TCS Daily

Are We All Happy Yet?

By Robert McHenry - February 28, 2005 12:00 AM

Of late there have been a number of stories in the media about happiness, all of them noting with concern that surveys are showing that there isn't enough of it around. Despite historically unprecedented levels of wealth and leisure, citizens of developed countries report that they are no happier than their parents were, or than citizens of less developed countries are, or than someone else is.

One of the latest of these reports is "Happiness is Back" by British Labour party advisor Richard Layard, published in Prospect magazine. Layard talks about the surveys, accepts their findings, makes the usual observation about what money does not buy, and then goes on to prescribe a number of mainly government-sponsored actions to improve our general happiness.

What is it that we are talking about here? The surveys depend on their respondents' private notions of "happiness," which may differ greatly from person to person and none of which is described for our examination. Layard does not offer a definition or specification for happiness in the individual or in (what interests him most) the collective. He mentions a few examples of experiences that might count toward happiness, but they are mostly instances of momentary pleasure, and he suggests that happiness would consist of a great many of these strung together on the thread of life.

I cannot imagine how I would answer a survey question about my state of happiness. I think that I would, as I suspect many actual respondents do, try to guess what the survey was really after. And then I would wonder about what the canny answer would be -- if I say I am very happy, do I make myself out to be dimwitted and unaware of the dire state of the world? Possibly a Republican? I would in any case, of course, be at the mercy of my mood of the moment, a product of recent history and internal chemistry. And my contrarian streak -- which way would that push me?

In short, I don't believe that these surveys tell us anything intelligible. But even if they did, there is a deeper problem. Layard is perfectly clear about his principles and motives; he has a program. He thinks governments ought to maximize happiness, whatever it may be, and he appeals explicitly to the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham in grounding his position. He doesn't say why this should be done, however. He takes it for granted that happiness is, in and of itself, an unalloyed good and the proper end of mankind. Is it?

The history books all tell us that Thomas Jefferson adapted John Locke's triad of goods -- life, liberty, and property -- for his examples of unalienable rights: "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." For "property" he substituted, not "happiness," note well, but "the pursuit of happiness," a phrase in which the noun "happiness" is demoted to the mere object of a preposition.

Layard appeals to modern neuroscience to bolster his claim that we are now at last in position to understand and measure happiness, hence to design steps to maximize it. He notes some experiments with brain scans, in which "good" feelings and "bad" feelings seem to be localized in certain areas. He then jumps directly to the political priorities and policies that, for him, are implied by this discovery. But if happiness is to be society's chief goal, why not skip over all that messy and uncertain business? Why not just implant electrodes in that good-feeling area and hand the patient a little button to push as often as he likes? Indeed, let's all have one, and maybe we can synchronize our button-pushing. How do you suppose the happiness survey would turn out then? Aldous Huxley's soma pills seem positively primitive, not to mention slow acting, by comparison.

Consider, instead, the possibility that Jefferson was on to something. Although he died more than a century before Alfred Hitchcock would invent the notion, perhaps he would have agreed that happiness is not truly the goal but rather the MacGuffin, the thing that seems important as it gets the story moving and keeps it accelerating but that, in the end, is itself not of much consequence. Maybe the promise, or just the chance, of happiness is what helps get us started on doing other things, things like thinking and learning and building and dreaming. And maybe those things that we do, under the impression that we are on the way to happiness, are of some account in themselves, especially if they open up new possibilities for those who come next. And maybe that's good enough.

Robert McHenry is Former Editor in Chief, the Encyclopædia Britannica, and author of How to Know (, 2004).


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