Idea of Happiness

Maybe our greatest misfortune was to discover the idea of happiness. As Friedrich Nietzsche said scornfully about modern man: "He discovered happiness!"
Historically spoken, he is right. It seems that the idea of happiness has only recently been developed and is only in our western culture so prominently present. The 18th century inaugurated a systematic flow of writings about happiness. We placed happiness in front of us, and so close that it is within our reach and so we want to reach it (what is logical). The age-old nostalgia for the lost paradise has taken in our culture a unique and strange turn, the expectation that the original paradise will be found back in the future.
All cultures had their myth of paradise; I call it their myth of Arcadia. It tells that humans had to leave paradise or were expelled out of it. This implied the desire to return to it, the will to find it back (an unavoidable human dream?). But the idea that the paradise is situated behind us implied also a sense of impossibility. And this contains some wisdom.
I donít know what happiness is. I have no definition of it. But I can presume that happiness has also something to do with to deny oneself something, renounce something. It could be that resignation, acquiescence is an essential part of happiness. The unlimited doesnít necessarily make happy, but the refusal of the offer sometimes does. And letís be honest. Havenít we all once in a while the urge to refuse all things, to throw everything overboard, to dump our TV, mobile telephone, computer, laptop and to go on living on a desert island with a few good friends? There is something very attractive in this total refusal, and that says something.
An intuition of this we all experienced (a real experience!) some day in the form of a short-lived, vague, transitory feeling of happiness, for instance when on a warm, sunny summer day we sat upon a hilltop and contemplated a deserted landscape, met with the immutability and didnít want anything more. At such a rare moment, we are suddenly caught by an unspeakable, restful, soothing feeling of contentment with the world, of alliance, of harmony. This happiness, in which rather absence and emptiness play a part, is the opposite of the happiness of product development as I described it. The fully realised presence of all possibilities in the world (put in prospect by product designers) might be the greatest obstacle to happiness. The high-semiotic and virtual products bear enmity to happiness, in spite of their pretensions.
Philosophers have always made a distinction between privileged, short, fragile, rare experiences of happiness and a fundamental mood of happiness. Deep happiness has something to do with a profound contentment. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein writes in 1916 in his "Tagebücher", his diaries: "Um glücklich zu leben muss ich in Übereinstimmung sein mit der Welt. Und dies heißt ja Ďglücklich seiní." (To live happily, I must be in agreement with the world, and this means Ďto be happyí). For him, to be in harmony with the world is to renounce the ambition to manage the world. It is not the artificial, moulded reality, but an acceptance of the reality as it presents itself, inclusively the vicissitudes of life and the fact to die.
It is certainly not forbidden to dream of happiness. Living is perhaps even impossible without this dream. Aristotle already called "eudaimonia" (happiness) the goal of human life. But the increasing confusion of dream and reality in the actual product development is a dubious, dishonest case. Itís disastrous that the dream of happiness has been fastened to the consumption of material and immaterial goods: as well the high-semiotic as the virtual products are carried by a deep-human dream, a promise of happiness. That is the tenacious, indestructible motor that drives and propels the future trend in product development. And this motor wonít come soon to a standstill. So I predict product development a great future. But I donít predict a bright future to human happiness.

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Design Management
VIZO Workshop

“Design makes the Difference”
Brussels, Belgium - 29/30 November 2002

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