Happiness for the Dismal Science (2011)May/11/2017
L’aise nous masche (Happiness gnaws at us)
It is striking that economists today play the leading role in interdisciplinary studies on happiness. In the 20th century, economics had dealt with the pure analysis of exchange value, and not of use-value. In other words, it was only concerned with “preferences revealed” through the market, and not with the ultimate reasons for these realized preferences. Economists had only to deal with the means to reach ultimate ends which, according to Utilitarianism - the hegemonic philosophy in economics – are pleasure, happiness, satisfaction and individual well-being (terms considered more or less synonymous by Utilitarianists). The principle set out in the American Constitution on the right to the pursuit of happiness, albeit inspired by Utilitarianism, is tautologic, since for Utilitarianists human beings by their very essence can do nothing other than to pursue happiness. To aim for non-happiness or unhappiness is not something human for Utilitarianists, for whom we are all forced into happiness, that is to utility. By contrast, as we shall see, this aim is plausible for those I shall call anti-eudaimonologists (from eudaimonia, happiness), for whom human beings do not seek happiness, but essentially are driven by enjoyment. For Utilitarianism, utility consists of the subjective sensations which make up the pleasures of life or allow us to avoid displeasure. Precisely because political economics limited itself to trade and exchange, it neglected pleasure, and thus drew the epithet “dismal science” given to it by Carlyle.
In recent decades, however, this dismal science – excited by its theoretical and practical failures – has increasingly sought to invest directly in the aims (life's pleasures) as well as in the means (economic exchange), even at the risk of shifting the discipline's very nature. But with these broadened horizons, should we not fear an imperialism of homo economicus logic, which would turn even the meaning of our lives into an economic calculation? I shall try here to assess the philosophical core of this shift in economics.
Today many economists question why we buy one thing over another and wonder what we should buy to feel better. Of course, deep down many researchers and professors are motivated to sell politicians what they call Evidence Based Politics: if they were to discover what makes people globally happier or less unhappy, they could supply politicians with an effective recipe for maximizing the satisfaction of their voters - and assuring their re-election. By increasing the Gross National Happiness, politics would leave the uncertainty of ideologies to become a technocracy formed by expert ‘eudaimonocrats’.
So, alongside traditional rankings which classify countries according to GDP, we now have others that classify them according to “quality of life”, “national well-being”, “life satisfaction” and so on. Charts comparing happiness in different countries are available; the one below correlates the level of happiness to the per capita national income in each country. But, does such a map make any scientific sense, or any sense at all? Does it grasp something real to put into relation? Is it not a pure artifact of eudaimonology?
In fact, this map is the product of a very simple calculation of happiness: individuals in a sample are asked: “How happy do you consider yourself on a scale of 1 to 3?” All you obtain in this way is what people say about their being happy or not, not whether they really are happy or unhappy. But economists usually have an empiricist philosophical background, for which what one feels is ipso facto equivalent to what one is; and one must take for granted that an individual says what he truly feels. Feeling happy is being happy, or more, believing to be happy is to be happy; in the same way that being in love is just feeling in love, even if the beloved one is Jack the Ripper. If a prisoner at Auschwitz were to reply “I am quite happy”, no one has the right to tell him “oh no, you must be unhappy in a Nazi concentration camp!” Even Primo Levi (1958) described “a good day” in Auschwitz! Any question about the essence of happiness is sidestepped, assuming that subjects always know what they're talking about when they say “I'm happy rank 3” or “I'm unhappy rank 1”. For utilitarian empiricism appearance and essence coincide.
This utilitarianist philosophy banishes any cultural relativism: the concept of happiness is considered identical in all cultures. For this reason, the utilitarianist finds it difficult to explain, for example, why on average the French describe themselves as unhappier than Americans do, even though ‘quality of life’ indicators are higher for France than they are for the US. This is due to the fact that for Americans stating their happiness is a narcissistic duty more important than it is for the French, who have basically absorbed the vision of Baudelaire, for whom happiness is something vulgar, for ordinary people. Terms such as ‘happiness’ have various meanings in different cultures; ‘happiness’ is not the same as ‘bonheur’. What changes above all is the value each culture gives to the project or the duty of being happy. These differences might explain why the inhabitants of Nigeria and Tanzania claim to be happier than those of Japan and Finland.
However coarse this type of research may be philosophically, some interesting correlations do emerge. Let us take the map shown here correlating happiness and national income; it is striking that the countries on the diagonal line, bottom left to top right, are all culturally Judeo-Christian and Western: a sign that in these countries, in contrast to others, income and claims of happiness are closely related factors. Age, on the other hand, is not a significant factor to predict whether someone will state his happiness or unhappiness, while employment and love are: single and unemployed women and men, even if wealthy, declare themselves unhappier than average. For most people everywhere, the crucial condition for enjoying one’s own existence is to work and be loved.
