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
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
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
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
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
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.
published in the Sunday Telegraph, 7 May 2006