Happiness: the official government guide to the meaning of life
Have a listen to this excellent episode of the BBC programme, the Moral Maze - I hope non-UK residents can listen to it. It's on the so-called 'happiness agenda', and features leading happiness thinkers like Lord Richard Layard, Anthony Seldon of Wellington College, and Matthew Taylor of the RSA.
Here are my quick thoughts on it:
1) The promoters of the happiness agenda don't agree on what happiness is
I noticed in the programme that Lord Layard and Anthony Seldon, who are, together with Geoff Mulgan, the founders of the Action for Happiness think-tank, don't agree on what happiness is. Lord Layard has a strict utilitarian or Epicurean view of happiness. He defines it as 'feeling good'. Anthony Seldon, who is of a more spiritual bent, defines it as 'inner harmony'. So Seldon seems to believe there is such a thing as 'higher happiness' that comes from inner peace. He also thinks religion and spirituality play a key role in attaining this inner peace. Lord Layard, who I believe is an atheist, doesn't believe there is anything like 'higher happiness', there is just feeling good. So they don't actually agree with each other - which highlights one of the problems with the happiness movement: what exactly do you mean by happiness?
For example, Seldon seems to be against people taking anti-depressants, because he believes in people finding their 'true selves'. But a strict utilitarian like Lord Layard should support anti-depressants, because they make people happier. In fact, if the utilitarian aim of politics is to make everyone simply 'feel good', then let's imagine that scientists invented a perfect happiness drug, a soma, with no obvious side-effects. It seems to me a utilitarian government would be obliged to make this drug as widely available as possible. And if it meant that people sat like morons in front of their TV, so what? What is wrong with that, as long as they feel good?
2) The promoters of the happiness agenda say their search for happiness is 'evidence-based', but they are selective in the evidence they use.
They make a lot of the evidence that moral / progressive behaviour makes us happier. Volunteering makes us happier, for example. Serving the 'higher good' makes us happier. But they don't mention more challenging evidence from happiness experiments - that people are happier watching TV than playing with their children, that people in demanding public service roles are often very unhappy, that getting divorced often makes you happier (although it messes up your children).
Another example, as the show's panel realizes, is the evidence that people with religious faith are happier. In that case, shouldn't governments teach their citizens religion? Layard uses a simple argument - giving to charity makes people feel good. Therefore we should be encouraged to give to charity. But by that simple argument, shouldn't we also be encouraged to believe in God and go to church? What does it matter if it's true - what matters, according to utilitarians, is what makes people feel good.
Let's say that, tomorrow, new research emerges that says people who don't read a newspaper are more likely to be happy than people who do. Would Action for Happiness then spread the gospel that we should all pay less attention to the news, or does it merely pick whatever research supports its own centre-left progressive instincts?
3) The promoters of the happiness agenda set up an overly black-and-white choice between extreme materialism, on the one hand, and their own happiness agenda on the other
Lord Layard, for example, suggests that the choice is between his own brand of utilitarianism, and a sort of brutal materialism in which all that is valued is money, possessions and fame. Likewise, in education, the choice is apparently a stark one between an education with rigidly economic goals, and a utilitarian education aimed at making children feel good.
This is a falsely narrow choice. One can reject a morality of brutal materialism (indeed, who doesn't?) without embracing utilitarianism. There are many other alternative moral approaches - my own approach, for example, would look back to the ancient Greeks' idea that the meaning of life is not simply 'feeling good', but fulfilling your potential as a human being, which will involve a lot of struggle, pain and hard work. Becoming fulfilled will hopefully mean you attain happiness, but that is not the goal, and it's misleading to make it the goal.
4) If governments start measuring happiness and making policy based on those measurements, they have embraced utilitarianism and made it official government policy
This would be a deep, deep mistake. Utilitarianism is a very debatable moral stance, which not even John Stuart Mill agreed with, despite his utilitarian upbringing. He said that Jeremy Bentham, Lord Layard's hero, exhibited "the empiricism of one who has not experienced very much". Policy makers might feel they are doing the noble thing, but they are actually taking a very narrow view of human existence and making it official policy. Even Martin Seligman, the inventor of Positive Psychology, thinks that happiness measurements are "ethically and politically imprisoning".
5) Claire Fox is right to warn of the danger of governments becoming overly prescriptive about how citizens 'should' find their happiness
I noticed that neither Layard or Seldon ever thought that citizens should be encouraged to debate what the Good Life is. They should be merely presented with the one true path to happiness, and urged to follow it. This is a big mistake. A crucial part of the Good Life is the ability to debate the different paths and possibilities, to consider them rationally and philosophically, and debate them for ourselves.
6) Focusing on your own happiness too much might be bad for society - and for your self
The panel are right to raise the concern that raising a generation to only look to their own happiness as a moral compass could end up creating a very selfish bunch of people. Layard says we 'should' look to other people's happiness too. But why? If visiting my sick mother in hospital makes me unhappy, then what utilitarian argument is there for doing it? There might be alternative moral arguments, but it would be hard to justify on utilitarian grounds. Layard, like Bentham, assumed that utilitarianism would lead to socially enlightened and progressive citizens. But there's no reason to think it would. Why should I care about the rest of society? Epicurus, for example, thought politics was a stressful, fractious and dangerous business - so we should ignore it and focus on our personal lives, because this would make us 'feel good'.
He's right - politics can be dangerous, fractious and stressful. Public service can be very stressful - look how it ages politicians. Simply saying 'helping others makes you feel good' is not enough of a reason for, say, a soldier to give their life to their country. Getting shot in Afghanistan doesn't make you feel good. But there may still be moral arguments for risking it.
And finally, the danger of deifying happiness as the new God is that we become terrified of being unhappy. Unhappiness becomes the new Hell. If we're unhappy, we are told, then we're less moral, we're less successful, we're less healthy. But unhappiness is a fact of life. We all go through hard times. We need a life philosophy that helps us get through the bad times, rather than pretending life is one long happy picnic.