If you’re happy and you know it…

Why has happiness become a matter for public policy?

Michael Savage

Topics Books

A spate of recent books and articles have concluded that modern societies are not getting any happier, and have offered public policy pronouncements to make us happier. Added to the weight of self-help books promising personal fulfilment, and the popular demand for therapeutic and pharmaceutical cures for misery, it is clear that concern for happiness is at the heart of contemporary culture.

This has been picked up in the political arena. Richard Layard, author of Happiness: Lessons from a New Science is said to be UK prime minister Tony Blair’s new favourite guru. He argues that a society’s success should be measured not by conventional indicators such as economic growth and employment, but according to the degree of happiness that is promoted, or unhappiness that is alleviated.

On the face of it the pursuit of happiness is reasonable and sensible. Happiness is, after all, better than its alternative. But hedonism – the single-minded pursuit of happiness – has generally been despised; and the simplest way to ensure a ‘happy’ state of mind is to keep everyone on mind-altering drugs, which is not being advocated by anyone. However, the free pursuit of happiness as we see fit isn’t being advocated either. Rather, the writers on happiness think that they have particular insights into what makes people happy, and they tell us that the things that make us happy are not necessarily the things that we pursue.

In other words, they want us to like different things, because the ends that we choose for ourselves apparently do not make us happy.

Usually people have tried to shape other people’s preferences directly. Religious, ethical and political systems have all made demands on their members to restrain or re-direct their desires in specific ways. But the pursuit of happiness for its own sake means re-directing people’s desires simply because people are held to be unable to choose for themselves the ends that will make them happiest. There is something tyrannical in this desire to lighten the load of life by trying to shape the end goals that we might want to pursue.

Bruno Frey and Alois Stutzer give a clue to the attention paid to happiness: ‘Everybody wants to be happy. There is probably no other goal in life that commands such a high degree of consensus.’ (1) And Richard Layard echoes this: ‘We desperately need a concept of the common good. I can think of no nobler goal than to pursue the greatest happiness of all – each person counting.’ (2)

These quotations reveal that it is the universality that appeals – we all want to be happy, so ideas for achieving happiness are bound to have a wide audience. But it is a universality of the lowest possible denominator, and it requires wrenching the idea of happiness from its historical and cultural context, and reducing it to a generic ‘feel-good’ factor.

The interest in happiness is in marked contrast to the more censorious vein that also flourishes today. Our culture is marked by an odd coalition of puritanical censoriousness and ideological hedonism. On one hand, puritans demand that we live healthily and forego guilty pleasures. Air travel is castigated for its environmental impact. Drugs, which directly trigger happiness in users, provoke ire. On the other hand, prophets of happiness espouse self-indulgence with an abandon that would have embarrassed earlier generations. Self-esteem is promoted in schools. Businesses have policies to alleviate the stresses and pressures once accepted as normal.

We are told to be happy (and offered counselling if we’re not), but not too happy (we must live healthily regardless of our inclinations). We must enjoy, but not too much.

These two stands do not represent contrasting visions. Rather, the context of censoriousness gives a clue to the meaning of happiness. According to Slavoj Zizek, happiness has itself become almost a responsibility. It is a social expectation that we ‘have fun’ and that we laugh in the right places
and take pleasure in the right things. This is a strange kind of happiness, but happiness, as I will explain, is not as straightforward as it sounds. Trivially, it is a state of mind that we all recognise. But its invocation in political and intellectual debate has signalled a surprisingly wide range of meanings. Its meaning today is tied up with a kind of therapeutic ethos so pervasive that it need not speak its name, though it underpins much of the literature. The first aim of this essay is to explain what is distinctive about the current discussion of happiness, by setting it in a historical context.

