It’s better to be a dissatisfied human than a satisfied pig

It sounds like an unquestionably good idea, yet officialdom’s promotion of happiness and wellbeing is driven by disdain for economic growth and a penchant for conformism.

Daniel Ben-Ami

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There is a widespread consensus that the role of government is to promote the wellbeing of its citizens. What could possibly be wrong with that? Who could imagine a government that deliberately set out to harm the wellbeing of its citizens? However, it is precisely because the idea is so pervasive that it needs interrogating.

Despite the widespread use of the term ‘wellbeing’, it is not clear exactly what it means. Even prominent advocates of wellbeing are often hazy about its meaning. Richard Easterlin, a professor at the University of Southern California, started an article on the subject by saying: ‘I take the terms wellbeing, happiness, utility, life satisfaction and welfare to be interchangeable.’ This is a remarkable admission from a top-rank academic, because these terms have been used in the past to mean fundamentally different things. Philosophers have debated the meaning of happiness since the time of the ancient Greeks. Utility is an economic term for a measure of satisfaction. The term ‘welfare’ is often used by economists to refer to the quality of life as measured by objective factors such as longevity, literacy or levels of pollution.

Easterlin goes on to explain that wellbeing can be ‘measured by the answer to a question such as that asked in the United States General Social Survey (GSS): “Taken all together, how would you say things are these days – would you say that you are very happy, pretty happy or not too happy”.’ This adds a remarkable double twist to the tale. Not only is wellbeing defined in terms of happiness, but happiness is in turn based on individuals’ own perceptions of their life satisfaction. So wellbeing is primarily subjective – based on people’s perceptions – rather than based on objective criteria. Subjectivity is in turn understood in terms of how people feel at a particular time.

Two new books which follow in this tradition are Derek Bok’s The Politics of Happiness and David Halpern’s The Hidden Wealth of Nations – indeed, both books have testimonials from Easterlin on their back covers. Although they approach the subject differently, they complement each other well. Bok, a former president of Harvard University, explains how insights from the study of happiness can improve American government. The subtitle of his book is ‘what government can learn from the new research on wellbeing’. Halpern is a former Cambridge University social psychologist turned British government adviser turned research director of a think tank. While Bok’s book is relatively light and accessible, the Halpern book is written more like a report to a minister or aspiring ministers.

Although Bok is partisan, his is a good introduction to the subject. He accurately outlines the findings of the research while questioning its shortcomings. Most researchers accept that people in rich countries are, on average, happier than people in poor countries – and also that within countries the rich are happier than the poor. However, it is widely – although not universally – accepted that happiness in the rich countries does not increase over time. America is much richer than it was 50 years ago, yet happiness levels are no higher. This finding is known as ‘Easterlin’s paradox’, after Richard Easterlin, and is often used as an argument against pursuing economic growth (see There is no ‘paradox of prosperity’, by Daniel Ben-Ami).

Bok draws several conclusions about how government can improve itself. These include a more vigorous campaign to alleviate mental illness and chronic pain, efforts to strengthen marriage and the family, and improved measures to protect Americans against financial uncertainties arising from retirement, illness or the loss of a job. In each case these conclusions follow from his survey of the opinion poll data on happiness.

Halpern is less concerned with the underpinnings of the contemporary notion of happiness and more preoccupied with surveying the results. The most novel aspect of his book is what he refers to as ‘the economy of regard’ – which is also the ‘hidden wealth of nations’ of the book’s title. This is the social arena in which people help, show affection, care for and support each other in everyday life. In Halpern’s view it is larger and more important than what is often referred to as the ‘real economy’. Indeed for Halpern, the official economy can often encroach on and damage the economy of regard.

Most of Halpern’s book is concerned with translating the data on what makes people happy into practical policies. He has no shortage of suggestions, but in his conclusion he outlines ‘10 things to do if you’re prime minister’, including fostering the economy of regard, protecting the environment, and broadening the attack on inequality. He is a keen advocate of using insights from behavioural economics to ‘nudge’ people’s behaviour in what he regards as the right direction – for example, changing the rules on pension schemes so that the default option is to opt into them rather than opt out. Such a move is designed to encourage people to save more for their retirement.

