it hard to be happy” by Michael Foley was published by Simon & Schuster UK Ltd in 2010. The paperback offers 260 pages consisting of five parts of fourteen chapters, acknowledgements, notes and index. No doubt Amazon recommended this one to us because of our previous purchase of “Irrationality” by Stuart Sutherland (Constable and Company 1992 ISBN 978-1-905177-0703) which we reviewed in March of 2010. So is this just another “Mr Angry” and his personal attempt to brand all of modern life as “rubbish” (to quote a Blur album)? What intrigued us about Foley’s work was the potential it unlocked to understand why people are so unhappy that they continue to drive economic activity even after this became demonstrably unsustainable. People want so much, the next big holiday, the next plasma screen TV, the next gadget from Apple, yet none of it makes us happy. So we drive an industrial system of consumption whose sole purpose is to turn natural resources into waste as quickly as possible in some vain attempt to make us “happy”. Yet we never can be because this objective is, of course, absurd. In the review of the Sutherland book we felt a little let down by the author who seemed unable to objectively understand what were his own subjective feelings on a matter and what was truly “irrational”. It simply came out as pop-psychology dressed up in the clothes of science.
Foley’s book is far more a work of philosophy hence arguably more personal. His approach is similar to Sutherland’s in the way he find numerous anecdotes and scientific papers to justify his every whim no-matter how contradictory the end result appears to a lay man. But as a whole the result is probably more satisfactory. The disappointment the reader may feel stems from the immense intellectual arrogance of the piece. Foley is never better when he is being witty and trawling the science. There were times when his work goes from being profound and insightful to unmercifully funny. And we mean rib-achingly funny. The section of this book on the workplace just had us spluttering out loud whilst the bit about how people can no longer live without continuous background noise had us nodding in agreement. If this book was all like that we could love it to bits. However a brief glance through the index will give the wary reader an idea as to the let-down. Let me see now. Foley quotes and analyses (at great length) the work of none other than Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Stuart Mill, Friedrich Nietzsche, Erich Fromm, Plato, Marcus Aurelius, Sigmund Freud, Jesus, Buddha, Jean-Paul Sartre, Samuel Beckett, William Shakespeare, Oliver James, Franz Kafka, John Gray, Spinoza, T. S. Eliot, Aristotle, Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Leo Tolstoy, Homer (of “The Odyssey” fame, not “The Simpsons” – more’s the pity) and on and on…. Taking in everything from The Gospels to “Lord of the Rings” in along the way. This man has swallowed the Classics section of his local library and now wishes to prove how clever he is. Of course it all SOUNDS very authoritative but so many of these references are too obscure to have any relevance. You really get the feeling that, after he has read that lot, Foley really should know everything there is to know about, well, everything. However, his greatest insights come not from his philosopher buddies from the works of scientific research. And with the “facts”, as Homer Simpson informs us – “you can prove anything”.
So does Foley ever succeed in creating a “grand theory of everything”. Well, if you can stay awake through the duller sections of this book then it looks as if he has – however hard he tries to ram the simple truths somewhere where you can no longer find them. It seems that modern life puts the cart before the horse: we work hard in order to have the things that make us happy. However, “things” do NOT makes us happy, entirely the opposite. In fact it is the “striving”, the working hard, that makes us happy. Indeed, that would seem to be the point of striving. The very act of wanting to achieve something should makes us happy. The journey not the destination. And the more we have, the more we want. So there is no purpose to having more and it cannot be sustained. So what should make us happy? Well it seems that personal responsibility, autonomy, detachment, understanding, mindfulness, transcendence, acceptance of difficulty, ceaseless striving and the constant awareness of mortality are commonly the things that are most rewarding and makes us most content in the long term. Note the remarkable absence of “more stuff” from this list. Foley then makes a really decent attempt to show us how this is true and how every “modern” trend undermines true happiness. We live in a time where nobody accepts responsibility for his of her actions any more. It will always be somebody else’s fault. That can’t make us happy. Likewise, we fill our lives with stuff that is simply too complex for us to understand and even if we could our culture now so revels in “dumbing down” that understanding anything is too much bother. We should rediscover the simple pleasures in life – of doing just one thing at a time rather than multi-tasking, of being able to be by ourselves, in complete silence, without having a psychotic episode, and so on…. Foley really revels in the absurd situation we now find ourselves in.
Practically every aspect of our modern existence is engineered to make us unhappy despite the fact we have never had more of the things that we THOUGHT should make us happy. We are all well fed and have good jobs. We have money, family, friends and prestige but none of it really matters anymore. On the positive side this all means that, in reality, we can actually do without the unnecessary trappings of modern culture and be perfectly happy thankyou. In one of the many striking research studies that Foley uncovers is the ones where Americans are compared to the Japanese or Koreans. It as striking how the US education system and culture extols the virtue of self-esteem whereas the Asian cultures promote my self-questioning and introspection. Guess which come out the happiest? We don’t need to believe we are a roaring tiger to feel good about ourselves. We just need to spend some time thinking about exactly what and who we are. If we could be bothered. So here you have it: a book cataloguing EVERY possible absurdity of modern British cultural life and managing to demonstrate that the entire things is an unhappy sham. This can be glorious reading at times, frustrating at other times, but it makes its point. We have turned modern life inside out in the pursuit of the one thing we have had in our grasp all along. Learn to take responsibility for your life, find a manner in which you can become detached from this rat race, do things not because they are easy but because they are hard, work hard, strive and get lost inside that striving. Then you will be happy my son. Great.