But the problem is not merely semantic. Irrespective of the meaning of happiness, or the historical and intellectual range of the literature, the public pursuit of happiness is problematic. Ethical thought for thousands of years has fought against the temptations of hedonism, and with good reason. As a norm, our individual pursuit of happiness must be tempered with a respect for the public good if we are to avoid the most brutal anarchy. This seems an obvious point – but its absence from the literature is instructive because, by implication, it treats the good as a settled question. This should cause us to consider the wisdom of happiness as public policy.

Even if there were a persuasive argument for pursuing self-indulgence, happiness is a rather transient thing that will continue to evade our grasp even with the support of Richard Layard and Tony Blair. The pursuit of happiness is self-defeating: it has been widely noted that the rat race does not add to aggregate happiness – as soon as we’ve caught up with the Joneses, they get something else that we also want. But non-material desires are also subject to the creation of new desires.

We can always simplify our lives further, or have closer relations with our families, or follow every other piece of homely advice from the happiness gurus without ever fully achieving happiness. That does not refute any of their claims about the good life, or their criticisms of materialism. But it does suggest that they must raise their argument to a higher level, rather than claiming that their vision of the good life is the right one because it will increase our subjective happiness.

A society where we are free to pursue happiness is a noble end indeed, but a society that tells us how to be happy is a dreary tyranny.

The history of happiness

The current discussion of happiness stretches across a number of debates. Economists have introduced measures of happiness to correct for materialistic bias. Psychologists have studied what makes us happy. Self-help manuals promise to make us happier. Development theorists have criticised the focus on material wealth because it might not bring happiness. And in politics, ways of promoting happiness through public policy are seriously being considered.

Several themes recur in this recent literature that distinguish it from historical treatments of happiness:

  • There is more practical focus – what makes us happy and how we can achieve it. There is sometimes a fine line between trendy gurus promising to change our lives, policy makers telling governments how they can make us change our lives, and academics claiming to stand above the fray.
  • The psychological element of happiness is emphasised – implicitly, it is about what creates a state of happiness within ourselves rather than about fulfilment through the pursuit of higher, externally-given goals.
  • The pursuit of happiness is posed polemically against things that make us unhappy. This might seem an obvious step. But historically this has been a trivial part of discussions of unhappiness, whereas today it is used to argue against (for example) social progress and development because these things might militate against our happiness.
  • There is heavy reliance on survey evidence, which is interpreted to
    divine what would ‘really’ make us happy rather than what we think makes us

These themes are alien to a longer, richer tradition of writing about happiness. Partly this is for historical reasons – psychology and survey techniques are recent developments. But there is a more profound shift from a tradition of writing about how we should live our lives to how we can be happier. Some, such as the Marquis de Sade, have advocated following our inclinations and doing whatever makes us happy. But the more usual response has been to answer a different question – not, ‘how can we be happy?’, but ‘how should we live?’.

Philosophy is now packaged and sold as therapy, doing violence to the original sources. For example, Aristotle is often cited as approving of the pursuit of happiness. But his deployment of the term eudaemonia – happiness, good fortune or prosperity) was distinctive. First, he identified happiness as motivational – people do things that they think will bring them happiness. The import of this claim lies not in what it tells us about happiness, but in what it tells us about human behaviour. It is a primitive account of persons as subjects, who act in the world to achieve their desires; not an account of the relative importance of those desires, which would have seemed absurd. Inasmuch as he filled out the content of happiness, it was about training ourselves to derive happiness from good things.

Aristotle’s was an account of achieving virtue, not being happy. Today, researchers try to discover what makes us happy and how society can facilitate those things. Aristotle wanted to shape our desires, pushing us towards virtuous goals.

Indeed, ancient and medieval thought consistently relegated happiness to a subsidiary place in relation to higher goals, motives and responsibilities. Christianity’s focus on the joys of the afterlife is an obvious example. Recognition of the temptations of immediate pleasures – and the need to avoid them – became more marked later, particularly with St Augustine around the fourth century, who famously wrote, ‘Lord make me good – but not yet’.

