“Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so,” was 19th century philosopher John Stuart Mill’s view on why happiness is so elusive. True happiness exists, he said, only as a by-product of doing something else, something meaningful. Without purpose and action, Mill believed, happiness is fleeting; an oasis which vanishes before our very eyes as soon as we stop feeding it. The pursuit of happiness, he believed, was a futile endeavour.
Today, the search for happiness is a serious business. Americans alone spend $34bn a year on therapies and alternative treatments. Given the health benefits that happiness brings and the known disbenefits of unhappiness, the distribution of the ‘good life’ is an important social issue.
And though this has been heightened by the economic downturn, psychologists and public health experts started talking about the ‘epidemic of depression’ facing us long before the recession kicked in, suggesting that happiness is not necessarily tied to prosperity.
But while countless philosophers, psychologists and sociologists have often addressed happiness over the centuries, it’s now politicians, corporate leaders and an assortment of campaigners and lobby groups that are voicing concern that, here in the ‘developed world’ at least, we have fallen into a malaise.
The economics of happiness
Surprisingly, given its climate and apparently relaxed barbecue culture, Australia is a centre of much thought on the subject. On March 23, the New South Wales seaside town of Byron Bay was the venue for the Economics of Happiness Conference 2013, hosted by the International Society for Ecology & Culture. Certainly, its organisers believe that any happiness deficit we might feel is due to the fact that the economy’s needs are driving us, when it should be our needs that drive the economy.
“Around the world, the realisation is dawning that the crises we face are linked to an outdated economic system,” said the conference programme foreword. “From unemployment and poverty to Wall Street corruption, from Fukushima to climate change, from hydro-fracking to the rise of fear and fundamentalism: all these diverse problems share a common root cause. As they intensify, a chorus of citizen voices is rising up in response. People are demanding an end to the exploitation of the many and of nature for the profit of the few.”
The conference looked at the “multiple benefits of localisation – an economic strategy that can take us away from jobless growth towards sustainable livelihoods; from giant, unaccountable corporations towards human-scale business; from self-recrimination towards empowerment; from competition to collaboration; from a globalised system of exploitation and pollution towards an economics of human and ecological well-being, or ‘an economics of happiness’.
“We know what we’re against. It’s now time to decide what we’re for. And how to get from here to there.”
Science of the mind
Well, that’s quite an agenda. Following it up, in June, is the Dalai Lama, who is due to address the eighth annual Happiness & Its Causes event in Melbourne. Here, delegates will focus on developing ‘tools and techniques for a happier life’, as well as exploring the ‘science of the mind’ and the ‘new science of happiness’.
Of course, it’s not just snow-starved Australians that feel a nagging sense that we have lost our real purpose. The tiny state of Bhutan has for many years put gross domestic happiness (GDH) above gross domestic product (GDP) in its list of priorities.
Addressing the UN in 2008, Bhutan prime minister Jigmi Y Thinley warned that rampant consumerism was draining the world of scarce resources that made business as usual unsustainable and would, in turn, lead to rising fuel prices, financial instability and water shortages. And, presumably, considerable levels of unhappiness, too.
A debt on future generations
“It is not difficult to see how all these crises are the outcomes of a way of life that is dictated by the powerful ethics of consumerism in a world of finite resources,” Thinley told the UN. “Our life is all about fear of not having enough, about wanting more and doing better than our dear neighbour and friend.
“We spend and consume beyond our means and those of generations unborn, bringing upon ourselves the kind of crises that were inevitable.” What we are doing, he concluded, amounts to “transferring our debt to future generations who are not here to argue against it”.
In 2011, the UN General Assembly unanimously passed a resolution which recognised the pursuit of happiness as ‘a fundamental human goal’ and called on member states to give greater consideration to the role of happiness and wellbeing in social and economic development. Last year, 600 representatives from around the world gathered in New York for the first ever UN happiness summit to consider how our economies can be structured to maximise wellbeing. Happiness and the economics of finding it is well and truly on the agenda.
