Frank Furedi

Professor of Sociology at University of Kent, and author of Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?, Therapy Culture, Paranoid Parenting and Culture of Fear.

Politicians, economists, teachers... why are they so desperate to make us happy?
What the happiness lobbyists are actually saying is that we should be content with what's on offer.

Did the guru Meher Baba who coined the phrase "Don't Worry, Be Happy" foresee that one day his teaching would be embraced by significant sections of the Western establishment? Did he imagine that such leading political figures as Tony Blair and David Cameron would extol his mystical virtues? Happiness has become the buzz word of our times. Politicians, educators, celebrities and cultural entrepreneurs frequently insist that happiness is the solution to our problems and that we have a responsibility to be happy. The BBC's new six-part series, The Happiness Formula, which began last week, is yet another contribution to the promotion of the happiness crusade.

In the UK, the economist Richard Layard, New Labour's very own happiness guru, has succeeded in getting hard-nosed political operators to back his campaign. His recent call for the Government to train 10,000 more therapists to help us become happy, resonates with politicians who are desperately short of ideas. Back in the 1940s and '50s, the big idea was the Welfare State. Today it is the Happy State. Stalin, who called himself the "constructor of happiness" would approve. So would the Controller in Huxley's Brave New World, who believed that making people happy was the precondition for stable government.

Policies that are designed to make us happy have little to do with a genuine emotional response to our experience. They attempt to persuade the public to think positively and adopt forms of behaviour deemed appropriate by enlightened "experts". Like Happy Meals, happiness has been turned into an easily digestible formula that can be taught by teachers, learned by the masses and managed by policy makers.

Happiness entrepreneurs even claim that their project is based on hard science, that they are able to measure the impact of government policies on people's happiness. By transforming intangible feelings into statistics, it has become an object of policy making. Back in 2002, the Prime Minister's Strategy Unit explored the potential for promoting "happiness policies" at a "life satisfaction seminar". At present, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is working on a happiness index. Some argue that happiness statistics reveal more about the life of a nation than figures that measure GDP or productivity.

Privately, many New Labour supporters hope that happiness is the Big Idea that has eluded them since the decline in appeal of the Welfare State. And where New Labour treads, can David Cameron be very far behind? Mr Cameron has declared that education is "one of the keys to happiness" and that "happiness" is one of the "central goals of government". Many educators agree. Having concluded that it is easier to help children feel good than to teach them maths, reading and science, they have embraced the cause of emotional education.

The ascendancy of therapeutic education is not confined to the state sector. Anthony Seldon, the headmaster of Wellington College, hopes to turn his school into a very happy place. He has teamed up with the Orwellian sounding "Well-being Institute" of Cambridge University to produce happy children. He writes that producing "happy young adults is my highest priority as head". Excellence and high achievement? Umm. Seldon castigates "driven people" who are "missing the point of life".

Of course, no one wants to miss the point of life. And the platitude that money does not make you happy contains more than a grain of truth. However, what the happiness lobbyists are actually saying is not that we should go forth and discover the meaning of life, merely that we should be content with what's on offer. They claim that concern with prosperity and economic growth diminishes the quality of our emotional life and makes us unhappy. They argue that if we were more modest in our aspirations and lowered our expectations, we would be far happier people.

"We should be thinking not what is good for putting money in people's pockets but what is good for putting joy in people's hearts," noted Mr Cameron recently. The Conservative leader, like other advocates of this Big Idea, tends to counterpose happiness with economic prosperity. What they all argue is that concern with prosperity and economic growth causes unhappiness. The project of linking unhappiness with economic development has as its target human ambition. High expectation, hard work, aspiration for material possessions and discontent are increasingly represented as human failings in today's therapy culture. Cultivating an electorate with low expectations appeals to officials who have very little to say or offer.

To prove their case, happiness entrepreneurs regularly produce surveys that purport to demonstrate that despite all their wealth, people today are far more unhappy than in the past. A BBC survey for their new series, claimed that the proportion of people who said they are "very happy" has fallen from 52 per cent in 1957 to only 36 per cent today. From a sociological perspective these figures have little meaning, other than to demonstrate that unhappiness and economic wealth grew at the same time. But so did the number of people interested in astrology, DIY and Japanese food. Blaming unhappiness on prosperity is a prejudice, not a scientific fact.

People have always pursued happiness. Policy makers have always hoped their initiatives would make people happy. But happiness was not seen as an end in itself. Teachers hoped that their students would be happy with their experience but did not set out to teach their pupils how to be happy. Those charged with moral education were devoted to explaining the difference between good and bad but not to instructing children how to feel.

Today's turn towards the management of people's internal life is motivated by moral disorientation and political exhaustion. Unimaginative politicians who are unable to decide what needs to be done - or implement the appropriate policies - feel more comfortable with instructing the public how it should feel.

Advocates of the happiness crusade frequently contend that their campaign will help create more caring, altruistic and trustful communities. However, the emphasis on individual feelings distracts people from the life of their communities. Public policies enacted through the intervention of thousands of therapists are likely to turn the public citizen into a helpless patient. Whatever the problems associated with the pursuit of individual ambition, they pale into insignificance when compared with the moral disorientation caused by the politicisation of happiness.

Those who are sceptical about the capacity of a government to make us happy are sometimes advised to look at Bhutan, the absolute monarchy that has adopted the politics of happiness. This is the Buddhist kingdom that has forced more than 100,000 Hindus of Nepalese origin to leave the country. It may not be very democratic, but its track record on promoting happiness is second to none. In pursuit of this cause it has boldly banned wrestling and MTV.

In reality, neither experts nor clever policies can make people genuinely happy. Freud may have been a little cynical when he suggested that his objective was to "convert neurotic misery into ordinary unhappiness". But he understood that true happiness was an ideal that we pursue but rarely achieve. Nor is that a problem. A good life is not always a happy one. People are often justified in being unhappy about their circumstances and surroundings. Discontent and ambition have driven humanity to confront and overcome the challenges they faced. That is why people like the Controller in Brave New World want us live on a diet of "feelies" and "scent organs". That is also why we should be suspicious of experts who seek to colonise our internal life.

First published in the Sunday Telegraph, 7 May 2006