This recognition of the temptations of transient rather than eternal pleasures played a major role in institutional religion, which was the sum of human thought in Europe for most of the Middle Ages.

Happiness comes up again and again in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, in religious tracts, in enlightenment philosophy, in poetry and in prose. But for all its widespread use, its meaning was not interrogated; happiness was not the direct focus of inquiry. It generally meant something like human flourishing, and I suspect that its widespread use was because the route to human flourishing was contested in this period, between those who saw God and tradition as being our way to salvation, and those who secularised the idea of progress. Happiness was a sort of proto-liberal shorthand for people’s own definition of the good life.

This is the approach in the US Constitution, where recognising the right to ‘the pursuit of happiness’ creates a space for people to pursue happiness as they see fit. It simply establishes the principle that in a society where people define happiness, or ‘the good life’ in different ways, the government should not attempt to adjudicate.

An eighteenth century headmaster preached: ‘If to have our understandings enlarged and improved; if to have our passions and inclinations tam’d and subdued; if to have our natures refined and civilz’d, be happy, be beneficial, then is education productive of all this happiness, of all these benefits to us.’ (4) This is close to the opposite of what we might think of as happiness today – it is entirely about constraint rather than liberation, about conformity rather than individuality.

At a loftier level, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant was also sceptical about the value of happiness, in the sense of following our inclinations. He argued that doing the right thing out of a sense of duty is more moral than doing it simply because it makes you subjectively happy. He gives the example of a shopkeeper whose inclination is to cheat, but is honest because it is in his interests to be seen as honest by his customers. This is compared to someone who does good works because it is their inclination to do so – it gives them pleasure to be good. Kant argues that the shopkeeper is the moral agent, because do-gooders merely follow their instincts. Thought and agency were considered crucial; and Kant is notably hostile to the idea of doing what makes us happy, even when it is for the common good.

In the nineteenth century happiness was adopted as the rallying call of the utilitarians, who saw ‘The greatest happiness for the greatest number’ as morality’s chief goal. It was a degraded account of morality that leant heavily on the increasingly widespread acceptance of formal equality in its additive approach to measuring aggregate happiness. But it is question-begging, in that there is no obvious or generally shared idea of what constitutes happiness, and this is not a question that can be resolved by democratic deliberation.

Happiness was the subject of a book by that snob, Bertrand Russell, in 1930. He writes that, ‘My purpose is to suggest a cure for the ordinary day-to-day unhappiness from which most people in civilised countries suffer, and which is all the more unbearable because, having no obvious external cause, it appears inescapable. I believe this unhappiness to be very largely due to mistaken views of the world, mistaken ethics, mistaken habits of life, leading to destruction of that natural zest and appetite for possible things upon which all happiness, whether of men or animals, ultimately depends.’

Russell’s snobbishness is to the fore in this book, where he distinguishes two sorts of happiness – ‘plain and fancy, or animal and spiritual, or of the heart and of the head.’ And, awestruck, Russell notes that, ‘I have even heard of plumbers who enjoyed their work, though I have never had the good fortune to meet one.’ Throughout, his purpose is to offer a cure for the unhappiness – or angst – that the masses suffer by suggesting that they live more cerebral lives like him and his mates.

The literature today is more trivial, in the sense that so much is taken for granted. There is little philosophical discussion of human goals. Extreme positions are avoided. No one wants limitless hedonism, no one wants to develop soma to drug us into oblivion. However, the absence of strong arguments against self-indulgence is notable – it is simply a shared background assumption. What is most marked today is the extensive use of survey evidence and quantitative methods to advance arguments.

When asked how happy we are, what are we actually answering? Some will interpret the question in terms of satisfaction – I am happy with the job I have. Others will think in terms of high points – I am not happy because I’m at work rather than on holiday. Some people will feel morally obliged to reply that they are happy – I have plenty of money and a family and a nice suburban house, so it would be ungrateful of me not to reply that I am happy. Others will think themselves unhappy because they don’t seem to be having such a good time as others.

