Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Happy Days!

Until a couple of days ago I was happy.

Happy in the knowledge that my Government intended to base its policy prescriptions on an objective assessment of the economy, the environment and social circumstances. Assessments that – while open to challenge – have the merit of being about tangible things like money, jobs, pollution and illness.

But now it seems – in a fit of nonsense – my Government has decided that all these carefully set, often sophisticated measures are not the thing. Instead we’re going to base policy decisions on measuring happiness. And we’re going to base that measurement on a clever appraisal of behavioural indicators, psychometric models and statisical analysis?

Er…no. We’re just going to ask people how happy they are. Four times a year.

That’s it.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m largely in favour of happiness – or at least its pusuit. But I wonder about the objectivity of happiness measures for a load of different reasons – some philosophical, some moral and some operational.

I guess we should start with the philosophical and moral questions – what is happiness. OK so I know some of those clever psychologists think that happiness is a physiological state and therefore nothing to do with philosophy, let alone metaphysics.

Scientists have observed common physical side effects of happiness. From brain waves, to hormone levels, to heart rate and blood pressure, happiness carries markers in the body.

But note that these are “physical side effects” – all the clever psychologists can tell you is that when you’re happy we can detect these side effects. That doesn’t begin to tell us what we mean by happiness.

The concept of happiness – and its importance can be traced back to Plato:

The man who makes everything that leads to happiness depends upon himself and not upon other men has adopted the very best plan for living happily. This is the man of moderstion, of manly character and of wisdom

Plato saw well-being as a central element in society and more significantly that happiness is a consequence of justice and that it was not the result of hedonistic indulgence. Thus:

The descriptions of the pleasure seeking nature of democratic individuals and the just man, who pursues a balanced and harmonious lifestyle, not surrendering himself to ‘savage and unreasoning pleasure’ show that Plato’s view was that pursuit of happiness and pleasure for its own sake leads only to injustice and enslavement.

It seems to me that this rejection of pleasure as a source of well-being is reflected in the proposals we now see to measure happiness. And therefore, that this happiness cannot be addressed through panem et circenses but must be addressed through the superior class putting in place laws, systems and measures that promote well-being. This might be expressed in the manner of Bentham and Mill:

Yet it may still in the end be the case that his (Bentham’s) most persistent and consistent concerns lay neither in ethics nor in politics but in government. He believed that efficiency, order, rationality, system, when developed and sustained in the business of government, administration and judicature, would produce better societies for human beings to live in.

Thus the pursuit of happiness was, for these utilitarians, a matter for government rather than for the individual. The purpose of government is “the greatest happiness for the greatest number” whether they like it or not. This is the type of government that sees the banning of minority interests to serve a perceived wider interest as just.

The idea of government endorsed happiness is an elitist and deeply reactionary concept that derives from an authoritarian conception of government’s purpose.

Which rather brings us – my apologies for this being at something of a canter – to the modern day idea of ‘well-being’ or happiness. And we find that modern proponents of ‘happiness economics’ remain at heart utilitarian. Here’s Richard Layard:

The need is pretty obvious, but one fact makes it absolutely essential. People in the West have got no happier in the last 50 years. They have become much richer, they work much less, they have longer holidays, they travel more, they live longer, and they are healthier. But they are no happier.

Note that we're not told we are less happy - merely that progress is pointless as it does not make us more happy. Because of this Prof. Layard and others argue that the entire basis of our policy-making must be changed. Away from the enlightenment settlement – the idea of human progress through adventure – to an earlier idea of stabilily. An idea more akin to the work of Hobbes (and indeed back to Plato’s ‘guardians’) where we see that submission to authority is a prerequisite of ‘contentment’. We know our place in the order of things.

So much for the philosophical and moral questions although I find the appeal to authority implicit in Layard’s work somewhat disheartening – even, dare I say it, depressing – we should not be surprised that successive governments under the leadership of Britain’s ‘guardian’ class are attracted by the idea of directing the happiness of hoi poloi. Suffice it to say that the concept derives from authoritarian approaches to rule rather than to the idea of liberty and human progress. A concept I find to be without moral justice.

Indeed, the happiness beloved of the utilitarians, Hobbesians and modern day Platonists isn't the excitement of achivement - the joy of 'Eureka' - but the contentment of a gentle boat ride down the river. The aim is too eliminate stress and promote a form of benign comfort - a slippers and comfy chair kind of world. There is no room for 'grit in the shoe', for the little irritations that drive innovation. We must accept our place, be content with our lot.

These gurus of happiness do not want anger, challenge, debate and annoyance as these things are stressful - they undermine 'well-being'. We are to be gentled - made docile by our masters' policies. Resistance will be punished to serve the 'happiness' of fifty plus one. And it sounds so pleasant, so lulling:

"Wellbeing can't be measured by money or traded in markets. It's about the beauty of our surroundings, the quality of our culture and, above all, the strength of our relationships. Improving our society's sense of wellbeing is, I believe, the central political challenge of our times."

I think, Mr Cameron, you should have stopped after the first four words in that statement!

Happiness doesn't seem to relate directly to anything that public policy actions address. We could argue just as much that the relentless increase in taxation and state control is driving unhappiness as we can that it is misdirected economic policy. In truth:

"...happiness research cannot be used to justify government intervention in the way its proponents suggest. Those who would wish governments to take into account measures of wellbeing when setting policy often point to the fact that increases in income have not lead to increases in measured happiness, and thus governments should concentrate on redistribution and improving the quality of life, rather than on allowing people to benefit from economic growth. In fact, measured happiness does not appear to be related to public spending, violent crime, property crime, sexual equality, disability, life expectancy or unemployment either. The stark fact is that the difficulties in measuring society's happiness are insurmountable, and policymakers should not claim that they can control and increase happiness through public policy decisions."

My concern, more than anything else, is that 'gross national happiness' will prove to be a justification for more rules, more controls and more intervention in our lives. All for the greater good, you understand. Another excuse for those ever more forceful nudges.

And at the end of it?

We won't be any happier.


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