Update on happiness debate

In: Uncategorized

30 Jan 2011

There have been several high profile items on happiness in the British media recently. This is probably partly to do with the imminent launch of Action for Happiness (previously to be know as the Movement for Happiness) and partly because of the nonsense idea that 26 January is the unhappiest day of the year (See Ben Goldacre’s “Bad science” debunking of this here and here).

A recent Moral Maze programme on BBC Radio 4 included as witnesses two of the founders of the Action for Happiness: Professor Richard Layard of the London School of Economics and Anthony Seldon, the headmaster of Wellington School. The more critical witnesses were Professor Simon Blackburn of Cambridge university and Phillip Hodson an “agony uncle”.

The discussion provided a reminder of how loose the definition of happiness is in the contemporary discussion. It is linked to the philosophy of the eighteenth century Enlightenment, nineteenth century utilitarianism, brain impulses in modern neuroscience and survey data on self-reported well-being. It is portrayed as political, philosophical, scientific and therapeutic all at the same time.

Changing the label from “happiness” to “well-being” does not solve the problem. Proponents of the concept as a goal for individuals or for public policy seem unclear precisely what it means. Their definition seems to rely more on what happiness is not. In particular they do not think it should mean striving for prosperity; which they in turn tend to view narrowly as consumerism. They show both a disdain for individuals who want to be better off and a lack of understanding that acquiring more material goods is only one aspect of economic progress.

Perhaps more persuasive are their arguments that in contemporary western societies loneliness is pervasive and there is a lack of an accepted framework of meaning. But the happiness movement provides no solution to these problems. On the contrary, the obsession with individual happiness is itself a symptom of the atomisation of society. A renewed drive towards economic and social progress could provide a better framework through which people could situate their lives.

Other recent happiness references include:

* A four-part series on BBC Breakfast, featuring Action for Happiness, called the Happiness Challenge. In this happiness is treated as a therapeutic goal for individuals to pursue.

* An interesting Global Prosperity Wonkast in which Justin Wolfers, a professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, debunks some of the myths of happiness. These include Easterlin’s Paradox in which happiness does not rise with income above a certain level (Wolfers says it does if the latest data is examined) and the notion that Bhutan pursues happiness (evidently its goal of “gross national happiness” simply means pursuing a range of different economic and social goals. It involves a “dashboard” of indicators similar to those monitored by western politicians).

* Pascale Bruckner’s forthcoming Perpetual Euphoria: On the Duty to be Happy (translated from French) sounds like an interesting read.