Stephen King: The pursuit of happiness is so problematic

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The Independent Online

Most of us would like to be happy. Some, though, have gone further, suggesting that happiness should become a central aim both of the individual and of society as a whole.

Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), whose body and wax head still sit in the portico of University College, London, was the first modern thinker to promote the idea of the "greatest happiness of the greatest number". John Stuart Mill, the great 19th-century philosopher, developed Bentham's thinking with his "Utilitarianism", first published in 1863.

During the 20th century, others carried on where Bentham and Mill left off. I wouldn't like to suggest Ken Dodd is quite in their intellectual league but, by singing "Happiness, happiness, the greatest gift that I possess", he has, perhaps unintentionally, spread the utilitarian message far and wide.

I've just come back from a holiday (my own version of the pursuit of happiness) where I was able to catch up on my reading. Among the books I finished was Richard Layard's Happiness: Lessons from a New Science. First published in 2005, it's now available in paperback. Lord Layard is a highly respected economist who has become a bit frustrated with some of the central tenets of economics. In his words, "economics equates changes in the happiness of society with changes in its purchasing power ... I have never accepted that view, and the history of the last fifty years has disproved it".

Layard's point is that we now have a much better understanding of what makes people happy and, for rich nations, additions to worldly wealth don't make much of a difference. Of course, for those societies facing ongoing poverty, additional income can play a big role in promoting happiness and, more importantly, alleviating despair. But for rich Western societies, the evidence is not compelling. Surveys show that, over the past 50 years, Western societies have not become any happier, despite the huge changes in wealth and technology that have occurred. Moreover, happiness for some only comes about because of misery for others: it may be nice to be at the top of the pecking order but, further down, you may find only simmering resentment.

Layard is, thus, making a plea: economics is important, but public policy should not begin and end with economics, at least not of the traditional variety. Policymakers should, instead, draw on "the new psychology, as well as on economics, brain science, sociology and philosophy" to further our pursuit of happiness. (The table shows the kinds of things that make Texas women happy; most of these activities would not fall into the traditional economic sphere but nor, I suspect, should they fall into the public policy sphere.)

Layard's arguments suggest that we should think carefully before extolling the virtues of higher and higher national income. If we focus on material well-being alone and fail to take into account increases in crime, divorce, mental illness and environmental pollution, we are not doing our bit to create true happiness.

I'm sure most economists would agree with some of Layard's points. Indeed, some of the great developments in economics (particularly those in the 19th century) form the foundations for many of Layard's arguments. The law of diminishing marginal utility, for example, basically says the pursuit of worldly wealth without regard to its effect on our mental and physical state cannot be a good thing (your first chocolate éclair may be a pleasurable experience but you might begin to change your mind after your sixth). As another example, perfect competition can be seen as a model by which to judge the economic performance of the real world, influencing our attitudes towards market failures of one kind or another.

Of course, policymakers inevitably end up with a focus on things that can be measured (like national income), while putting to one side things that can't easily be measured (like happiness). Nevertheless, we know a lot more about happiness now than we did in the past and that's enough for Layard to suggest that policymakers should place greater focus on, for example, the distribution of income (because those who are poorer value each marginal dollar more than others) than on its overall level.

It's at this point that I start to have my doubts. The pursuit of a happy society seems like a worthwhile goal, but who defines the boundaries of this happy society? Many economists think geographical mobility is a good thing because people are able to move from where they are less productive to where they are more productive. In his book, though, Lord Layard extols the virtues of community. A well-functioning community where people know each other has high levels of trust whereas geographical mobility "increases family break-up and criminality". Because of this, Europeans should think twice before they embrace the US model of labour mobility and immigration.

This argument can too easily become a protectionist refrain, with incumbent communities refusing to embrace new entrants, wherever they might have come from. Yet Britain would not be the country it is without a constant influx of immigrants, whether they be Normans, Jews, Huguenots, Italians, Germans, West Indians or Muslims. I'm not sure I could quantify the degree of happiness that has been generated from this influx, but there's no doubt Britain would have been a very different country without it.

More generally, the utilitarian calculus too often fails because we all have different views of what makes us happy and, indeed, of what makes society happy. At one point in his book, Layard notes the demise of religious beliefs, saying "the decline of orthodox Christianity ... has left a moral vacuum". That may be true in Europe, but Layard is more worried about unhappiness in the United States, where church attendance is both high and rising.

We also have different views of how to plan for the future. Whose happiness should be our concern: ours, our children's or the happiness of generations yet to come? Even if we did know the answer, who makes the judgement about appropriate forms of happiness (is it good or bad to be on Prozac)?

JS Mill didn't think all forms of happiness were equivalent. He refused to believe that a satisfied fool was a greater utilitarian success than a dissatisfied Socrates. Layard thinks Mill was wrong to worry: "We have to allow for the results of Socrates' work - and the millions of people whose happiness it has increased". But while Layard's argument may be valid with the benefit of hindsight, it is otherwise specious. A utilitarian living in ancient Greece would have been hard-pressed to decide which of the many philosophers at the time was likely to be the great thinker as opposed to the stupid knave.

And that, I think, is the problem with making happiness a central part of public policy. Many of the things that make us happy are near-enough impossible to quantify, even with the extraordinary advances in psychology that Layard describes in his book. In the late 18th century, Karl Stamitz was a very popular composer but no one, these days, would opt for Stamitz at the expense of Mozart: a Stamitz symphony can be a dreadful experience.

Happiness is certainly worth pursuing, and we now know a lot more about what's happening in the brain to make us happy, but that's not enough. Layard may be right to suggest "the current pursuit of self-realisation will not work", but that simply says we should take our responsibilities towards others more seriously. Whether we can make others happy in the process is debatable. JS Mill's father doubtless thought that teaching his son to read ancient Greek by the age of four would make Mill happy. Mill, though, suffered a two-year depression on reaching his twenties. Perhaps he unhappily realised that, as a child, he'd been an insufferable little brat.

Stephen King is managing director of economics at HSBC