The most precious commodity
We can increase the sum of human happiness - but as a side effect of other pursuits, not an end in itself
Tuesday February 8, 2005
Here comes Jeremy Bentham echoing down the ages: "The best public policy is that which produces the greatest happiness." The line is actually from a clever new book, Happiness: Lessons From a New Science, in which the economist Richard Layard argues that public policy should be devoted to increasing happiness rather than wealth or success. He is far from the only person to be exploring this territory. In another new book on the subject, Making Happy People, Paul Martin discusses how we can bring up our children to be happy, and why we should. "Happiness is arguably the most important thing in life."
Layard presses forward recent discoveries that might help us find more of this precious commodity. For instance, useful work has recently been done that proves that it is inequality rather than poverty itself that makes people miserable - our "perceived relative income" is more important than our actual income. But mostly these books contain no startling new knowledge.
Ever since it was reported that Freud said happiness was found in work and love, that thesis has been underlined over and over again. Although we can quote lots of new tables and surveys and experiments that prove that observation time and again, the real impact of a book such as Happiness is not in the endless explication of the rather obvious - that having friends or a partner or a good job make us happy, and being lonely and bored make us miserable.
Rather it is in the new importance that we give to this knowledge. What might once have looked banal, the endless tautology that (as Kingsley Amis said) nice things are nicer than nasty things, now looks more urgent. Why do those nice things keep slipping through our fingers, despite the affluence and freedom of our societies? As old narratives about class or religion or race subside, this narrative about happiness as the ultimate goal for our society gains in clarity.
If the debate is getting more urgent, it is also getting more pragmatic. This is happiness not just as a state of mind, but as a policy for government. Layard calls for commonsense political reforms that would increase the happiness of the average person in the average western country.
For instance, given that people's happiness is affected by relative rather than actual income, governments might probably increase the happiness quotient of the population simply by increasing taxes. Other arguments for future action are made trenchantly - from parenting classes to more job security to better treatment for the mentally ill.
These conclusions seem so commonsensical that they are hardly worth arguing with, but that very blandness alerts us to a problem. Happiness is not necessarily best viewed as a goal in itself. When you do that, as Ziyad Marar says in his recent book The Happiness Paradox, it looks "untextured, toothless ... bleached of nuance and subtlety". And that means that it is hard to see happiness as a goal to be pursued head on - we touch it most closely when we gain it as a byproduct of other effort. For instance, re ligion is often touted as a route to happiness, since people who believe in God say they are happier. But obviously religion can't be consciously used in that way; you need faith, not a wish to be jolly, to get God to come on board for you.
Similarly, while people who do voluntary work are happier than those who do not, that isn't the best selling point for the work itself. Indeed, it's surely more effective to talk about the other benefits of the work - the refugees assisted, the schools improved - if you want people to join in. While happiness may now be the ultimate current goal of our lives, we need those old ideals - if not religion, then, say, justice, or freedom, or love - to show us the way to it.
Ian McEwan's acclaimed new novel of happiness, Saturday, is revealing in this regard. McEwan focuses on the urgent desire of our times by exploring happiness with extraordinary exuberance. What rises most strongly from the pages is the way that happiness is such a fluid, shifting, fleeting dynamic, so that McEwan's happy hero, Henry Perowne, is always surprised by joy.
Although he lays hold of it time and again on the one day in question - through music, through work, through sport, through sex - happiness always comes to him not as an end in itself, but as a side-effect of other pursuits, above all from the pursuit of love and the pursuit of justice. McEwan shows us why happiness is all-important, but he also shows us why it is that we will never isolate it from all our other desires.
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