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    Social science has yet another ultra-specialized subfield to add to its constellation of disciplines. It's called "happiness studies," and it's growing quite rapidly. Will Wilkinson at Cato has even started a side project– Happiness and Public Policy— devoted to the intersection of the two fields, which admittedly come to loggerheads from time to time.

    And for good reason. How can you implement something so elusive, relative, and hard to pin down? Happiness scholars, for their part, are doing their best to puzzle this out, as well as dive deeper into questions of what happiness is. 

    A recent article in the Toronto Star provides a nice discussion of the movement, which formalized itself in 2000 with its own peer-reviewed journal, The Journal of Happiness Studies. The article details some recent findings in the discipline.

1. Happiness is not purely experiential. Something scholars term "affective forecasting" refers to the uniquely human ability to anticipate experiences and predict their potential happiness.

2. It's the duration of happiness, and not the intensity, that matters. Day-to-day pleasures like well-fitting clothes, or say, a nice lambic ale, often make us happier than monumental triumphs such as winning a million dollars, or being elected president. 

3. Even though we can predict happiness, we're not always good at it. A die-hard sports fan will often anticipate the dire emotional consequences of his or her team losing it all; and will, in reality, bounce back from such a setback much faster than anticipated. Research on Holocaust survivors, most of whom went on to live normal, productive lives, suggests the extent to which humans can overcome.

    It will be interesting to see where this scholarship moves. It is certainly a wonderful new lens through which we can view policy and social ordering. But I think it must be kept in check by other considerations– economic practicality, individual rights, etc.– and must not be overly essentialized. 

Daniel Corbett 


Pop quiz: “Everybody’s Going to be Happy.” The title of a Kinks song, or the brazen proclamation of a new generation of politicos? The answer, of course, is both. Politicians, philosophers, and social scientists of all stripes have long been interested in happiness. And for good reason. Premising our social arrangements on anything else seems– to be blunt– inhumane. The real question, then, is not whether human happiness should be a factor in policy formulation. Rather, it’s a question of where this happiness is situated– is it a serene “inner peace” or “self-actualization,” or is it simply the overall well-being of society, based on economic metrics?

A new wave of political thinkers seem to think it should be the former. The argument goes something like this. 1.) Happiness cannot be measured solely by economic well-being; in fact, the two often share an inverse relationship. 2.) The only way to increase happiness in society is to pursue explicitly policies designed to do so. Enter British economist, Richard Layard. Recently, Layard, who advises Britain’s New Labour party, made a bold claim: in order to further the happiness of its citizenry, the UK needs to employ 10,000 new therapists.

To say nothing of the economic costs, (primarily because Layard has done his homework, and I have not) it is foolish to pursue such a plan for a number of reasons. Sociologist Frank Furedi does a nice job of making this argument in a recent article for the Telegraph. He questions their short-sighted definition of happiness, which is essentially in terms of survey results. He also questions the broader question of the therapeutic state. But perhaps the most interesting aspect of his article is his treatment of education.

“The ascendancy of therapeutic education is not confined to the state sector. Anthony Seldon, the headmaster of Wellington College, hopes to turn his school into a very happy place. He has teamed up with the Orwellian sounding ‘Well-being Institute’ of Cambridge University to produce happy children. He writes that producing ‘happy young adults is my highest priority as head’. Excellence and high achievement? Umm. Seldon castigates ‘driven people’ who are ‘missing the point of life’.”

Missing the point of life? OK, Mr. Seldon, I’ll bite. We’re missing the “point of life.” But what, precisely, is that point? And why should it be in the purview of educators to emphasize one particular point? Wouldn’t we be better served letting individuals choose for themselves what is valuable in their lives?

This is a puzzling irony in progressive politics. There is the idea that we should strive to be a tolerant and pluralistic community, but there is also the competing idea that there is a hierarchy of worldviews. For progressives (just like the conservatives they loathe) some ways of life are simply better than others. Here, that way of life is one that curses standardized testing, materialism, and our hyper-competitive culture– one that stresses inner sanctum and contentedness.

Don’t get me wrong; I am without a doubt a fan of contentedness. I will cast the first stone at ugly instanciations (think: MTV’s “Pimp My Ride”) of the afforementioned sins. But I do so as a matter of personal taste and belief. I do not think my views can, or should, be mapped onto society. Why? Simply put, plans to reorder society– to make it happier, better, or more moral– in accordance with one person or group of people’s conception of what’s right are destined to fail. For a drastic example, look to prohibition in the United States during the early 20th century.

At the end of the day, I, like most people, want society to be happier. (Ironically, it’s often taken unhappiness, or ambition, to do this in the form of economic progress.) I just part ways with the purveyors of the new happiness on one fundamental idea: I think inner happiness, values, and the “point of life” are questions best left to individuals, not policymakers or state-appointed therapists.

Daniel Corbett

July 2018
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