Thursday, 26 June 2014

On Happiness

A friend of mine called Bhanumati asked about 'happiness' in a forum to which I contribute. I told her that I think happiness is paradoxical, in that pursuance of it in itself is futile, but pursuance of other things can bring about happiness. There's a famous quote by Kierkegaard in his terrific work 'Either/Or' - he says:

“Most men pursue pleasure with such breathless haste that they hurry past it”

Kierkegaard is reliably good on these matters. As you saw from my above response, I would actually take it further than Kierkegaard - things like happiness and pleasure are not really pursued for their own qualities - they are qualities that emanate from other pursuits. Usually it's quite ignoble to pursue these things in and of themselves, as their levels of enrichment should ideally act as by-products, not goals in themselves. For example, people who pursue money for the sake of having wealth or sexual activity for the sake of hedonistic pleasures miss the very quintessence of the delights that money and sexual activity bring in the pursuit of their better relations like honest hard-work and love with a beloved.

You can imagine, then, my shock when I found out that not only had UK Prime Minister David Cameron sought to assess the well-being of the nation as a thing in itself, he'd actually made it a project for the Office for National Statistics (ONS) to investigate with the intention of generating some political policies from the results. This investigation was conducted as part of David Cameron's 'happiness index' initiative to assess the well-being and happiness of the nation alongside economic data like GDP (in a future Blog I'll explain why GDP itself is a poor measure of standards). According to the results of David Cameron's happiness index, the average Brit rates their happiness as 7.4 out of 10. ONS programme director Glenn Everett thinks that this data can be used to generate good governmental policies. He said:

"By examining and analysing both objective statistics as well as subjective information, a more complete picture of national wellbeing can be formed. Understanding people's views of wellbeing is an important addition to existing official statistics and has potential uses in the policy making process and to aid other decision making"

Alas, both Glenn Everett and David Cameron do not understand where they are going wrong here. What they need to realise is that happiness is not amenable to blanket commentaries, and nor can it be broadly tended to with government policies. Suppose you were one of the several hundred thousand people who were asked questions in the survey like "how satisfied are you with your life nowadays?" and "how happy did you feel yesterday?" - the only possible metric you have to consider such questions is other people's happiness and satisfaction. You may believe that when answering a question about how happy you are, you are making comparisons based on other times in your life - and it's true, you are - but that doesn't change the fact that all your ideas and perceptions of happiness, satisfaction and well-being are constructed relative to how you see other people.

If the average Brit rates their happiness as 7.4, then how does that compare to the 7.4 variant in, say, Sweden or Sudan? Perhaps a personal rating of 9 in Sudan would only be equivalent to a 6 in Sweden. Sweden is a more prosperous country than Sudan – so maybe a Sudanese person's happiness is measured without knowing how happy they could be in a more prosperous country. Maybe in some cases the opposite is true - perhaps some Sudanese people see European modernisation as being full of unenviable plights (depression, addiction, binging, celebrity worship, lack of spirituality, etc). Maybe Swedes are more developed because they are less naturally content than Sudanese people. Who knows? The point is, nobody knows, because one's own personal interpretation of people’s reported happiness says almost nothing about actual happiness as a quantifiable state.

That a plighted Sudanese man might rate his own reported happiness as scoring higher than the average Swede or Brit will strike some people as strange - not because it should be assumed that the Sudanese man should be less happy, but because the criteria by which people measure their self-proclaimed happiness cannot be contained by any objective metric, irrespective of whether we are comparing nation to nation, or century to century. To show this, let's use two objective qualities as an illustration - height and weight. If you compared the average Brit today to the average Brit 100 years ago, you'd find that the average Brit today would be a few inches taller and quite a few pounds fatter than their century old counterpart. So asking a man today 'Are you tall?' or 'Are you fat?' doesn't tell you anything about historical trends or comparable data, nor would the answer given provide us with any clue about an objective identification without recourse to other statistics. A 5ft 9, 12 stone man probably would have answered 'yes' to both questions in 1914 and 'no' to both questions in 2014.

Similarly, people might on average be happier now, or they might have been happier in 1914, but simply asking 'Are you happy?' brings no light to the measure of happiness at all. This is because all self-proclaimed accounts of happiness, fatness or tallness depend on how you feel in comparison to others in your society. If happiness has increased, it won't show up in reports of happiness on the scale Glenn Everett and David Cameron are using, because our perceptions adapt to the changes in society. In other words, if we expect our happiness to increase, then our happiness rating won't necessarily change in value (because the value is measured against perception of our peers) but it will increase in absolute value, just as being in the median in height doesn't change your relative position, even if you are a few inches taller than someone in the median range in 1914.

Because we rate these things in comparison to others in our society, it means that if on average everyone in UK societies gradually gets happier (as they have fatter and taller) the members of the UK will rate happiness as unchanged. Despite these significant changes, most people when asked would tend towards a report that places them somewhere near the median. It isn't the number of people who class themselves as a 7.4 on the happiness scale that changes (same goes for fatness and tallness scales) it is the happiness levels of the 7.4 that changes.

That David Cameron asked the Office of National Statistics to construct a survey to measure people's happiness is absurd enough - but that he and Glenn Everett think the results have "potential uses in the policy making process and to aid other decision making" displays a puerile ignorance of the complexity and diversity of a nation's proclaimed happiness and well-being, and a foolish over-estimation of the State's power to introduce happiness-inducing policies for the nation's betterment.

That covered self-proclaimed reports of happiness. Now we can look at why happiness itself is so ambiguous. To see why, let's take just one component of happiness - the enjoyment of watching films. Suppose David Cameron, acting on his desire to make us all happy, decided to plough taxpayers' money into the film industry and give us lots more films to watch. Imagine the task he'd have working out into which areas the money should be spent. There is no national preference for films - some people like westerns most, some prefer comedies, some prefer action films, some prefer period dramas, and some prefer romances. Different people like different combinations of genres, and some people don't like films much at all. Further, the ranking of films as preferred by the individuals varies according to age, context and circumstance, so it does not match any actual ranking in the aggregate affections of the nation. On Saturday night I probably prefer a comedy; on Sunday afternoon I’m more partial to a western.

These are the reasons why there is no such thing as the nation’s favourite film, or the nation's most desirable man, or the nation's most favoured chocolate bar, because tastes are diverse and complex, and there is no 'one size fits all' measure that can be used politically. You know how futile it is to identify even just your own favourite film or your favourite chocolate bar. Just imagine the ultimate futility in trying to identify the appeal of the whole nation.

On top of that, what are bad things for some people are good things for others. Smoking, divorce and Rik Mayall are not things that make me happy. But for Tony, the Marlborough-smoking Bottom fan who has just escaped an unhappy marriage, smoking, divorce and Rik Mayall do make him happy. If David Cameron classifies smoking and divorce as bad things, and Rik Mayall as a good thing, his policy will be bad for Tony twice and me once.

Neither David Cameron, nor any politician, has the data or omniscience to construct policies to make the nation happier, nor any chance of even identifying happiness as an objectively quantifiable quality like weight or height - so it's a policy he should try to resist if it rears its head again in his future thinking.

* Picture courtesy of