Against happiness

by Rob Horning

11 January 2007


In debates about income inequality, this dilemma often arises: Should we divide the GDP pie more equally among society even if that means making the pie smaller? This question is complicated by another observation, that increased income doesn’t seem to make individuals any happier in the long run (when, as Keynes noted, we’re all dead). If more won’t make you happier, then what difference does it make how national wealth is divided? And if growth is all-important, how do we square increasing returns to scale with a meritocratic ideal, which holds that earnings are actuallly earned? Those who question growth’s correlation to happiness often seem to demand more equitable distribution of income, and those who say unfair distributions of income don’t matter often seem to argue that personal prosperity is significant and shouldn’t be neglected.

For example, at Spiked online, Daniel Ben-Ami has an essay arguing that we shouldn’t worry about whether prosperity is correlated to happiness, basically because happiness, in his opinion, isn’t particularly important. It’s a classic piece of telelogical triumphalism (life is always improving) that fetishizes technology (it will magically remedy everything), but I admit, the curmudgeon in me appreciates his position—yeah, screw happiness. Who needs it? As a wise man once said, “Look at me, I’m making people happy! I’m the magical man from Happyland in a gumdrop house on Lollipop Lane. Oh, by the way, I was being sarcastic.” Trying to make people happy is fruitless, since what they think they want is always shifting. Better to make them live longer and give them more technological process (which according to Ben-Ami will also solve global warming, so don’t stop wasting energy, no matter what those whiners say). And if the poor are striving to emulate the rich, so much the better. A little envy is good for them; it keeps them in line and keeps them striving, which helps propel social progress. Writes Ben-Ami:

Coveting what the rich have should not be dismissed as unhealthy envy. On the contrary, the fact people are dissatisfied with their lot can be seen as a healthy motive for change. Humanity has historically progressed by constantly trying to improve its position. As a result people are better off than ever before. In this sense unhappiness should be welcomed. It is a sign of ambition and a drive to progress rather than one of inherent misery. In contrast, the essentially conservative message of the happiness gurus is that people should be happy with their lot.

Progress? It’s always positive. Ambition? It’s the fire that tempers the steel in your soul, never let it die. Disappointment? It’s really a reward since it should encourage you to try harder. If you are discouraged by failure or depressed by relative stasis after all your struggle, then you are obviously a weak person who is opposed to human progress and perhaps a traitor to your species. People who tell you that you can be “happy” are also secret enemies who think there is something valuable in nature as it is and in being present in the moment. Don’t be seduced! If you forget that you always need more than you have, you might stop paying attention to what society expects from you: more hard work, more desultory consumption. You are not here to “feel” “good”—you are here to struggle and suffer for the heroes of posterity (just like Soviet citizens in the 1930s). Without these things living standards—measured in income and technological dominance over our environment, not foolish trifles as your insignificant “feelings”—will slip and your children will hate you.

The rise of mass affluence is an incredibly positive development. It has bolstered the quality of people’s lives enormously. But there never was any guarantee that such progress would bring happiness. One of the most positive qualities of human beings is that they often want more than they have got. They typically want the lives of their children and grandchildren to be better than their own. The growth sceptics would have us stay where we are or even retreat to living a life of lower living standards.

You must be dissatisfied so that your children can be too. Happiness is obviously just another word for surrender.

Anyway, I agree with Ben-Ami that the government has no business trying to make people happy, not if we want to respect individuals’ right to determine what happiness is for themselves. But the income inequality problem and controversies about growth aren’t about happiness; they are about fairness, justice. That’s perhaps no easier to define than happiness (is it equal opportunity or equal outcome?) but we shouldn’t let the nebulousness of happiness distract us from its importance. It’s not like we’d ever declare prosperity is more important than justice, would we?

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