Wednesday, 1 January 2014

The Twelfth Commandment

In recent years there has been an enormous interest in "happiness". Scientists think they have worked out what "makes us happy" - the chemical interactions in the brain that create the subjective feeling of "happiness". Though they seem to confuse it with "pleasure", which is not the same thing. Confusing "pleasure" with "happiness" is like confusing an energy drink with a balanced meal. The energy drink gives you a short-term sugar rush which soon wears off and may be followed by a hypoglycaemic crash which makes you feel even worse, whereas the balanced meal doesn't cause a "high" but gives you energy for a whole day. Similarly, we may get pleasure in the short-term from activities that in the longer term make us unhappy - recreational drug use leading to addiction, for example. Or we may use pleasure-giving activities to numb the the pain of broken relationships, unemployment, financial distress and general misery. We may escape for a brief while, but it doesn't solve the problem. We can experience pleasure without being happy.

Politicians have become increasingly interested in "happiness". To be sure, misery is expensive. Research shows unhappiness is associated with unemployment, marital breakdown, health problems and shorter lifespans, all of which are costly to the State. So to solve these problems, the answer is clear, at least to politicians. We must make people happy: then their marriages won't break up, they will find and keep good jobs and live long and healthy lives.

The trouble is, you can't "make people happy". Happiness is an individualistic emotional response to circumstances. The problem is defining what the circumstances are that may create happiness. Humans are complex: what may result in happiness for one person may cause misery for another. Indeed people are capable of feeling both happy and unhappy at the same time: I may feel happy that I am able to spend time with my children but unhappy that this is because I have lost my job. From a policy-maker's point of view, this is a nightmare: if they help me to find another job, I no longer have time for my children, so I end up feeling equally unhappy. Happiness is a matter of balance: we are "on balance" happy or "on balance" unhappy. Unalloyed happiness is an abnormal condition and may even indicate mental illness.

Some of the literature on happiness makes illogical causal assumptions. For example, here's Ed Diener (quoted by the BBC): "Happy people are more likely to get married, stay married and have fulfilling relationships". So in order to reduce marital breakdown and destruction of social networks, you need to make people happier, apparently. This is clearly absurd. If someone is unhappy because their marriage is in trouble, making them happier could involve ending the marriage.

But despite these difficulties, policy-makers are intent on making people happy. Over the last decade, successive UK governments have considered, and in some cases adopted, policies suggested by eminent academics that are supposed to improve happiness. These policies involve preventing people from doing or seeing things that might make them feel bad - for example, discouraging people from drinking, smoking or eating junk food even if these bring them short-term pleasure, or banning advertising of high-value things that most people can't afford.

And worse, they involve forcing people to do things that academics and policy-makers believe will make them happy, even if there is little justification for this belief. For example, the unemployed are unhappy. So, obviously, the solution is to force everyone into work - even poorly paid, unfulfilling work - and they will be happy, won't they? If only it were that simple. Nearly half of working people worldwide claim to be unhappy in their work.

Nor is work necessarily associated with better health, longer life or stable relationships. Indeed a pattern of working very long hours in poorly paid, insecure jobs is associated with poor health and broken relationships, not least because people working like that don't have the time or the money to eat properly, take exercise or spend time with their families. People who have bad jobs can be as unhappy as those who have no jobs. And people who have very good jobs (in material terms) can also be unhappy. The international executive who spends his life on a plane, rarely touching earth anywhere for longer than a day: the celebrity who lives out of a suitcase, seldom seeing friends or family: the top manager who works 12 hours in the office and a further 4 at home every day, and only spends time with his family on the few weekends in a year that he isn't working. We assume that their "champagne lifestyle" must be marvellous, and complain that they cannot possibly understand the problems of the poor. But in important ways these people have similar stresses to much poorer people working several part-time jobs to try to make ends meet, and the consequences for their marriages, their friendships and their health can be similar. Some enjoy this lifestyle (though it's not clear that their families do, necessarily). But a lot do not. We could describe them as "expensively unhappy". Many (myself included) step off the escalator to the high-flying lifestyle, because the personal cost is just too great. Lovely jobs can be just as lousy as lousy ones.

Chris Dillow observes that concentrating policy-making on measures of well-being rather than the somewhat nebulous "happiness" would be far more effective, but would unfortunately mean that policy-makers might actually have to address things like the real causes of unemployment and the quality of work. It's far cheaper to fund cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) for those suffering from anxiety and stress due to unemployment or job difficulties than it would be to eliminate job insecurity and improve the design of work. And it also plays to the "blame the poor for being poor" lobby. If people are unhappy, it's not because of their circumstances, it's because there is something wrong with them. So fix their heads with therapy and they will feel much better, even though they still can't get a job that pays enough to live on or lasts for longer than a few weeks. Aldous Huxley foresaw this in Brave New World: CBT is becoming our version of Soma.

