Wednesday, 2 January 2013

If policy should promote happiness, we need to know what happiness is

This morning I read Alastair Campbell's short book The Happy Depressive.  In sum, it is mostly a discussion of what it means to be happy, set against the backdrop of Campbell's own - often troubled - life.  Alastair Campbell labels his interpretation of happiness as a 'dark theory'.  Happiness is, according to Campbell, something we can only know at the very end of our lives; when we look back at how we have lived and whether or not we feel we have been fulfilled.

The Easterlin Paradox: happiness is stagnant despite rising incomes

Happiness then is not a feeling, as such.  Rather, it is an evaluative process that we engage in throughout our lives.  Do we fulfil and challenge ourselves?  Do we do our best to cultivate our most important relationships?  Do we make a difference to other people's lives?  To my mind, Campbell makes an extremely important point: it is possible to feel anxious, grumpy and burdened but at the same time be happy.

This confusion - between feeling happy and being happy - is what I think is behind many social problems.  People too often seek out immediate pleasures that make them feel momentarily good: gambling; drinking; taking drugs; eating too much; buying expensive stuff we don't need.  There is a sense across society that to be happy is to seek out the feeling of pleasure; a dangerous and depressing idea.

Contemplating happiness is now at the centre of many policy discussions, as academics, politicians and other assorted wonks try to put the measurement of happiness at the centre (or least margins) of policy formation.  Yet as Campbell's discussion implies, in order to promote happiness and measure happiness, we need to consider what happiness actually is.

This means that there are two very different kinds of question we can ask people.

How happy is your life at the moment?  


How happy are you with your life?

I suspect when asked these two, very different questions, different types of people might give very different answers.

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