The politics of happiness
Of course, the UN works in a world of its own, and national government can ignore the issue, just like they do Israel’s illegal 40-year occupation of Palestinian land, for instance. But it is, at least, having reverberations.
Here in the UK,ministers in the last Labour administration began talking about the ‘politics of behaviour’ and how this was, as Tessa Jowell described, “one of the most fascinating challenges facing the government”.
Even David Cameron took up the happiness themewhile in opposition and has runwith it, intermittently, since becoming prime minister. Or, presumably,he did until he calculated that, with no end to economic stagnation in sight, he had next to no chance of deliveringanything meaningful on this agenda.
After all, a study by the Office of National Statistics in 2011 revealed that Britons were, on the whole, pretty content with their lives – though the happiness was also accompanied by relatively high reported levels ofanxiety.
Regardless, the happiness issue is unlikely to go away. Perhaps there is a sense that, once our basic needs have been catered for, people are generally happy despiteand not because oftheir circumstances.
Modern psychological perspectives tend to support this view, with research showing that personality, shaped by a powerful hereditary component, is a strong determinant of ourlevels of ‘subjective well-being’ (SWB), and that this rises and falls through life events in a process of ‘dynamic equilibrium’. In other words,though our immediate mood is affected by what is thrown at us, weultimately return to our own stable state of well-being.
So, perhaps tinkering with social and economic policy will make little difference to our happiness. Or, perhaps, though we are content with our own lives, the outside world is a cause of unhappiness.Perhaps, if our governments became more ‘human’ and accountable, and corporations stopped trying to create and manipulate our desirefor things we have previously survived without, then we would be happier still.
This is an argument taken up by Tim Jackson in Prosperity Without Growth. One of his many strands of thought is that, to support growth, the corporate world is constantly driven to create new markets and, therefore, our demand for new products. In other words, our sense of dissatisfaction is being stokedto help motivate us to want more things.
But at what point do we lose our enthusiasm for the latest, must-have car or smartphone? At what point do we stop feeling that sense of hype-driven anticipation and then the release of ‘total delight’ when we finally possess them? Does the novelty of this process really never wear off?
However, as if being consumer fodder doesn’t come with enough potential for alienation, Jackson suggests that, in the West, we also feel a growing, existential angst. The root of this, he argues, is that though our lives are comfortable and happy enough, we are increasingly aware of a generalised threat that today’slifestyles pose our long-term future.
And that the motor of economic growth, far from liberating us, is what led us head first intothe current debt-fuelled economic mess, and that attempts to use it to escape stagnationwill come at a price we are no longer able to pay.
Growth is undesirable, destructive and alienating for developed economies like ours, he argues, and it will fuelour environmental debt to such a level that the planet’s ability to supportour quality of life will be permanently impaired. Economic growth can only be justified where it lifts developing nations out of poverty, he believes.
A sense of personal happiness is a wonderful thing. For many, it is elusive, but probably not for all the reasons that John Stuart Mill outlined.
Exactly how our search for it over the next decade or two is going to be managed is a tricky question, though. As ‘consumers’, we are increasingly savvy as to how products are marketed to us, even for those things we actually need, and surely this represents some law of diminishing returns.
Research also shows that consumers are becoming more aware of and interested in how our products are sourced and manufactured, and are increasingly prepared to challenge companies that flout environmental and ethical standards. We almost certainly have the internet for that.
In pursuit of happiness
Meanwhile, stark inequalities over how rewards are distributed at a time of prolonged economic weakness threaten the legitimacy of the ways we currently do business. Many politicians and corporate leaders might be happy to preach the ‘business as usual’ line, promising economic growth as a means to escape the doldrums.
But if our demand for faster, shinier, better goods continues to rise, as it inevitably will, then the brands’ ability to supply us will be sorely tested, as will our lifestyles when environmental constraints really kick in. Where our search for happiness will take us then is anyone’s guess.