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Is happiness immoral?

Monday April 18, 2011

Suddenly, happiness is on the political agenda. But how do we define happiness, asks Jason Smith, and shouldn’t we be concentrating less on our inner emotional well-being than on the fight for a better society.
Are you happy? A new campaign, Action for Happiness (AFH), would like you to be. Their project is about an idea; to improve our quality of life by having as much happiness as is possible and, above all, as little misery. We all want that, surely?
Following on from the publication of his book, Happiness: Lessons from a New Science in 2005, Lord Richard Layard (founder of AFH) says “The causes of happiness differ hugely between people. Some like quiet, some like noise; some like to study, others don’t. We get happiness from different things. But we all know what it is to be happy – and to be miserable. It is a matter of our feelings. What matters is how we feel in general, rather than the short-term ups and downs”.
Our problem is that we have tended to equate happiness with self-centred individualism – with having stuff. What we should be thinking about is our personal, inner joy. Developments in neuroscience have persuaded Layard that the most important factors in achieving happiness are positive mental health and personal relationships.
Our genes are said to influence about 50 per cent of the variation in our personal happiness, our circumstances (like income and environment) affect only about 10 per cent. The remaining 40 per cent is down to our inner emotional state.
The government also wants to improve our GWB (general well-being), and has its Behavioural Insight Team in Downing Street to ‘nudge’ us into making the right choices for our own good. Everyone it seems wants to increase our happiness.
Here’s my problem. When faced with a society that is far from perfect, and where government appears to have no vision of what a better society might look like, never mind how to get there, my emotion is not happiness but anger. When the government is in the process of undermining our civil liberties, is intervening abroad in the affairs of sovereign nations, and seems incapable of coming up with a policy for economic growth, happiness would be entirely the wrong emotion to feel.
The happiness and well-being agenda asks us to put aside our concerns that society is not all it could be, and instead focus on our internal emotions. Action for Happiness tries to come up with personal, inward-looking, therapeutic solutions to social problems. The emphasis on the psychological aspect of happiness encourages us all to focus on inwards rather than being fulfilled through the pursuit of higher, externally-given goals.
While the US Constitution commits the people’s representatives to upholding ‘Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’, it does not get into instructing the electorate as to what definition of happiness they should pursue. The pursuit of happiness also alludes to a society that wants to strive to be better. Layard’s version is stripped of any progressive, forward-looking aspiration.
The promotion of an abstract notion of happiness is immoral. It naturalises that which is social and belittles human beings by suggesting that we can only make a change in our own heads, rather than in wider society. It is an attempt to make us focus on what the therapy industry calls our ‘self-esteem’ – a kind of Buddhism for a secular age.
Society has typically progressed when people feel restless and discontent. Social changes have come about when people felt unhappy with their present lot. Anger, militancy, even violence have brought social progress. Reorienting social policy towards governing our emotional well-being is a symptom of a society with no positive vision of a future which is better than the present. It will lead to more stagnation and paralysis.
Throughout history great men and women have put aside their desire for personal fulfillment in order to fight for causes which they believed were right. It is difficult to imagine, for instance, that the Suffragettes derived much happiness from the ‘Cat and Mouse Act’, introduced by Asquith’s government, whereby they were released from prison only for long enough for them to regain their strength following a hunger strike, and were then promptly re-arrested.
On the contrary these women were not focusing on their inner emotional well-being but on something far more important, the fight for a better society. We would all be better off following this example than Layard’s immoral version of happiness.
Jason Smith is convenor of Birmingham Salon and a member of the Battle of Ideas organising committee


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