Happiness and its discontents

spiked-TV: The BBC's The Happiness Formula fails to interrogate whether happiness is an appropriate social goal.

Daniel Ben-Ami

Topics Culture

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The critical flaw of the BBC’s new six-part documentary on happiness was apparent from the start (1). It assumed that happiness should be the key goal for society and then set out to illustrate the contention. There is widespread agreement, at least in the developed world, that happiness is more important than wealth – but that is all the more reason, especially at the beginning of such a documentary, to question the premise.

Ancient Greece was the starting point for happiness, according to the programme. Evidently 2,500 years ago Aristotle suggested that happiness should be the ultimate goal for humanity. Unfortunately there was no exploration of what Aristotle meant by happiness or why he thought it was so important. Instead, in an annoying breathless style that characterised the whole episode, it quickly jumped from one topic to another.

After Aristotle we were told that neuroscientists have reached the stage where they can measure happiness. ‘And if that’s right it changes everything,’ said Mark Easton’s voiceover. It was not made clear why.

Then there was Midge Ure – a 1980s rock singer and songwriter for those who do not remember. Evidently making loads of money with Ultravox did not make him happy and he eventually went broke. However, getting involved in Band Aid with Bob Geldof, in response to famine in Ethiopia, evidently gave meaning to his life.

Next came rats. Neuroscientists – back to them again – are busy investigating rodent happiness. It turns out that ‘like them [rats that is, not neuroscientists] we’re wired to seek pleasure’. There was no acknowledgement of the potential problems of drawing sweeping conclusions about human behaviour from examining rats.

This was only about half way through the 30-minute episode. The rest included nuns in Milwaukee (happy ones live longer), Lord Layard (Britain’s official happiness guru), Bhutan (the Himalayan kingdom where happiness is an official national goal), an adviser to the prime minister, the presenter driving a Ferrari, and lifeboat volunteers (volunteering makes people happy). Next week, we were told, the series will look at monkeys.

Told in this way the programme may sound ridiculous, but there are serious problems with the happiness consensus. The idea that happiness should be a primary social goal is actually sinister. It ignores the fact that society has typically progressed when people feel restless and discontent. Humans did not stop when they invented the wheel. They attached it to vehicles and eventually added an internal combustion engine. Social changes too have come about when people felt unhappy with their present lot. Rats may feel pleasure as a physical sensation but they are not capable of anything comparable to human achievement.

If any of the key questions raised or alluded to in the programme were subject to serious scrutiny an alternative viewpoint might have come across. Even given the limitations of television as a medium this should be possible. Perhaps there will be more depth in later episodes, but I doubt it.

For example, the episode referred in passing to happiness being a social goal 200 years ago. Indeed it is true, as serious commentators have argued, that the pursuit of happiness was a central goal of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. But a key passage on this in the American declaration of independence of 1776, a prominent Enlightenment document, is worth examining in a little detail:

‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’ (2)

Several points should be clear from a careful reading of Thomas Jefferson’s document. First, it talks about the pursuit of happiness rather than just happiness. For America’s Founding Fathers the idea of the pursuit of happiness was linked to the idea of progress more generally (3). It was seen as part of a package – along with life and liberty among other virtues – that individuals would strive for rather than just a physical sensation. Today, in contrast, the concept of social progress is widely viewed with suspicion and sometimes outright hostility.

Second, the constitution talks about a right – rather that a duty – to pursue happiness. If individuals wanted to strive for social progress they were free to do so. In Britain today, on the other hand, happiness is an official social goal. The documentary pointed out that every local authority in England and Wales has a duty to promote wellbeing. And the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) – which most people might assume is about farmers – says its ‘core purpose is to improve the current and future quality of life’ (4). Lord Layard, the happiness guru, wants to go a step further with the recruitment of 10,000 extra therapists to make Britons happy (5).

Another topic that should be examined in more detail is Bhutan – which is the subject of a future episode – and its official goal of Gross National Happiness (GNH). The BBC documentary stated, almost with glee, that tobacco, advertising and advertising hoardings are banned in the Himalayan kingdom. And such an august organ as the New York Times has even welcomed the use of GNH in Bhutan (6).

Yet an examination of some of the basic economic statistics on Bhutan portrays a different picture. It only has a life expectancy at birth of 61 for men and 64 for women compared with Britain, for example, where the respective figures are 76 and 81 (7). Relative wealth can help raise life expectancy. Also the infant mortality rate is 70 per thousand live births (that is, seven per cent of infants die before the age of five), 19 per cent of children are malnourished and the adult literacy rate is only 47 per cent.

Despite the enormous potential for hydroelectric power in such a mountainous region 65 per cent of the population lacks electricity (8). Many of the population are subsistence farmers who live in small isolated communities. These indicators have generally improved in recent years – although from a terribly low base – but ironically this is the result of relatively vibrant economic growth.

Ultimately the fact that happiness levels in Britain are not increasing, despite being so much wealthier than Bhutan, is in some ways a sign of hope. For the level of discontent provides at least the potential to improve things still further. Rats may feel pleasure but only human beings have the ability to transform their environment and themselves for the better.

Read on:

If you’re happy and you know it…, by Michael Savage

(1) The Happiness Formula, BBC

(2) The American declaration of independence

(3) A right, from the start, Darrin M McMahon, Wall Street Journal, 1 July 2005

(4) About Defra

(5) Depression is the UK’s biggest social problem, government told, Sarah Boseley, Guardian, 28 April 2006

(6) Net national happiness, New York Times, 6 October 2005

(7) World Health Organisation: Figures for Bhutan; Figures for UK

(8) Data sources on Bhutan include: UN Human Development Report – Bhutan Country Sheet; World Bank, Bhutan at a Glance [pdf]; World Bank, Country Assistance Strategy for the Kingdom of Bhutan [pdf]

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