Policy-makers' commitment to creating prosperity through happiness amounts to a commandment. "Thou shalt be happy, that thou mayest prosper" is the Twelfth Commandment.* This is understandable. Powerful people like "commandments". Telling people what to do - or what not to do - is very much more attractive than empowering people to make their own decisions. Empowering people runs the risk that they will make decisions of which the powerful do not approve; decisions that are bad for them, or bad for society, or both; decisions that may make them unhappy. But people have the right to make bad choices. When we remove people's ability to make their own decisions, we make them sub-human. When we decide FOR "the poor", that what they need is food, shelter and warmth, and we provide these things in the form of food stamps, hostel places and blankets, we make them no better than farm animals - cared for, but controlled.  Does this make them happy? No, it does not. It may relieve their material discomfort, but it destroys their freedom - and that is more valuable than gold. The job of policy-makers is not to "make people happy", but to remove the obstacles that prevent them from being happy if they so choose - and then to accept that some people choose unhappiness, not because of material deprivation but because they are content with misery. To deny people the right to be unhappy is a denial of their humanity.

The ills of society are not fundamentally caused by people being unhappy. Nor, it is fair to say, is unhappiness necessarily caused by the ills of society. Happiness involves choice - which is why trying to "make people happy" is dehumanizing. However, I think the researchers that find a correlation between strong relationships and happiness are right: our relationships maintain our sense of self-worth, of being in the "right place", which is at the heart of happiness. People whose lifestyles make their relationships at best tenuous and at worst disrupted are likely to suffer from a distorted sense of self-worth and an insecure identity, and that makes for unhappiness. But there is something more fundamental here, too.

There has never been a connection between material prosperity and happiness. Traditional songs tell us "riches-to-rags" stories of people who choose poverty in order to be with the person they love. John Galt chooses poverty rather than relinquish control of his creativity. Our real wealth does not lie in material possessions - it lies in our ideas and our relationships. Working in mind-numbingly boring jobs for long hours destroys creativity. Financial stress and job insecurity destroy relationships. Poverty erodes intelligence. This is how we squander our wealth. This is how we destroy people's chances of real happiness.  If policy-makers really want to make people happy, they should look at ways of enabling people to express their creativity, use their intelligence, and develop satisfying relationships. Sadly, they are currently very far from doing anything so constructive.

Related reading:

The Precariat - Guy Standing (book)
Brave New World - Aldous Huxley (book)
The death of John Galt - Pieria
Hypocrisy - Still Life With Paradox

* The Ten Commandments require no explanation. But the eleventh, as every fule kno, is "Thou shalt not get caught". So "Thou shalt be happy" is the twelfth.

4 comments:

  1. Brian Hoshowski currently could also be an excellent time to share what you recognize with those round the country and round the world

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  2. Frances's point is supported by the following story.
    A woman has a dreadful life and eventually dies. She appears at the Pearly Gates and is met by God. She says, “OK, God. Are you going to let me in?”
    God says, “No. I’m sending you back to Earth”.
    “Oh please no.” says the woman. “Earth is a dreadful place”.
    “Ah”, says God. “But I’m sending you back with the talents to solve the problems you suffered from when on Earth”.
    “But that would be Heaven” says the woman.
    “That’s right” says God. “Now off you go”.

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  3. It's worth noting that the philosophy at work here was popularised by mainstream economics.
    Mainstream economics is little more than naive utilitarianism - which defines "the good" in terms of "pleasure" - which you relate to "happiness."

    So let's not be surprised that the notion is taking off - and let's remember to blame the people who created the situation, economists.

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  4. "Empowering people runs the risk that they will make decisions of which the powerful do not approve; decisions that are bad for them, or bad for society, or both; decisions that may make them unhappy. But people have the right to make bad choices. When we remove people's ability to make their own decisions, we make them sub-human."

    All true, but are you prepared for the outcome? Because at the moment we protect people from the consequences of their own decisions, by always picking up the pieces however bad or self harming their life choices are. So unless you are prepared to actually let people die in the streets because of the consequences of their decisions, then you will always be in a position where the State treats the bottom 20% of society like cattle - to be housed, fed and watered en mass whatever their behaviour.

    Giving people power over their lives is a fine sentiment - but are you prepared to let them f*ck their lives up completely (and other peoples, as children are usually involved too)? Because I would argue there is a certain proportion of the population who are incapable of managing their lives in a meaningful sense, and even if the State were to (for example) institute a mass one off wealth transfer from rich to poor (by taxing capital wealth for example and giving a large lump sum to the bottom x% of society) that within a very short space of time those so assisted would be back in the same position they started in.

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