Happiness in Brighton

In: Uncategorized

25 Apr 2008

I am happy to say that the Brighton Salon had already written up the introduction I gave on happiness on Wednesday and the subsequent discussion.

Daniel Ben Ami’s introduction?:

Visualise two kinds of people; the Dalai lama, a smiling happy and spiritual person and a city trader, greedy, driven by money and uncaring about other people. These characters are extremes that illustrate the poles of the discussion of happiness. Money is dirty while the spiritual is positive. But popular prosperity, that most of us have some share in, is a good thing. Society as whole is benefits from being richer.?

There have been different concepts of happiness in history and happiness has it historic uses. In the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America the pursuit of happiness was an individual right. Today the concept of happiness has been given a narcissistic edge in discussions about it. Wealth does not in itself bring happiness to people and happiness is seen as a different question from that of wealth. I aim to show that the obsession with happiness is a negative thing in several ways.?

There really is a huge amount of literature and media coverage of the discussion of promoting happiness. There are ever expanding studies of happiness and courses on positive psychology. I wanted to attend such a course but found that they were, ironically, very expensive – several hundred pounds for a few sessions!?

Study of happiness is a legitimate thing to do. Some of the work is very interesting, particularly the studies that are based on subjective surveys of people that compare modern results to similar studies done in the 1970s (or even as far back as the 1950s). There are very interesting comparisons of people who are religious and those who are not, for example. Richer people generally seem to be happier in a society than poorer people.?

One of the conclusions from these studies that have been drawn by some is that people do not appear to have become any happier over time, particularly since the 1970s. This has led to the so-called Prosperity Paradox (or Easterlin’s Paradox, after its originator) which says that after a certain amount of material comfort or wealth has been achieved, you do not become happier by acquiring any more. One way of exampling this is so-called ‘hedonic adaptation’. When you buy a better car it makes you happy for a while but you become used to it – ‘adapted’ – and then it doesn’t make you happy.?

Another phrase used is social emulation or comparison. The absolute amount of wealth is not a gauge of happiness but the wealth one has relative to others can be. For example, if you have £10,000 when most people have £5,000, you feel more contented than if you have £20,000 while others generally have £40,000.?

These observations raise legitimate psychological concerns but some, particularly Richard Layard, the UK’s leading exponent of happiness public policies, go much farther. They say that these studies prove that wealth is not worth striving for and that being more prosperous can be a bad thing. One may be stuck on a ‘hedonic treadmill’ and becoming more unhappy.?

The political conclusions drawn from the happiness studies advanced by those such as Layard are wrong for three reasons.? First, and least important, the data from the questionnaires is very variable and some may be a bit dodgy. Some surveys had only three choices of answer while some had 10. Some surveys from the 1950s and the 1970s had different questions used than those done today and there are some problems of correlating the results in statistical terms.?

Much more importantly, regardless of the amount of happiness, greater affluence, popular prosperity, has had enormous benefits for most people – longer life, lower infant mortality, bigger, healthier people and higher education are just a few examples. The current generation is better off than any previous generation in history. Economic growth, the creation of wealth, has been a key factor in us having more culture, science and arts. The narrow focus on happiness ignores all these benefits.?

For example, there is widely considered to be a demographic problem in that there are not enough people working to look after the growing number of elderly. This is nonsense – the richer we all are the more able we are to afford a decent standard of living for the elderly. Any shortfall would be due to insufficient prosperity, not a problem of demographics.?

Furthermore, the mainstream response to climate change is to propose limits on economic growth. In so far as there are problems with the climate they would be dealt with better by the allocation of more resources and better technology that suggests a need for greater affluence rather than limits upon it.?

The political conclusion drawn from the study of happiness is that happiness can somehow be a policy goal. Many worthwhile things, such as having children, for example, do not necessarily make you happy. Being good at sports may briefly make you happy when you win, but the long hours of training – getting up to run in the early-morning drizzle – don’t make you happy. It’s still worthwhile. It takes a long time to learn a language and it is a struggle but it’s worth it in the end. There’s no happiness there either.?

To draw the conclusion that happiness should be the public goal is a bit like saying that, since women have attained a more equal role in society and gone out of the home to work, and they have not become happier, we should take the ludicrous position that they may as well stop working.?

Most people are quite happy. About 85% of Americans say they are happy and, if the statistics can be trusted, about 70% of the people in the world say they are happy. Should the number of happy people be increased to include those who are grieving the loss of a loved one, those who have a legitimate reason to be unhappy? It is surely rational not to be happy about four billion people in the world living on less than $2 a day.?

To focus on happiness as a political goal is to be happy with what you’ve got, happy with the way things are. Political happiness can seem humanistic but leads to a sort of nasty self-obsession. Happiness should not be a political goal and we should strive to increase popular prosperity.?

Chair’s questions?:

Dan Travis, The Brighton Salon’s director, asked if Daniel thought the focus on creating happiness as a public policy somehow promoted vulnerability. Life is complicated and the simplification of it to happiness may have consequences such as discouraging the development of resilience in the individual. Happiness is a serious question. In his job as a tennis coach of children he is supposed to be promoting their happiness and raising their self-esteem. The tendency in policy generally is that we should all be happy in our work and social lives, which would appear to assume we are vulnerable to unhappiness.?

Daniel replied that one of the conclusions drawn from the statistics on mental health was that economic growth makes people insane. However, the statistics that show huge increases in mental illness in the last 20 years can partly be explained by an expanded definition of mental illness to include those who are a bit miserable. The government partly encourages vulnerability by questioning self-esteem but it also encourages an inward-looking attitude where other people don’t matter so much.?

