The Politics of Happiness

It is the middle of February at a snowy University of Chicago. I stride into my programme’s student affairs office, and hand over my MA thesis proposal for filing. Its title catches the administrator’s eye. “The Politics of Happiness?” she inquires, her voice conveying a mixture of bemusement and intrigue. “Politics and happiness don’t seem like things that match up, certainly not here in America”. This response might seem surprising, given that the goal of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” was ingrained in the US Declaration of Independence. However, it may not be so surprising at all. Politicians and the media rarely discuss happiness explicitly, far less than dominant issues surrounding the economy, foreign policy and more objective aspects of welfare such as education and health. In the US, the “pursuit of happiness” has meant the individual pursuit of happiness, with the government simply providing a basic framework for people to get on with this privately. Collective efforts are poured into education, healthcare and job creation, but the kind of happiness that individuals pursue when using these goods is left up to them.

However, it would be a mistake to think that happiness is not on the rise as an explicitly political issue when looking beyond America, both in terms of real-world politics as well as academia. In the UK, the Office for National Statistics has drawn upon the European Commission report ‘Beyond GDP’ to promote a wider and systematic consideration of wellbeing, of which happiness is a subjective aspect. In academia, a specialized Journal of Happiness Studies now exists, research findings have been pooled into a World Database of Happiness, and a Society for Quality of Life Studies has been created. This surge in interest is in part driven by the rise of psychological evidence and survey data linking individual happiness to various social phenomena, including employment, environmental interaction and welfare state structure. Economists have started to pay attention to these sources of evidence, seeing it as a science that can complement GDP as being a foundation for public policy. From this perspective, governments should be in a position to increase the self-reported happiness of their citizens quite straightforwardly and predictably. Richard Layard put forward perhaps the clearest vision of this scientific approach in his 2011 book Happiness: Lessons from a New Science. Layard’s framework is one in which objective evidence on the causes of individual happiness can be collated by the government, and used as the basis of specific policies designed to raise happiness levels, as measured by quantitative scores.

The growing potential for a scientifically-informed politics of happiness has led to a greater focus on normative questions related to the pursuit of happiness as an explicit policy goal. For example, what kind of happiness should be promoted? A more pleasure-centred, utilitarian vision, or something closer to the Aristotelian eudaimonia, characterised by the development of positive characteristics and virtues? With its roots in the thought of Jeremy Bentham, utilitarianism seeks to encourage feelings of pleasure while minimising those of pain. Bentham believed that pleasure was something that differed in only intensity and duration, and could therefore be aggregated from one person to many people via simple quantitative measures. John Stuart Mill, on the other hand, distinguished between ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ pleasures, with the former relating to intellectual activities such as reading and writing, and the latter to positive sensations experienced through things like eating, drinking and sex. By contrast, Aristotle argued in Nicomachean Ethics that eudaimonic happiness could only be achieved through virtuous activity within the Polis. This allowed for the development of character virtues, such as kindness and courage, and intellectual virtues, such as knowledge and wisdom. These intellectual virtues could be gained through participation in political decision-making and reflective philosophical contemplation. Achieving happiness for Aristotle was a developmental goal, not gained through pleasures or sensations at particular moments in time, but through ongoing activity and participation in the life of the Polis. These divergences between utilitarianism and eudaimonism illustrate the contested nature of happiness as a concept, and the challenges associated with defining happiness prior to pursuing it as a political goal. Neither utilitarian nor eudaimonic ideas can be considered objectively superior to the other; their relationship is one of subjective difference.

A separate normative question is whether, if happiness is to be measured quantitatively, the overall happiness of the population should be maximized, or whether raising the happiness of the least happy people should be the priority? A separate question still is which agents should be involved in realising happiness? What should the balance between the government, civil society and individuals be? Layard’s scientific approach has been criticised for leaving out important normative questions like this, with his argument simply assuming that happiness is the highest good, and that it should be maximized without rational debate necessary.