‘Eudaimonology’ thought it had made a landmark discovery in 1974 when it formulated “The Easterlin Paradox”, which stated:
- There is within a single country a low correlation between income and happiness.
- The richest countries are not necessarily the happiest.
- Variations in people's happiness seem to depend very little on variations in income and wealth.
In the last 40 years, pro capita GNP in Western countries has dramatically increased, without any parallel increase in the average rate of individual happiness. Between 1994 and 2005 there was no increase in ‘happiness’ among the Chinese, though for the period in question the per capita income in China rose by 150%. Confirmation of the old saying that “money doesn't buy happiness”. Yet Eudaimonologists – usually ‘liberal’ thinkers – often forget to stress the point that even the huge increase in both public spending and leisure time in the second half of the 20th century did not produce any notable variations in people's rates of happiness. Note that this ‘paradox’ (but why paradox?), according to which the economics of happiness is not correlated to economics proper, is perceived by specialists as a great achievement of economics applied to happiness.
Instead, recent research – most probably inspired by social-democratic wishes – has tried to show that a correlation exists between lesser economic equality and higher malaise in a country. Wilkinson & Pickett (2009) showed that wealthy but less egalitarian countries (above all the USA, followed by the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Israel) register more mental health problems, a higher use of drugs, lower life expectancy, more obesity, lower scholastic performance, higher teenage and out-of-wedlock pregnancies, more violence, more incarcerations and punishment, and lower social mobility compared to more egalitarian countries (like Japan and the Scandinavian nations). Moral of the story: everyone, even the wealthy, is damaged by inequality.
The trouble is rather that while Eudaimonologists are usually centre-left, the data they collect maliciously support a paternalistic and conservative vision. For example, it appears that a stable family life, especially marriage (Oswald 2004) and religious faith, contribute to happiness, while divorce tears it apart. (The question then is: are a stable family, marriage and faith in God causes for being/saying-to-be happy or its effects? And up to what point does a married person in a stable, church-going family feel obliged to say to herself that she is happy? And in general, is not an inborn disposition towards happiness the primary cause of a tranquil and "conformist" life, more than any political or social policymaking? Were this the case, the importance of politics in our lives would have to be reassessed.)
The debate among both economists and ‘psychologists of the economy’ has focused on these two rival approaches. The Utilitarianist approach derives from philosophical empiricism and finds in Daniel Kahneman one of its most prestigious representatives. In this perspective, happiness is always what I feel in the present, and can be measured both by explicit questions (such as: “how do you feel right now about the concert you just heard?”) and perhaps by a fMRI to verify the activation of the cerebral centres of happiness. The Eudaimonistic approach, whose main representative is Amartya Sen, refers to the Aristotelian concept of eudaimonia. This criterion is no longer correlated to the present-presence of each individual life experience, but to what Sen calls capabilities, i.e. to the possibility or power each of us has to do satisfying things or ‘find fulfillment’. An Auschwitz prisoner might say “I'm happy”, but his capabilities are extremely limited. Eudaimonism is an ‘economics with a humane face’, which starts from this question: “If people living in totalitarian and despotic regimes declare themselves happier than those living in free and tolerant societies, should we then conclude that the former societies are better than the latter?” The eudaimonistic answer is no. We cannot consider a society of “happy slaves” happy. In short, the Eudaimonists would like to reestablish a certain morality of happiness and make it socially congruent and shareable. So, their philosophical gamble consists in saying that while economics has so far been individualistic, it needs to become intersubjective, relational. The term relational (which gives relativism its deepest meaning) is very much in favor today among the Western intelligentsia. And, indeed, there is a great insistence on the importance of ‘relational goods’, like friendship, good neighborly relations, mutual empathy, and so on.
Then, we have a third approach, well described by the title of Paul Ormerod’s (2007) article: Against Happiness, which aims to demolish eudaimonology as a whole: “Public expenditure, leisure time, crime, gender, inequality, income inequality – none of these are in any way correlated with measures of happiness over time […] So one could conclude either that the attempt to improve the human lot by social and economic policy is futile or the data is not telling us anything of value.”
It is to this trend of "anti-happiness" that psychoanalysis essentially belongs. In fact, happiness or less unhappiness were never acknowledged as either a focus or goal of analysis by any of the main psychoanalytic currents. Basically, all psychoanalysts have always believed in what Freud wrote--even if he wrote it before he invented psychoanalysis: “...[Y]ou will be able to convince yourself that much will be gained if we succeed in transforming your hysterical misery [Elend] into common unhappiness [Unglück]. With a mental life that has been restored to health, you will be better around against that unhappiness”. Thus the aim of analysis is neither to achieve the patient’s happiness (Glück), nor to simply get rid of the neurotic misery (Elend), but rather to transform (verwandeln) the misery into an unhappiness against which one could be defended! Analysis seemingly aims for a coexistence with an unhappiness deprived of the (neurotic) misery, with a sort of “rich” unhappiness.