There is some pressure for the teaching of happiness in schools to be made part of the national curriculum. The Harvard positive psychology course was that college’s most popular course until very recently (and how much does that cost? asked a wag in the audience). Daniel said to teach happiness would degrade education. How cou
ld it be taught and how could it be taught without encouraging self-obsession through the focus on self-esteem??

Audience questions and points:

?Dave quoted the philosopher who said that life without suffering would be life without meaning and he saw happiness as a neutral qualifier of progress, but surely achievement would not be a much better indicator. Rob asked how new this focus on happiness was. The oldest philosophical question is: What is the good life? There were historic answers to this question that differed and there was a distinct nineteenth century answer: the most happiness for the most number of people. Also, what is behind the drive to use happiness in this way??

Nick asked how happiness was actually measured and how its nature was actually worked out. He had been working all over Africa and on his return found that people did seem less happy than in poorer Africa. There were fewer children than in Africa and fewer happy children everywhere in Europe than in Africa. On public transport, it struck him how detached people seemed from each other as they individualistically sat in their own space, listening to their iPods. Europeans seem to care less about each other than Africans, as one can see by the long greetings that Africans have and enquiries after the health of family, friends and livestock.?

Steve felt we needed solutions to the individual infantilism in the west, a way of finding fulfilment in our lives that was independent of the government. Luke pointed out that happiness was now on the under-threes’ curriculum in childcare. Government policy aimed at healthy and happy children seemed to encourage misery. Matt said that as the people achieved some prosperity they did not then associate it with the good life. People saw the good life as doing meaningful work and the government hoped to succeed in giving the illusion that people’s work is meaningful.?

Confused, he said, by linguistic relativism, Tudor asked if people were indeed best-placed to judge their own happiness. Could there be an empirical judgment based on cultural expectations of what happiness is? A new face at the salon said Britney Spears has everything and doesn’t seem very happy. Individuals surely have very different choices to make about their happiness, she pointed out.? Jo said that happiness is something we grow up hoping to achieve although not necessarily experiencing it in immediate existence. You assume your children will make you happy but you don’t perceive having children in those terms, as a kind of balance of happiness that is experienced.?

A man near the back (sorry I didn’t catch the name) said that power comes with prosperity and that, once material needs are met, the pursuit of power and its acquisition could make one happier. In this way the Prime Minister should be as happy as the day is long!?

Daniel Ben Ami’s responses:

?On the technical measures of happiness, Daniel said that happiness was a huge and diverse market with many different kinds of data and scales, much of it difficult to assimilate. The subjective surveys taken do vary a great deal and that was partly the point. But what could be said of the evidence of these surveys is that they seem to indicate that people do not become subjectively happier after they have achieved a certain level of material wealth.?

Individualism was certainly seen as a problem in Europe but it is not necessarily related to the affluence of Europeans. There is no cause and effect between the two things. For example, it is assumed by some that we have less time in Europe and we’re always working but, when our long education and retirement are considered, in the long term the statistics show we spend less time at work than people in developing countries and that our work is not of the backbreaking kind.?

Happiness is a good thing for psychologists to study and I have no problem with that, Daniel said. I object to happiness as a government policy. Economic indicators are imperfect but they give a good early indication of the nature of social progress. Happiness itself should be an individual decision and the government intervention in people’s minds is an intrusive effort to control people’s moods.?

The happiest people surveyed are those in the US who are religious, Republican and bigoted! This sort of research is very interesting in the light it throws on human psychology but it’s not the basis for government policy.?

What is new? The declaration of American independence was only a right to pursue happiness – it didn’t make it compulsory. It was created as a basis for governing society whereas now the discussion is about a self-obsessed withdrawal. I was struck by a British student featured in a TV programme who had been sent to India to work in a clothing factory. Scornful of the conditions that she found, she said that she had come to India to find out about herself. Shouldn’t she have gone there to find out about Indians??

Audience responses?:

A young man said that surely the effect of travel was to find out about one’s self and to learn about other people and that the two are the same thing. Steve said that narcissism could be seen every day in Heat magazine and that it was a part of human psychology. Self-awareness was necessary to achieve higher levels of development and if you don’t know yourself you don’t know anything. Individualism is not all negative.?

A new face, Sue, said she had grown up in an anti-Thatcher and Reagan household in the 1980s. The Gordon Gecko character from Wall Street, who said ‘greed is good’, seemed to have become a modern icon. The ‘lunch is for wimps’ outlook seems to have been adopted. Nadia asked if Daniel’s objection to striving for happiness was aesthetic or moral. Dave said that concentrating on happiness rejects much of human experience and much of the creativity of humanity. Rob said great art is not about happiness and that suffering and striving are vital things. To try to encourage happiness is to adopt and attitude of patting people on the head.?

Ann questioned the assumption that we are better off in Europe. Is prosperity measured properly in terms of economics and would progress, considered as a concept rather than a fact, actually show we were better off? Another man near the back said it was surely possible to pursue one’s own happiness by the helping of others. There was no necessary contradiction between helping others and pursuing happiness individually. Matt said individualism isn’t necessary for prosperity to continue.?

Daniel Ben Ami’s final remarks?:

You can measure prosperity in many ways. The gross domestic product has increased dramatically. Since the 1970s many more people have telephones and central heating, for example. If anything, measures such as GDP underestimate the benefits of economic growth, which the new proponents of happiness say make us unhappy.?

Individualism is not the problem per se, but a certain kind of individualism, that sees the self as a victim, is not positive. The autonomous individual is good, and a better component part of collective groups. Self-improvement once had a key form that meant striving for prosperity. Happiness as self-improvement has no striving because to be happy one must be happy with what there is.?

Thanks to Daniel Ben Ami for an excellent introduction and thoughts were provoked.

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