• Frank Furedi
  • Frank Furedi
  • Sociologist, commentator and author

Dominic Lawson: Smile, the happiness police are watching

Among the many forms of tyranny imposed on young children by their parents is the insistence that the little mites must at all times be happy.

This is sometimes enforced at birthday parties by the communal singsong: “If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands / If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands / If you’re happy and you know it / And you really want to show it / If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands.”

My sympathies always go out to those poor children, obliged to clap along in a commanded mime of joy just to convince Mummy and Daddy that they simply couldn’t be happier — even if the hired clown was scary and held Rosie in a rather peculiar way.

Now the entire nation is being swept up into children’s party mode. The big new idea is that we must all be happy — and let the government know it. This month the Office for National Statistics (ONS), under specific orders from Downing Street, has been asking hundreds of thousands of families how happy they are — in order to fulfil David Cameron’s vision of a “general happiness index”. At the same time a self-proclaimed “new mass movement for a happier society”, Action for Happiness, has been launched, with the aim of boosting the numbers of people who will draw a smiley face when the ONS comes by with its questionnaires.

It will be interesting to see how the government’s statisticians cope with the amorphous, paradoxical and fleeting phenomenon that goes under the name of happiness. According to the Daily Mirror — no admirer of Mr Cameron, admittedly — the exercise has been a “potty” waste of time and money. It claimed that one of its readers had given the following response to the ONS, in answer to the central question “What would make you happier?”: “Better quality pies and chip butties ... cheese and tomato toasties with ketchup on the side, white bread. Bacon sandwiches, actually sandwiches in general.”

Another respondent, in answer to the same question on the form, wrote: “A pint just isn’t the same any more when I need to go outside in all weathers to smoke.” According to Action for Happiness, one of the “10 key components” of a happy life is to do nothing that endangers our health; but somehow I don’t imagine those Daily Mirror readers would be alone in regarding this as less than self-evident, whatever the middle classes tell them to think.

Those fixated with the idea of creating a happiness index — who declare such traditional data as gross domestic product to be no guide to wellbeing or welfare — often claim to be mere social scientists without any hidden agenda. In fact they want to nationalise happiness. Lord Layard is the undisputed guru of the movement in Britain, a co-founder of Action for Happiness and one of the inspirations behind Cameron’s take-up of this idea. Layard argues that there should be “an educational revolution in which a central purpose of our schools becomes to help young people learn the secrets of the happy life and the happy society”.

The secrets? Yes, Layard and his acolytes are an exclusive secular priesthood, replacing the now obscure doctrine that true joy is to be found through being close to God with new commandments calling on us to give up smoking and jog for at least 30 minutes a day. And don’t think that such wisdom as the happiness gurus dispense can be absorbed individually in the privacy of our homes. This work “can only be done by schools”, says Layard: “If we want to change the culture, the main organised institutions we have under social control are schools.”

It takes a former chairman of Britain’s Revolutionary Communist party, in the form of Frank Furedi, to appreciate the sinister antecedents. As the professor of sociology at Kent University notes: “Happiness has become the latest ‘big idea’ to capture the attention of a political class which is otherwise running on empty. Of course, the idea is not so new. Stalin affectionately referred to himself as ‘the constructor of happiness’ [and] took a great interest in imaginatively inventing statistics to prove it ... Uncle Joe was entirely cynical ... mass-producing pictures of smiley faces to distract attention from the destructive consequences of his terrible policies. In contrast, many of today’s political elites who are bereft of any ideas and projects have genuinely and desperately embraced happiness as their one big cause.”

I’m sure Furedi is right in not regarding Cameron’s adoption of this idea as cynical. The Conservative leader is a man of generally optimistic disposition who wants everyone to share his own sunny outlook. Yet it cannot be entirely coincidental that he is promoting the idea that growth in happiness is more important than growth in gross domestic product at a time when most families are likely to face a fall in their living standards. It is not Cameron’s fault that he has inherited such economic circumstances as prime minister, but he would be less than human if he were not worried about the need to produce statistics that appeared to demonstrate the public are happy, even if they are becoming poorer.

That still leaves the little problem of what a “happiness” index really measures. Ever since Jeremy Bentham drew up his absurd “felicific calculus”, with its subdivisions of “intensity, duration, certainty, propinquity, fecundity, purity and extent”, it has been evident that the measurement of happiness is doomed precisely because happiness itself is not something that can be converted into numbers or units.

Professor Martin Seligman, a pioneer of “positive psychology” whose work allegedly galvanised Cameron, has now distanced himself from the “happiness agenda” partly for such basic reasons. While denying he had recanted, Seligman this month denounced what he termed “happyology” and said: “The word happiness always bothered me because it was scientifically unwieldy and meant a lot of different things to different people.” As Seligman also notes: “What humans want is not just happiness ... If that were all people were interested in, we should have been extinguished a long time ago.”

The most devastating rebuke to the notion of a state devoted to the maximising of happiness was published almost 80 years ago in the form of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. His dystopian fantasy is set in a benevolent, efficient totalitarian state, in which the drug “soma” provides the inhabitants of the brave new world with a constant chemically induced happiness. This is not so much the welfare state as the therapeutic state.

A character known as “John the Savage” rebels against Brave New World’s religion of happiness and declares: “I’m claiming the right to be unhappy ... not to mention the right to grow old and ugly and impotent ... the right to be lousy ... the right to live in constant apprehension of what may happen tomorrow.” The reader, I think, is meant to understand that John represents the real nature of man; but to Layard and his acolytes “the Savage” would be just that, a savage, and must be re-educated.

In addressing what it describes as “the sceptics”, Action for Happiness points out that a not unsuccessful country known as the United States of America has the “pursuit of happiness” at the heart of its founding principles. The founding founders, however, were not attempting to define happiness, still less to instruct the people as to what their happiness should comprise.

“If you’re happy and you know it and you really want to show it, vote for me” might yet be the slogan on which Cameron fights the next general election. Does the prospect make you want to clap your hands, boys and girls?

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