People can experience happiness even in great adversity. The much-vaunted disjuncture between economic success and personal happiness might be nothing more than different ways of measuring success in different contexts. Feelings of happiness are so personal that it is hard to draw out generalisations and conclusions across populations. It is unlikely that there could be any linear historic progress towards greater or lesser happiness. And it certainly isn’t a question that can be answered by asking people direct questions about happiness.

Even this partial and cursory survey of how happiness has been invoked in the past shows that its meaning is problematic. Moreover, two recurring themes are that happiness is defined as individual and is not susceptible to wider social promotion, and that the pursuit of happiness is not the only – and perhaps not even the greatest – human ambition.

Self-defeating argument

John Stuart Mill said, ‘Ask yourself if you are happy and you cease to be so.’ This implies the problem with today’s focus on happiness. Because we are all supposed to aim for it, we are more conscious of not getting it.

It is a common lament that achieving a slightly higher level of material comfort does not make us appreciably happier. The rat race keeps pushing the bar higher, without increasing happiness in aggregate. Alain de Botton graphically represents the mis-match between what we expect and what we experience:

Source: Alain de Botton Status Anxiety (London: Penguin 2005) page 207

Even if we were to simplify our lives, we would never simply ‘achieve’ the conditions for happiness. We would continue to judge our position against external standards, either by hoping for more material goods (back to the ‘hedonic treadmill’), or hoping for even more simplicity (back to the monasteries). So, the city banker who has just acquired a Porsche Boxster is still unhappy, because now she wants a Ferrari. And the vegan hippy who has moved to Mull is unhappy because he wants to move to a more authentic wilderness, perhaps to a rainforest. At a certain point of simplification other desires would assert themselves. The appeal of modern comforts would become stronger, and the desire for more things would assert itself again. There is no equilibrium point where we achieve happiness. To be human is to be unsatisfied – and we are better off for it.

Another reason why happiness is illusory is that ideas of happiness conflict. This is glossed over in the literature, much of which uses survey evidence to bolster commonplace wisdom such as, ‘we are happier with family and friends than we are at work’. At this high level, simple public policy goals can be set, although even here it can be challenged. Whilst we value home life as a respite from the demands of the world, it becomes stultifying when we are denied the challenges outside. But there is a greater paradox. When individuals start pursuing happiness as the highest goal, problems arise. What if I am a sadist who derives pleasure from the suffering of others? Or if I like to play loud music through the night?

Here we return to a cultural paradox – that the promotion of happiness can co-exist with censoriousness. You can pursue happiness, provided you only pursue trivial pleasures in conventional ways. Indeed, the more policy-oriented writers such as Layard seem at times to put happiness entirely in the public policy arena, where bureaucrats can define the policies that will make us happy.

Is happiness the highest goal?

Even if happiness is a contested concept, and even if its acquisition is problematic, is it the most important social good? Happiness is better than unhappiness, but what does it mean to pursue ‘happiness’, and how much energy should we devote to it?

Most evident in the recent literature is the conflict between the promotion of happiness and freedom. When the quest for happiness is incorporated into public policy, pundits are quick to enjoin government to curtail our freedom to make us happier. For example, Layard wants compulsory parenting classes because strong family relationships are correlated with happiness. And Tibor Scitovsky writes, ‘The big question is how to motivate people to prefer benign to malignant activities and make such choices on their own initiative – how to induce that ever-larger segment of the population which has more time and energy on its hands than it knows how to use, to devote its excess time and energy to music, painting, acting, sports, or some other benign occupation rather than to drugs, rowdyism, cruelty, and violence.’ (10) So, we will be made to engage in activities that are correlated with happiness. Scitovsky knows what is best for us.

