The Joylessness of Happiness Economics

Or why looking for happiness is not like looking for gold

That money cannot buy happiness has been known at least since the Midas story gained currency in ancient Greece. What is new is that, after the Crash of 2008, what had hitherto passed as scientific economics (and the neoliberal policies that they supported) lost all credibility. Cunningly, many economists chose to blame the focus of their study, rather than admit to the inanity of their method and their assumptions.

Ingeniously, and quite disingenuously at the same time, they put forward the argument that the problem was that their theories (and the policies that the latter promoted) were focusing on the wrong target; that, instead of focusing on income, economics (and the politicians listening to economists) should have aimed at something more touchy-feely: at happiness.

It is no coincidence that, post 2008, happiness economics is experiencing something of a revival (see this recent article in the FT). Even David Cameron has pinned his colours on that particular mast, promising to invest in new surveys for measuring the happiness levels of the Great British public, before (presumably) tailoring policies with a view to maximising those levels.

At first blush, no one can plausibly oppose the idea of taking seriously the difference between money and well being, between Mammon and Eudemonia. Then again, one is excused to be sceptical of the sudden enthusiasm for ‘quality of life’, purely subjective, measurements by the very same people who, until 2008, were champions of the paramount importance of the bottom line, of shareholder value, of GDP per capita etc.

But let’s suspend such understandable scepticism for now and focus instead on another matter: The underlying assumption of happiness economics, namely that happiness is a well defined (even if difficult to measure) magnitude. Looking for gold may also not be easy (ask the millions of failed gold prospectors) but at the very least gold, once located, can be easily recognised. In contrast, the search for happiness presents problems unfamiliar to gold-prospectors: There exists no technically sound method for discerning between pure nuggets of happiness and the happiness equivalent of fool’s gold.

A fool can be genuinely happy for tragic reasons. Moreover, happiness is not only difficult to identify but it is a pretty weird experience to boot. Take for example that evening back in the sixties marked by a truly remarkable phenomenon: Millions of Americans cried almost simultaneously. Lassie (the popular canine TV-star) had died in the final episode of the series. To have cried they must have been upset (clearly they had not shed tears of joy). Yet they had, of course, chosen to watch the program and it is unlikely that they regretted that choice.

How can we reconcile their grief with the thought that they chose to watch the program? Does grief produce happiness? Surely no one places sorrow at the top of their list of priorities and seeks its attainment. Could it be that it was the unexpected grief, the shock, that they valued and that afterwards they wished that Lassie had not met her death? What if the next day the network were to announce that the final episode was not what the creator of Lassie had intended but, instead, that it was a pirate copy that was never meant to be screened? Would the grieving millions welcome such a development? Doubtful. What is interesting in this case is that viewers enjoyed the sadness the episode caused and were not willing to erase it.

Happiness is indeed a strange experience. Whenever we go to the movies, or read a book, perhaps we choose the author or director in a way the economist describes (that is, with a view to satisfying our senses or increasing our happiness). However, the moment we start watching or reading, our enjoyment will be spoilt if we are in control of the plot. Effectively, we demand that we do not have a choice as to what happens in the movie or book. Of how happy the plot makes us. Interactive books may be nice gadgets but can never really make us as happy as a gloomy Dostoevsky.

So although we would love a machine that does our chores, lessens pain and alleviates suffering, we do not necessarily wish for a life of no pain, no suffering and no chores. Such a life would be dull and likely to end by suicide. Happiness is thus best supported by unplanned frequent excursions into its opposite (whatever that may be). Consequently, no metric of happiness can be created unless it can recognise which reductions in happiness are part of happiness’… growth spurt!

Imagine that God granted the happiness economists, and politicians like David Cameron, a device by which they could enhance our measurable happiness no end. Such a device would, by construction, find it impossible to recognise the puzzling fact that joy and pleasure are parasitic on pain and grief. It is easy to see that, failing to understand that aspect of happiness, the god-given device would be incapable of generating a truly happy life. All that we would end up with is a life in which we do what we like and like what we do; the life, in other words, of pure morons.

Put differently, it may be impossible surgically to segregate the good from the bad experiences; happiness from its opposite. If so, happiness economics is bunk. It is a non-starter. Anyone trying to measure, let alone to maximise, society’s happiness will fail even before she begins. For such an endeavour would require a capacity to effect the impossible: a strict separation of the happy experiences from the unhappy ones.

Real life, against the grain of happiness economics, is not guided by a preference ordering, a set of wishes and desires which keep pain and pleasure, utility and disutility, horror and edification strictly separable. Anyone who has read a Dostoevsky novel, who has sat through a worthy performance of an ancient tragedy, who has run a marathon or, simply, who has experienced the mixed feelings of a complex relationship, will understand the main point here: Happiness is ill defined and un-quantifiable.

Don’t the happiness economists understand this? Probably not. For the first thing a person has to undergo in order to qualify as an economist is a sort of lobotomy that renders her insensitive to any concept defying measurement or quantification. Be that as it may, what of the politicians who take the happiness economists seriously? Why are they taken in?

I do not believe they are. Not for one moment do politicians like David Cameron believe the claims of happiness economists. Alas, politicians do what politicians do best: They milk silly ideas for all they are worth. In the case of happiness measurements at the time of crisis and savage public sector cuts, Cameron et al simply hope for some measurements, however ambiguous, that will allow them to argue that, though GDP, employment, life expectancy etc. have all fallen under his administration, society is getting… happier!