There is no science to being happy, however we try to measure it

In Europe, the pursuit of happiness by number-crunching officialdom can look like the cosmetic mask slapped across the ugly mug of austerity

It makes me happy to know that plenty of viewers will be on tenterhooks this weekend to see how War and Peace concludes. So, spoiler alert! Tolstoy buffs will know that, after Pierre Bezukhov is captured by the French, he has ample time to ponder the meaning of existence. Shut up in a shed, and awed by the serenity of the angelic peasant Platon Karataev, Pierre learns “not with his intellect but with his whole being... that man is created for happiness, that happiness is within him, in the satisfaction of simple human needs, and that all unhappiness arises not from privation but from superfluity”. 

In his captivity, Pierre grasps the essence of the gospel Tolstoy would preach for the next 40 years, of the virtuous simple life as the shortest route to contentment: “The satisfaction of one’s needs – good food, cleanliness, and freedom – now that he was deprived of all this, seemed to Pierre to constitute perfect happiness.”

Outside Pierre’s shed, what defines happiness? And can any formal measurement register its presence, or its absence? Over the past decade, the calculus of content has moved out of the academic shadows and into the limelight where presidents and premiers appoint “happiness tsars” and insist that we must follow the graph of GWB (General Well-Being) as avidly as the fluctuating line of GDP. 

This week, the Office for National Statistics mounted its latest scientific attempt to net the rainbows of felicity. Its new study correlates reported levels of happiness to age groups: a spin-off from the larger surveys of National Well-Being that began in 2011, as state-supported happiness began to boom. 

The ONS found that no group expressed more overall disgruntlement than men from 45 to 59. They are, allegedly, the most miserable sods of all. Many pundits annotated the catalogue of mid-life male misery, from divorce and arthritis to redundancy and parental dementia. I blame a more fundamental, existential woe. For the funniest take I know on the torments of the middle passage, read Martin Amis’s novel The Information. And what is “the information” that horrifies its dual protagonists? You will die, chum. 

Men seem to take this outrageous news –delivered by the body, one wildcat stoppage at a time – as slightly more of a personal affront than women do. So pity, please, the fiftysomething bloke in Wolverhampton. That is the unhappiest town in England, if you credit the ONS’s previous gazetteer of grumpiness. Perhaps he should contemplate a move to Fermanagh in Northern Ireland, crowned last year as the UK’s capital of content. I have been to Fermanagh and can vouch for the nonpareil cheeriness of the lovely lakelands around Lough Erne. Try Blake’s of the Hollow pub on Church Street in Enniskillen as a sure cure for middle-aged melancholia. The Guinness is nirvana itself. And bear in mind that Portora Royal School up on the hill educated both Oscar Wilde and Samuel Beckett. If you’re going to die, my Midlands mopers, better die laughing.

Homeless, limbless, trouserless, almost speechless, Beckett’s stripped-down figures often share with Tolstoy’s Pierre the knack of wrenching something that feels like happiness – or at least, acceptance of their lot – out of profound lack and loss. 

Ever since Stoics in Greece and Rome or Buddhists in India laid the groundwork for philosophical asceticism, traditional wisdom has often sought happiness in retreat and renunciation. To the trained mind, happiness can be cultivated even in – especially in – the squalid cell of a capricious tyrant where only suicide or execution beckons. This kind of happiness thrives in the teeth of fate. Shut in his shed, Pierre understands that “as there is no condition in which man can be happy and entirely free, so there is no condition in which he need be unhappy and lack freedom”. Even in Wolverhampton, as your 50th looms. 

Modern social science sees things very differently. With its mania for metrics, the study of well-being builds its evidence from a “because” rather than “despite” ideal of happiness. It measures not resilience in misfortune but the collection of tokens of advantage. The more you have, the happier you’ll be.

In his handy introduction to the philosophy and sociology of happiness, Daniel M Haybron sums up the prevailing orthodoxy via a checklist that he defines with the acronym “Soars”. Here, S stands for security (not necessarily wealth, but a strong sense of sufficiency and protection), O for outlook (hopeful and altruistic, not fearful and selfish), A for autonomy (freedom to set your own goals, not multiple consumer choice), R for relationships (not exclusively close family and friends, but a network of trusted social contacts) and S again for skilled and meaningful activity (tasks that reinforce self-esteem and make sense of your world, whether paid employment or not). In a shrewd amendment to the Soars menu, Haybron asks if we should add “contact with the natural world” to the list of desiderata. Tolstoy would certainly approve.