The first problem with the happiness approach is that it underestimates the importance of economic growth and prosperity to human welfare. Although its advocates are not generally conscious opponents of growth, their approach leads them to undermine its importance. It is a particular form of growth scepticism.

Halpern’s anxiety about growth is more explicit than Bok’s. The British writer’s discussion of the economy of regard fails to appreciate the enormous long-term benefits from the huge rise in productivity in the real economy. Without the revolution in production, the economy of regard would be much diminished. It is because we can produce so much more in the real economy that we can do less strenuous work and spend less of our lifetimes in paid employment. The economy of regard is no doubt an important part of our lives, but it does not have the same scope to revolutionise its productive power as the official economy.

But even without Halpern’s concerns about the economy of regard, there are more fundamental ways in which the obsession with wellbeing undermines prosperity. Whatever people’s subjective feelings, the objective reality is that rising prosperity has yielded enormous benefits. It has enabled gains that are of direct benefit to individuals, such as rising longevity, higher educational attainment and more mobility. It has also allowed broader social benefits, such as greater control over the environment and more generous provision of welfare benefits.

Relying on survey data also rules out an active discussion of people’s aspirations. There is nothing wrong in principle with surveying opinion, but such polls only reveal how and why people feel happy at a particular time. The problem is that many happiness authors are all too willing to draw sweeping policy conclusions from what is an inherently limited exercise. The prospect of striving for a better and more prosperous life is ruled out by their approach. Implicitly, the message of the advocates of wellbeing is usually that people should be happy with what they have already got.

The other big problem with the wellbeing discussion is its undemocratic character. Although it is supposedly intent on giving people what they want, as measured by opinion polls, this is not the same as democracy. For example, I may tell a pollster that I do not like people dropping litter on the street. I may even say I want tough laws against anti-social behaviour such as dropping litter. But that is not the same as me being engaged in an active debate about how I believe society should be run. My priorities as a political animal could be fundamentally different from my personal likes and dislikes.

The happiness approach can easily lead to extensive intrusion into the personal lives of individuals. For instance, opinion poll data may show that many people are concerned about rising levels of obesity – hardly surprising given the extent of the panic about it in official and media circles. The conclusion could then be drawn that an extensive programme is needed to intervene in schools and within families to pressure people to eat more healthily. However, by its nature such an approach does not consider whether there should be any principled objection to the authorities interfering in the lives of families. Individual autonomy is sidestepped in the name of keeping people happy.

Virtually any form of interference in individual lives can be justified from a happiness perspective. Politicians and bureaucrats may claim they are empowering the public, but the framework in which needs are understood and supposedly satisfied is imposed from above. Despite the façade of democracy, it is an elitist and authoritarian way of making and implementing policy.

Much of the literature on wellbeing is reminiscent of the way companies talk about marketing to their customers. They survey our tastes extensively to put them in a better position to sell us their goods and services. Similarly, today’s rulers like to see themselves as an enlightened elite who can satisfy our needs by keeping us happy. But being an actively engaged citizen in a truly democratic society is the antithesis of passively accepting what the government considers good for us.

Anyone tempted by the approach outlined in either of these books would do well to remember the famous quote from John Stuart Mill, a nineteenth-century defender of liberty, in his work on utilitarianism: ‘It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied.’ Rather than meekly accepting the meagre diet fed to us by the government, we should strive to define our own needs without any inhibitions about the extent of our demands.

Daniel Ben-Ami is a journalist and author based in London. Visit his website here. His new book, Ferraris For All: In Defence of Economic Progress, will be published by Policy Press in July.

The Hidden Wealth of Nations, by David Halpern, is published by Polity Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

The Politics of Happiness: What Government Can Learn from the New Research on Well-Being, by Derek Bok, is published by Princeton University Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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Topics Books


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