That is a view that would turn any political theorist red-faced with frustration. There are many ways that happiness could play a part in politics, each provoking important normative questions. The scientific framework advocated by Layard is just one way in which happiness could influence political decision-making, and is a model that would not foster the democratic space for citizens and politicians to negotiate important political questions such as those outlined above. With the government using quantitative data to pursue top-down, instrumental policies designed to raise happiness levels, politician-citizen relations would be reduced to numerical transactions. The inability to encourage deliberation, and the excessive reliance on quantitative survey scores, should be seen as wrong due to this democratic deficit. Moreover, this lack of contested democratic environment would prevent us from seeing the ways in which happiness is a wholly inappropriate political goal on a number of levels.

We should be wary of two specific roles that happiness could potentially play within politics. The first would see happiness being used as the metric of distributive justice, in shaping our judgements about who should receive which resources and why. I will show that happiness measures do not provide a just basis from which to tackle poverty and disadvantage. The second deals with happiness as an objective good that the government should actively promote because of its inherent worthiness. We should not advocate this role for happiness firstly because there is no version of happiness, whether utilitarian or eudaimonic, that is inherently better than another, and secondly because privileging a certain idea of happiness would be unfair on individuals with different views. However, despite these criticisms, I believe that there is a role that happiness could justifiably play within the political arena. To ensure that individuals can pursue ‘the happy life’ that they wish to (in academic jargon, to be ‘self-determining’), the government could do something to ensure that individuals have a fair opportunity to do this, not undermined by pervasive socioeconomic forces that promote certain ideas of ‘the happy life’ to a much greater extent than others. In today’s predominantly individualistic neoliberal climate, this would mean enabling individuals to pursue collectively-oriented visions of happiness as well as those focused on one’s own pleasures.

Against Happiness as the Metric of Distributive Justice

Happiness could inform political decision-making by providing interpersonal comparisons between individuals to determine who is better and worse-off from the perspective of distributive justice. That is, there could be a concerted effort to raise the happiness levels of those who are shown to be least happy. Layard suggests that his happiness measures could be used in this way, arguing that we should empirically examine who the unhappiest people in society are in an effort to achieve fairness.

The economist Amartya Sen has been prominent in critiquing the notion of happiness as the metric of justice, arguing that all mental characteristics are good at adapting to adverse conditions, whether for reasons of sheer survival or in order to adjust desires to what is seen as feasible. Happiness does not provide an adequate guide for tackling the social ills of deprivation and disadvantage, and determining the degree to which socioeconomic equality should be pursued. If the metric of justice was to be guided primarily by happiness, those who mentally coped best with adverse conditions such as poverty would receive fewer resources than those seen as suffering by happiness survey figures. Those who had adapted to be happy might be ignored, not questioning such treatment because they have never experienced anything else and have no conception of a happy life outside of the social structures that they have been part of. Studies show that women have often been satisfied with having less education than men as that is what they grew up expecting and seeing as right. Should our view of this situation as unjust be altered simply because these women report themselves to be happy? To follow this line would be to side-step oppressive power relations that are unfair and unjust a priori, regardless of their consequences for happiness.

Happiness is also not necessarily the central emotion that we should foster when politically reacting to injustices. Rather than immerse ourselves in as much positive feeling as possible, it is sometimes necessary to engage with negative emotions to bring about social justice. Martha Nussbaum, professor of law and philosophy, argues that ‘painful compassion’ is required to understand the plight of the poor, and progress demands for poverty alleviation. Anger, too, is necessary to fuel political demonstrations and protests. Those interested in social change should not adapt themselves to what is at the expense of thinking critically about what ought to be. So, while happiness is an inadequate guide for working out who should receive which resources as part of distributive justice, a separate criticism is that it is not the central political emotion that should be fostered when doing something about injustices.

Against Happiness as an Objective Good

Even if the metric of justice is decided on other grounds, the government could promote happiness as an objective good. This could operate via the promotion of happiness as an inherently worthy goal in general, or via the promotion of a particular kind of happiness that the government deemed worthy. As I mentioned earlier, happiness is really only at the beginning of its development as a potential political goal. But in what progress there has so far been in the UK, we can see early examples of how a politics of happiness could end up favouring certain ideas of happiness over others. In his 2010 speech on wellbeing, David Cameron weaved in his flagship narrative of the ‘Big Society,’ which included an emphasis on conventional families and marriage. One of the Conservative Party’s first policy moves during the coalition was to introduce a Marriage Tax Allowance. Though this was not primarily justified at the time by its enhancement of wellbeing or happiness, the connection drawn in Cameron’s speech hinted that such justifications could be made.