Social and psychological investigators have trudged this joy-and-sorrow beat for decades. In 1974, Richard Easterlin developed the “Easterlin Paradox”: the finding that, above a fairly modest level, subjective well-being does not rise along with income. Then, in 2005, Lord Richard Layard of the London School of Economics published Happiness: Lessons from a New Science, and inaugurated a new era of state-backed emotional inquiry. In the hoodie-hugging, husky-driving infancy of his leadership, David Cameron kept up the mood music when he asserted that “Improving our society’s sense of well-being” is “the central political challenge of our times”.

I have just discovered that he spoke those words at a “Google Zeitgeist Europe” conference. And we now know how much its sponsor bothered to contribute in tax for the sort of basic services that give citizens a fighting chance of avoiding the sickness, worry and insecurity that can drag even the cheeriest soul down into despondency. For a future prime minister to push the nebulous virtues of national well-being under the aegis of a world-class tax-avoider sums up the doubts that sceptics feel about the “happiness agenda” and its advocates. 

It’s striking that the business of quantified happiness took off in the wake of the financial crisis, just as Western governments decided that they could no longer afford the level of social provision that had – objectively – enhanced the welfare of their citizens. Forget the cash; just feel the love. Beyond Britain, President Nicolas Sarkozy launched a “Happiness Initiative” in France. Canada, South Korea and even Dubai followed suit. Sheikh Mohammed, emir of Dubai, has proclaimed that “The first objective for the Dubai Plan 2021 is achieving people’s happiness”. 

In 2012, Richard Layard collaborated with economists Jeffrey Sachs and John Helliwell on the first “World Happiness Report” under UN patronage. Happiest country then? Denmark, a serial victor in this sort of ranking. Happiest in 2015? Switzerland. In the new report, the UK stands in 21st place out of 158 (that’s Togo). Just ahead, at 20, comes the United Arab Emirates. Presumably, assessors do not count the right-less expat workers who make up the vast majority of UAE residents and often endure near-slavery conditions of bonded labour that might test the patience of a Roman Stoic. 

That sort of anomaly gives ammunition to the critics who find in the state-endorsed pursuit of “happiness” an anodyne detour from the tougher task of procuring justice, equity or even basic democracy – still lacking in the UAE. Besides, if world-beating happiness on the Swiss model means slamming the door so hard on poorer, darker outsiders, should we seek it anyway? In Europe especially, the pursuit of happiness by number-crunching officialdom can look like the cosmetic mask slapped across the ugly mug of austerity.


At the same time, some happiness-surveyors have used the vogue for their work as a way to smuggle proposals for more radical change under the noses of the powerful. Look at the latest World Happiness Report. Helliwell, Layard and Sachs defend the project against charges of “apparent flakiness”, and champion subjective self-reporting against more objective indices – say, of health, wealth and crime. 

They write: “We attach fundamental importance to the evaluations that people make of their own lives. This gives them a reality and power that no expert-constructed index could ever have.” Yet, in practice, they not only factor in some fairly “hard” measurements, such as healthy life expectancy at birth. They go on to make stirring value-driven arguments for “effective democracy”, trust and transparency in public life as engines of well-being. Where does that leave the distinctly neo-feudal Sheikh Mohammed of Dubai?

For all its grey areas and blind spots, the statistics-fuelled “happiness agenda” may serve as a stalking horse for freedom and justice at a time when, in many jurisdictions, those values dare not speak their name. Still, beyond all the variables and the coefficients, Pierre Bezukhov in his shed endures as a Stoic model of fulfilment snatched from adversity – whatever your age, your income, your family or your locality. 

Quizzed about the town’s wooden-spoon status in the league table of national bliss, a shopper in Wolverhampton replied this week: “A place is what you make it. If you’re a happy person, you’ll be in a happy place.” Tolstoy himself could not have put it better.