Happiness is (about to be) overrated

11 01 2011

I have to be careful here. A few years ago I spoke at a discussion on happiness and passed the flippant comment that I had not been happy since 1963 (a reference to Philip Larkin as I am sure you all know). After the discussion I was approached by a man who,  identifying himself as a therapist,  offered to help me with my ‘problem’ of unhappiness.

So to be clear, this piece is not about my own state of mind, which those who know me well will confirm is that of a sunny optimist who can only see the bright side of life. It is rather about the intention of the UK government and others to find a new and better way of measuring the wealth of nations, not through the present measure of growth, GDP, but by adding in some as yet undefined way of assessing the happiness or state of well-being of the nation.

Tim Harford, in his excellent summary of the current discussion, makes the point that all of the information that the government purports to want to find out in its new ‘happiness’ initiative is already available from numerous other official surveys. So, if the information already exists, why has the government decided to make a public issue of surveying ‘happiness’ at this moment in time?

The ‘happiness’ debate is a product of the coming together of two different but connected social phenomena. One is the pervasive sense of ‘limits’ which imbues much of contemporary society, the idea that we are reaching the end of the road of exploitation of the earth’s natural resources, that we need to learn to be more sustainable and less dependent on material growth.

The second is the recession and  the very real impact on our lives, here in the west, of the cutbacks in living standards which we are beginning to experience. When we face a future of stagnant  growth and financial pain how tempting it must be for those in government to try to convince us that growth is not what we need, or indeed that it may even be a hindrance to our happiness and well-being.

I am not suggesting that this is simply a cynical ploy by Cameron and others. They undoubtedly have been influenced, as have many people in our society, by the idea that the value of material wealth is overstated and that we should all be looking to other aspects of our life for solace. (Although, I  doubt that this will lead Cameron and his wealthy chums to forswear their own vast riches along the path to a supposed happier existence.)

It would also be wrong to dogmatically assert that all that matters in life is money. Of course, there are many aspects of our daily life which give us pleasure and a degree of contentment that do not depend on money. Most of us get a sense of well-being from achievement and a feeling of control over our lives. But I am opposed to a happiness index precisely because  those kind of things are not measurable in any meaningful way, they are mainly subjective and often temporary and individualised.

The importance of economic growth and its measurement, in GDP, is that it is measurable. It gives an approximation of how dynamic a society is, how much wealth is being created, how productive its people are being.  Wealth creates possibilities which do not exist otherwise. If you look at the world today the nations which have the most human longevity and the best health are the most developed ones. Generally speaking those countries also have the most stable and democratic institutions and the most flourishing cultural activities. This is because wealth creates spare time and spare cash, time and money which can be used to pursue other things than the mere struggle for subsistence that occupies much of the world’s population even now. Economic development  transforms the nature of work from being dangerous, long and tedious to safer, better remunerated and less time-consuming.

The development of a bandwagon around the ‘happiness’ debate at this time is a tacit recognition by the ruling elites in the west that they have lost faith both in their belief in economic development and in their ability to maintain economically dynamic societies. They would like us all to stop pushing for more, to accept austerity and to learn to love it. It is an acquiescence to stagnation at every level in western society. They would like to encourage us not only to accept this stagnation but to call it happiness.

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