The promotion of marriage is a highly ideological position. It promotes an idealised family structure centred on notions of tradition and two-parenthood. Crucially, it is an ideological position that relates to notions of ‘the good life.’ The nature of the relationships that individuals engage in is something usually considered to be part of the private realm; something to be directed by individuals themselves rather than the government. For politicians to actively promote one form of family structure over another is to infringe upon this private space, harming the prospect of ‘self-determination,’ and the ability of individuals to choose their own path to ‘the good life.’ Even if there are broad correlations between happiness and marriage, there would be principled reasons for opposing something like a Marriage Tax Allowance. There are two broad objections that could be made in opposition to such a policy. The first is knowledge-based. Can we really know that marriage is a superior form of relationship to other forms? The second, and perhaps more fundamental, is about fairness. Even if a Marriage Tax Allowance would make it easier for a large number of individuals to pursue their idea of ‘the good life,’ is it fair to prioritise their idea of ‘the good life’ over that of other individuals?

I am arguing that individuals should have an equality of opportunity to be self-determining, to direct their own private lives towards ‘the happy life’ they wish to pursue without infringing upon other’s individual right to happiness. A policy like the Marriage Tax Allowance makes it easier for married couples to be self-determining, providing extra money to help ensure a smooth ride through their relationship. And, crucially, such incentives are funded through tax-payer’s money. Those individuals not set upon marriage have funds extracted so that others can better live their ‘good life.’ Such extraction might in turn make it more difficult for those individuals not committed to marriage to pursue their own visions of family life. An equality of opportunity for self-determination clearly does not exist between those committed to marriage and those not. This fairness-based critique of objective notions of happiness does not rely on any knowledge of ‘better’ or ‘worse’ forms of happiness, as does the first critique. The idea of fairness is important in its own right.

Marriage policy offers only one glimpse at how a politics of happiness could end up unfairly advantaging some people’s conception of ‘the happy life’ over others. The government could, for instance, favour a consumerist, pleasure-based vision of happiness through encouragement of big profits, wealth-creation and low taxation. Rampant consumerism does seem to have been a consequence of Margaret Thatcher’s privatisation measures in the UK, for example. Alternatively, the government might prioritise the happiness gained from collective democratic engagement, and discourage overly individualistic consumer pleasures in an effort to achieve this aim. All of these stances on superior forms of happiness, in which the government takes a pre-established position on what kind of happiness it deems valuable and sets out to promote it in society, would be considered wrong by the positions outlined above. Epistemically they lack a solid account of why certain ideas of happiness should be considered objectively superior, and, most fundamentally, they are unfair.

The arguments that I have put forward strike a clear distinction between the public sphere, of which the government is a part, and the private sphere, in which individuals and families should be free to direct their own ideas of happiness. They oppose an overly encroaching government in which notions of ‘the good life’ are dictated from above. Liberty is harmed.

A Politics of Happiness to Enhance Self-Determination 

Rejecting the governmental promotion of certain ideas of happiness might seem to imply that the best course of action would be for the government to let individuals get on with pursuing their own happy lives privately. That way, there would be no danger of certain ideas of happiness becoming dominant through policy, infringing upon the fair opportunity for individuals to decide upon their own ideas of happiness. Politics and happiness should remain separate as far as possible. For something like marriage, it might well be the case that this ‘privatisation’ approach would be best. Individuals seem perfectly capable of deciding for themselves which form of relationship they would like to embark on, and have every right to do so.

There are other realms of happiness in which ‘privatisation’ seems less able to enhance the capacity of individuals to decide for themselves, however. Letting people get on with pursuing their own ideas of happiness without any political involvement whatsoever would not always result in an enhancement of individual agency. That is because the government is not the only force capable of promoting certain ideas of happiness to a greater extent than others. There are many dominant social and economic forces present in society that also do this. I wish to point to some of these, and to show that collective political action is crucial to increasing individual power over these forces, and the kind of happiness that they promote.