Freud later (1932) enunciated the task of analysis as “Wo es war, soll ich werden”--a sentence around which translators and interpreters have scuffled. Some have interpreted it to mean that one should strengthen the ego (ich), while others--who would translate it as “Where it was, there I should become”--think instead that the subject (I) should reach the place of unconscious itself. But no matter which interpretation, the aim of analysis is not at a feeling of happiness, but rather at a reversal of position between ego and it, between the self and the Other, at something on the order of the subjective structure.
An analogous contempt for “the happy society issue” animates so-called ‘post-modernist’ thinkers inspired by post-structuralism. The very concept of happiness is discredited as ‘ideological’ in the Marxist sense, insofar as it is identified with the acquisition or possession of material or immaterial goods (such as power, prestige, love, truth, etc.). This cultural nebula pursues the Dionysian vocation of Nietzsche: what matters is not happiness (always quoted in English) but jouissance (often quoted in French). The paradigm of the “wo/man of enjoyment” is the hero who takes enjoyment in doing battle for her Cause, not to be confounded with ‘the causes’ of happiness in the Utilitarian sense. Che Guevara, by going to Bolivia and confronting death, did not pursue his ‘happiness’, but rather he enjoyed his Cause. At the core of post-modernist, including Marxist, philosophies there is a certain aristocratic contempt for “goods for the masses”. Some eudaimonologists say that “happiness is earning a hundred dollars more than your brother-in-law”, which confirms the terrible opinion anti-happyists have of “the economics of happiness”: that it calculates not enjoyment but the levels of envy within a community. For the post-modernists, instead, their reference is not my neighbor who aspires to earning a hundred dollars more, but heroes like Gandhi or Aung San Suu Kyi, who do not seek happiness, but enjoy their commitment to win or die. Eudaimonologists, by focusing on the possible causes for happiness, lose sight of the fact that each of us, working for one’s own Cause, establishes one’s own criteria of “a life good enough”.
Essentially, both the utilitarianist and eudaimonistic approaches start from an undeclared and unquestioned assumption: that both individual and collective forms of happiness (experienced or planned) are congruent and homogeneous. A happy society would be one where the mean population is happier than the mean in other societies. In other words, happiness is not bound to contrasting projects for a good life. Yet, among a country’s citizens there is no general consensus on the collective or individual criteria for “happiness” or a “good and beautiful life”. The divergence in ways to “try to live well” is always removed from the analytic space of the eudaimonologists, who unwittingly adopt a totalitarian image of society, that of a nation with no conflict over what meaning to give to our lives. It is taken for granted that the well-being of societies is commensurate to individual well-being, and that the essential reasons for being happy or unhappy are the same for everyone. This research – even when it appeals to Aristotelian or phenomenological concepts – scotomizes the conflict between the criteria of a ‘life good enough’, a discordance which is in fact at the core of global political and ethical conflicts. Whether by force or persuasion, every human being fights alongside others in order to impose on others still his own project of happiness.
And finally, the anti-eudaimonologists repeat over and over that any ideal of happiness is an illusion, an “ideology”. But the fact remains that, when asked, most people around the world would declare themselves happy. In fact, the belief in a fundamental unhappiness underlying the human condition is confined to an intellectual “dandy” élite with a humanistic background; in short, to claim the impossibility of happiness is a sign of social distinction, a highbrow thing. But even if most people were to admit to have failed in their search for happiness, the fact remains that every human being—even anti-eudaimologists—can do nothing less than to adopt any strategy necessary to enjoy a ‘life good enough’. And even if reaching happiness may be impossible, the desire to live well enough is still necessary.
Freud, S. (1895) Studies on Hysteria, SE, 2. GW, 1.
Freud, S. (1932) Introduction to Psychoanalysis, SE, 11. GW, 22.
Kahneman, D., Diener, E., Schwarz, N., eds., Well-Being. The Foundations of Hedonic Psychology, Russell Sage Foundation, New York, 1999.
Layard, R. (2005) Happiness, The Penguin Press, New York.
Levi, P. (1958) If This Is a Man / The Truce, Abacus, London 1988.
M. de Montaigne, Essais, livre II, cap XX, 1580.
Ormerod, P. “Against happiness”, Prospect, 133, 29th April 2007.
Oswald, A., "Money, Sex, and Happiness: An Empirical Study", with David Blanchflower, Scandinavian Journal of Economics, 2004, 106, pp. 393-416.
Sen, A.K., Nussbaum, M., eds., The Quality of Life, Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford 1993.
Wilkinson, R., Pickett, K. The Spirit Level, Penguin Books, London, 2009.