This article appeared in Ceylon Today on July 22 2015
Legal scholar and behavioral economist Cass Sunstein wrote in the New York Review of Books that in 2010, when he was Administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in the Obama administration, he asked a colleague how things were going. The reply was: “My moment-by-moment happiness is pretty low, but my life satisfaction is great.” The colleague was an expert on research into happiness, and he was referring to two different measures of “happiness”.
Can’t Buy Happiness?
In the US and in many other industrialized countries, happiness often means money. Economists have assumed that they can measure progress and public welfare by looking at consumer confidence. The Beatles sang that money could not buy you love. Can it buy you happiness?
In 1974, economist Richard Easterlin published a paper, “Does Economic Growth Improve the Human Lot?” Above a low level of income, Easterlin found no correlation between happiness and GNP per head. In 1972, two economists, William Nordhaus and James Tobin, introduced a measure that they called “Net Economic Welfare,” which showed that a society with more leisure could have as much welfare as one with more work.
Lord Layard of Laughs
Kenneth Clark was an art historian who won international fame with a BBC TV series called Civilisation. Such was his subsequent fame and prestige that he won a peerage. Although he took the title Baron Clark of Saltwood, the satirical magazine Private Eye facetiously dubbed him Lord Clark of Civilisation. Richard Layard should be Lord Layard of Laughs.
Some people make a living studying happiness. I wonder if they are happy in their work. It is of some significance that Richard Layard’s early work was on unemployment and inequality. In the early 1970s, Layard became interested in Easterlin’s work and, in 2005, he published the book Happiness: Lessons from a New Science, in which he emphasised the importance of non-income variables. In 2012, he co-edited, with Jeffrey Sachs and John Helliwell, the World Happiness Report for the UN. Layard cites three factors that economists often fail to take into consideration:
- Happiness depends on relative as well as absolute income. Constant compulsory competition makes work and life unpleasant.
- People will invest more time at work than is good for them if they do not accept that their idea of what is a sufficient income will change.
- The relative values of one’s accumulated possessions depreciate and consequently the store of happiness depreciates.
It’s All Relative
At a conference on happiness in Nova Scotia, Siddiqur Osmani, a professor of applied economics from the University of Ulster in Ireland, said, “Even in a very miserable condition you can be very happy if you are grateful for small mercies. If someone is starving and hungry and given two scraps of food a day, he can be very happy.” That reminded me of the closing scene of the film of Solzhenitsyn’s A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Tom Courtenay looks back on a wretched day in the gulag on the icy tundra and remarks: “Well, it wasn’t so bad. I managed to get two bowls of porridge”.
Taxing for Happiness
Layard argues that government can, through tax policy, help citizens preserve a healthy work-life balance. One purpose of taxation is to counteract the cognitive bias that causes people to work more than is good for their happiness. What we see in the USA and the UK is that taxation is bad, inequality acceptable and redistribution through taxation anathema.
A common measure of happiness is to ask people to say how satisfied they are with their lives, on a scale of 0 to 10. One concern has always been that people’s responses to happiness surveys are unreliable. Through these self-evaluations, social scientists are not measuring people’s actual feelings as they experience their lives.
Paul Dolan’s contribution to the debate is a book called Happiness by Design. Dolan is an economist who is now a professor of behavioural science at the London School of Economics. He has worked with UK public officials on their efforts to measure happiness. To Dolan, the purpose of our activities affects how we perceive the quality of our experiences. The idea of attention is crucial. This reminds me of something WH Auden wrote: “To pray is to pay attention to something or someone other than oneself. Whenever a man so concentrates his attention — on a landscape, a poem, a geometrical problem, an idol, or the True God — that he completely forgets his own ego and desires, he is praying.” Whether we have a sense of pleasure or purpose depends on where we are focusing our attention. To be truly happy, Dolan concludes, we need to experience both pleasure and purpose, and when the balance is wrong, or when people focus on one at the expense of the other, their lives will be impaired.
Dolan’s Idea of Happiness
Like mygoodself Dolan was brought up in a working class Irish household on council estates and was the first of his family to go to university. However, we have very different ideas of how to achieve happiness. In a Guardian article, Dolan wrote: “I have never read a novel in my life. There are only so many hours in the day and I have decided to fill them with activities other than reading made-up stories.” Fair enough. He goes to the gym four times a week and enjoys partying and holidays (without the kids) in Ibiza. He loves his wife and children but scoffs at the delusion that they are an unalloyed joy. Having got the science out of the way, he concludes: “the most important and yet most underappreciated ingredient to being happy – luck. I am a very lucky man: not because I have a great job and family and all that stuff but because I have a sunny disposition.” Someone commented: “Hey look it’s a bloke who likes doing some stuff but doesn’t like doing other stuff, yeah? Mind-blowing.”
Gross National Happiness
As long ago as 1972, Bhutan’s King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, decided to make his nation’s priority GNH, or gross national happiness. His aim was to share prosperity across society and balance it with preserving cultural traditions, protecting the environment and maintaining a responsive government. While household incomes in Bhutan remain among the world’s lowest, life expectancy increased by 19 years from 1984 to 1998, jumping to 66 years.