But there is also a conflict with morality, which is less obvious in the recent literature, in part because it shares a common and banal official ideological morality – anything goes, within respectable limits. Layard writes of the need for ‘better education, including, for want of a better word, moral education. We should teach the principles of morality not as interesting points for discussion but as established truths to hold on to, essential for a meaningful life’ (p. 234). But he fails to consider the possibility that there might be conflict between fundamentally different moral visions – which is exactly the possibility considered by the framers of the US Constitution when they allowed for the pursuit of happiness.

Here again, we have the problem that the pursuit of happiness requires ground rules. It is only because he is so arrogantly certain that we can agree on the ground rules that Layard is able to elevate happiness to the centre of political debate.

As we saw earlier, Kant identified a fundamental conflict between happiness and ethics. If our highest goal is to be happy, then the behaviour of others becomes problematic inasmuch as it threatens our happiness. Other people become means rather than ends.

People freely choose to do things that cause them immediate misery – from working long hours, to enduring the horrors of war, to participating in extreme sports, or even to writing books on happiness – because they set other goals ahead of their immediate happiness. One could argue that having children, for example, entails a great deal of inconvenience and only occasional happiness. But people still do it. It is not necessarily a sign that we misunderstand our own best interests. It is just that we do not always define our own interests and goals in terms of immediate happiness. In the longer term, people get enormous pleasure from achieving challenging long-term goals, even – or perhaps especially – if there is a lot of pain along the way. The abstract question of how we should rank short-term against long-term happiness can only be answered by real individuals in concrete circumstances.

So perhaps the role of government – and of society – should be to provide the fundamental pre-conditions for individuals pursuing their own vision of the good life, individually and collectively. This might mean promoting the very material production that is loftily disparaged by the arrogant academics who think that they know how to make us happy.

Happiness is not enough

Regardless of the level of material comfort that we enjoy, life will always involve struggle and often failure. In the context of struggling to do things that sometimes fail, we find solace in leisure activities, in hobbies, in our family and friends. It’s hardly surprising that when pollsters ask people when they are happiest, they respond that it’s time spent away from difficult and challenging things. But if we did nothing but things that made us happy, our lives would become dull and miserable. It’s the challenging things that create the framework in which we can achieve happiness.

The happiness gurus know that their position is almost unassailable, because it is hard to be ‘against’ happiness without being a misanthrope, or a particularly fuddy-duddy religious traditionalist. But this very inclusiveness should give us pause for thought. Why has this even become an issue to discuss?

There is something animalistic about the pursuit of happiness alone. It needs to be tempered by duty, morality, loyalty, ambition – and any number of other, higher, goals that we set for ourselves. Pursuing, promoting, discussing, disparaging these goals will take us further than the crass self-indulgence of the gurus.

As individuals, we will strive for happiness in many different ways, and achieve it to varying degrees. Being told what will make us happy will deny us the freedom to choose our own ends without ensuring that we will get any closer to the elusive goal of happiness.

(1) Bruno S. Frey and Alois Stutzer, Happiness and Economics: how the economy and institutions affect human well-being (Princeton: Princeton University Press 2002)

(2) Richard Layard, Happiness: Lessons from a new science (London: Allen Lane 2005)

(3) Alain de Botton’s The Consolations of Philosophy is one of the more laughable attempts.

(4) Thomas Hough, The Happiness and Advantages of a Liberal and Virtuous Education: A Sermon Preach’d in the Cathedral Church of St Paul, on Jan the 25th 1728 at the Anniversary Meeting of the Gentlemen Educated at St Paul’s School (Cambridge University Press, c.1728)

(5) Bertrand Russell, The Conquest of Happiness (London: George Allen and Unwin 13th impression 1960) (Original 1930)

(6) Ibid p. 18

(7) ibid p. 143

(8) ibid p. 211-212

(9) Quoted in Peter Quennell, The Pursuit of Happiness (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1990): 169

(10) Tibor Scitovsky, The Joyless Economy: The Psychology of Human Satisfaction (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1992) (Original 1976): 295-6

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