What exactly is required for us to lead a good and happy life? For millennia the question has preoccupied the world’s great thinkers, from Socrates to Sigmund Freud. One point on which many agree is that if we set out in search of happiness, we will surely never find it.
It was surprising, therefore, to learn this week that an answer to the eternal conundrum had been found in the unlikely setting of a seaside town in Co Dublin. In his new book, anthropologist Daniel Miller set out to reset the relationship between philosophy and anthropology by contrasting the various theories of the good life with the actual “good enough lives” led by the inhabitants of a thinly anonymised location which Irish readers will immediately identify as Skerries.
The news from Skerries is cheerful. In recent decades the town has grown from a small seaside resort to a satellite commuter suburb with a population of 11,000. Like anywhere, it has its social issues and tensions. But Miller paints a picture of a friendly, unpretentious place where social bonds are strong and community pride is high.
The book suggests many of the concerns which worry Ireland’s standing army of social pessimists may be unfounded. The decline of religion has turned out to be “profoundly inconsequential”, while the townspeople are generally tolerant, egalitarian and less individualistic than residents of a comparable English town. Even their worries seem trifling. Miller contrasts the concern expressed by many about the negative social impact of smartphones with the pleasure and utility which the same individuals derive from using those devices. He is intrigued by these contrasts between what people say and what they do, surely a key feature of the Irish psyche.
Sport plays a central role in social cohesion in Skerries while, in Miller’s telling, the inhabitants are less keen on abstract philosophical ideas. This, he suggests, is because they derive meaning from what they do rather than “pontificating”. A controversial idea for newspaper columnists and others to ponder, probably at great length.