Many happiness economists believe they have solved the problem of culture difference comparison by using cross-sections of large data samples across nations and time to demonstrate consistent patterns in the determinants of happiness. Objective measures such as lifespan, income, and education are often used as well as or instead of subjectively reported happiness.
A research team, led by Dr Rob Rutledge, at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at University College London, backed up by the Max Planck Society, combined their analysis of subjective surveys with brain scans to correlate happiness-resulting decisions with brain activity. They found significant activity in the ventral striatum and the insular cortex.
The team came up with an equation:
Happiness = baseline average mood + what you can settle for (CR) + what you’ll get on average if you gamble (EV) + the difference between that and what you actually get (RPE). The recurring ∑-function weights each factor in turn by its recent history
Happiness in Europe
The New Economics Foundation (NeF), using over 40,000 interviews from the 2006/07 European Social Survey, found that Denmark topped the league for overall well-being, with the UK ranked 13th out of 22 countries . The Nef study placed Switzerland, Norway, Ireland, Austria and Sweden after Denmark with the highest levels of overall well-being
The study found the UK was among the bottom four of the 22 nations when it came to feelings of trust and belonging. While the over-75s scored highly on trust, for the 16-24 age group, the UK reported the lowest levels anywhere in Europe. The Nef researchers said the UK’s poor performance on this “key element of social well-being” was indicative of a “highly individualistic culture”. Britons also recorded the second lowest energy levels in Europe and were fourth highest when it came to feeling bored. This does not augur well for Britain’s future. Nef said the results show UK government policies have focused too much on economic growth at the expense of overall well-being.
The Almost Nearly Perfect People
The Scandinavian countries (and Ireland) usually come out well in surveys of happiness. British journalist, Michael Booth, is somewhat skeptical. Booth is married to a Dane and has lived in Copenhagen for ten years. Booth says Danes “tend to approach the subject of their much-vaunted happiness like the victims of a practical joke waiting to discover who the perpetrator is.” In The Almost Nearly Perfect People, he explores the rest of Scandinavia.
Thin Line between Relaxed and Smug
Newspaper editor Anne Knudsen cast a cynical gaze on those happiness surveys: “In Denmark it is shameful to be unhappy. If you ask me how I am and I start telling you how bad I feel, then it might force you to do something about it. It might put a burden on you to help me.” Kaare Christensen, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Southern Denmark, suggested that the Danes might have been drunk when responding to happiness questionnaires. A similar comment was made about the Irish. “If expectations are unrealistically high they could also be the basis of disappointment and low life satisfaction. Year after year they are pleasantly surprised to find that not everything is getting more rotten in the state of Denmark.”
Happichondria –Are We Having Fun Yet?
John Updike wrote: “America is a vast conspiracy to make you happy”. JD Salinger confessed: “I’m a kind of paranoiac in reverse. I suspect people are plotting to make one happy.”Americans are destroying the planet because of their “inalienable right” to seek happiness through rampant consumerism. The Danish corrective – satisfaction with the achievement of low expectations is more attractive than boundless ambitious craving.
Inequality and Unhappiness
The Nordic Noir crime novels of Jo Nesbo, Stig Larson and Arnaldur Indriasson show that the Scandinavian countries fall far short of paradise. Sjowall and Wahloo were finding something rotten in the state of Sweden back in the 60s in their Martin Beck series.
Inequality has risen in Sweden in the past decade and a half, at a rate four times as high as in the US. In Finland, too, the Gini coefficient has climbed four points since the late nineteen-eighties. Something is going wrong.
Inequality makes us crave for goods by constantly reminding us that we have less than the next person. Health professionals report epidemics of ‘hurry sickness’, ‘toxic success syndrome’, the ‘frantic family’, the ‘over-commercialized child’ and ‘pleonexia’. John Stuart Mill wrote in the 19th Century: “The best state for human nature is that in which, while no one is poor, no one desires to be richer, nor has any reason to fear being thrust back, by the efforts of others to push themselves forward.”
The Cult of Happiness
In his recently published book, The Happiness Industry: How the Government and Big Business sold us Well-Being, William Davies writes about governmental and corporate entities working hard to convert the concept of happiness into a “measurable, visible, improvable entity.” He says that the notion of “happiness” has moved from being an add-on, to being a measurement useful in the business of making money. Being depressed will no longer be socially acceptable. The state or big business will deal with that. Governments and business are ready to exploit the “science of happiness” to manage the dislocations of contemporary capitalism. Marcuse wrote about “repressive tolerance” – keeping the masses comfortable enough materially to stop them rebelling. Huxley published Brave New World in 1932, recognizing even then that it was inimical to individual freedom when governments became interested in promoting happiness as a means of social control. Further back than that in 1920 Yevgeny Zamyatin’s dystopian fantasy We depicted the horror of a society where happiness was compulsory.
We still have not learnt.