Saturday 22 January 2011

Happiness — if you can't define it, you can't legislate for it

The Moral Maze on BBC Radio 4 this week was about happiness. At least, that's what it purported to be about, but most of the discussion was concerned with attempts to agree on a definition of happiness. From the BBC website:
They call it Blue Monday - January 24th - the unhappiest day of the year. Christmas seems a long time ago, but the bills for it are dropping on the mat, we've failed at all our New Year's resolutions, the weather is awful and all we've got to look forward to is February. But do not despair, our government is coming to the rescue. Politicians are so worried about our state of mind it was their New Year's resolution to do something about it.

On January 5th was the first meeting of the "Measuring National Well-being Advisory Forum" and the Office of National Statistics has just started a consultation on making general well-being (GWB) a key national statistic, alongside the more traditional things like Gross Domestic Product. Setting aside the question can you measure happiness - the moral question is should you?

Money isn't the key to happiness and perhaps we should see ourselves as more than just units of economic production and consumption. But is it the job of the state to concern itself with our emotional life and build that in to policy making? A lot of what makes us happy as individuals may not be very good for us, our fellow man, or society as a whole. Will we start being fed a very particular one-size fits all view of happiness and "the good life"? Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is all very well, but should happiness be an end in itself? Shouldn't we be asking what we as individuals can to do make other people's lives better, rather than asking what the state can do to make us happier?

Chaired by Michael Buerk with Melanie Phillips, Matthew Taylor, Claire Fox and Clifford Longley.

  • Professor Lord Richard Layard, Director, the Centre for Economic Performance, LSE
  • Simon Blackburn, Bertrand Russell Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge
  • Anthony Seldon, Master, Wellington College
  • Phillip Hodson, Psychotherapist and author who popularised 'phone-in' therapy in his role as Britain's first 'agony uncle'.
Streaming audio of this 45-minute radio programme is available on the iPlayer:

Unsurprisingly no consensus on the definition of happiness was reached. Simon Blackburn suggested that happiness equated with living a meaningful life, but that just takes the question one step back: can we agree on what is "meaningful"?

At the beginning of the programme Richard Layard's utilitarian analysis met with a degree of disdain, though I imagine he's used to such recoil from the merest hint of reductionism. But if you want to get to the crux of the matter then an honestly reductionist approach has a lot to commend it. At least it might yield tangible results, as apposed to an insistence that happiness can never be satisfactorily defined and that it's a waste of time trying.

Further on in the discussion I found myself in the unfamiliar position of agreeing with Melanie Phillips, albeit fleetingly, when she questioned Anthony Seldon's specific singling out of happiness-promoting characteristics as fit subjects for the secondary school curriculum. She lost my agreement an instant later when she suggested that instead he should just teach religion. A moment before, she had casually claimed that the things Seldon associated with happiness were all common to religion; careful examination of the facts, however, belies this claim. Seldon's justification for "teaching happiness" was presented on the basis of correlation with higher A-level results: pupils feel better about themselves — therefore they do better in exams. I don't think I need to set this out as a formal syllogism to show that its reasoning is flawed.

My own view of "happiness" is that it isn't something one should strive to achieve, because like the gold at the end of the rainbow it will be forever out of reach. Happiness is more a state of intentionality than it is a state of being. Like consciousness and free will, happiness is something we are aware of, which might at the same time be an illusory construct of our cognitive faculties. Even if we use Simon Blackburn's definition and link happiness to meaning, that can only lead to confusion about what things are meaningful. So I come back to intention: happiness isn't something we gain, it's something we do.