A number of authors have recently shown how neoliberalism promotes a particular idea of ‘the happy life,’ including Sam Binkley in Happiness as Enterprise, and William Davies in The Happiness Industry. Binkley writes about the way in which happiness is viewed as something to be achieved through personal endeavour alone, rather than collectively. He signals to the way the market is seen as the model for all social conduct, shaping individuals into profit-maximizing, self-interested actors who view every action as an enterprise. This has led to happiness being transformed into a competitive advantage for individuals in the business world, ensuring better professional relationships with colleagues, and a mindset that allows for greater productivity within the workplace. Optimistic people outsell their opponents by 56%, for instance. Binkley contrasts this risk-centered, individualistic happiness with risk-averse, collectivist visions. Even when less money-oriented visions of happiness are put forward, as has been done by the ‘positive psychology’ movement stressing social harmony, happiness is still presented as something that is to be realised by the individual through their own efforts.

Neoliberalism not only shapes our understandings of happiness in relation to production, but also consumption. William Davies highlights the manipulations of happiness undertaken by the marketing and advertising bosses of big companies. He illustrates the way in which psychological findings on emotions and facial expressions have been used by businesses in their marketing strategies to lure people into buying their products and services. The neoliberal argument would be that these emotions are internal to the consumer’s brain, and therefore constitute one aspect of the sovereign subject who is free to make autonomous decisions in the market. In this sense, the conception of happiness that is explicitly promoted is one of pleasure-fulfilment through consumer purchases in the market. However, if advertisements are responsible for creating new emotional attachments to products, and if, in trying to produce a science of emotions, businesses simply impose their own presuppositions about what feelings mean, and what constitutes rational behavior, then this model of freely-interacting individuals realising internal desires is weakened.

We might think of this neoliberal happiness as a modern-day form of utilitarianism. But while Jeremy Bentham’s original theory of utilitarianism advocated the government as the agent through which pleasures could be maximised and pains minimised, in this case it is advertisements and a more general consumerist culture that encourages our pleasure. And, while Bentham wanted ‘the greatest happiness for the greatest number’, neoliberal happiness is geared more towards the realisation of individual pleasures through consumer purchases. One need not only look at literature focused specifically on happiness to recognise the way in which socioeconomic forces can establish particular visions of ‘the good life.’ In his widely-read 2012 book The Moral Limits of Markets, Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel offers a plethora of examples of the market shifting our value-systems towards cost-benefit calculations and monetary worth. Sandel points to the way that market values have shaped our view of love, strangers, terrorists, education, refugees, and queuing, among other things. And Wendy Brown’s Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution (2015) suggests that ‘neoliberal rationality’ is undermining democracy through its obsession with growth rates, credit ratings and investment climates. She points to the 2010 Citizens United v Federal Election Commission Supreme Court case as an example of this, in which corporations were given the green light to spend as much money as they like on political campaigns.

I have drawn attention to studies of neoliberal happiness not to argue that neoliberal happiness is worse than other visions of happiness. My main point is that socioeconomic forces will promote certain visions of ‘the happy life’ to a greater extent than others, whatever their form, shaping the way in which individuals view happiness privately. One can think of more socially-oriented ideas of happiness being promoted by economic frameworks that involve a larger public sector. Think back to the post-World War Two era in the UK, when the government set out to ensure that people would enjoy a minimum level of welfare ‘from cradle to grave.’ The NHS was created, and government investment in public services flourished. It would false to claim that we have moved straight-forwardly from a collectivist understanding of happiness to an individualistic one with the rise of neoliberalism. The NHS is still a hugely cherished aspect of British society, for instance. But a general shift has evidently taken place. Individualistic notions of happiness seem more dominant under the present framework, if not entirely dominant.

Everyone will have different opinions on the merits of neoliberalism’s individual happiness, and what the balance ought to be between individualism and collectivism as promoted by our socioeconomic structures. My point is more simple and more general. Socioeconomic forces will promote some particular ideas of ‘the happy life’ to a greater extent than others, whatever their form, thus threatening individual self-determination over happiness in a similar way to the government, if it were to promote happiness through policy. While we might reject intrusive government interventions into the private sphere when it comes to happiness, the way in which individual agency is to be enhanced does not seem to be to relegate happiness to the purely private realm, letting individuals get on with their lives but without political avenues. A purely private pursuit of happiness would not provide the framework to understand, critique and potentially modify these forces. A ‘privatisation’ approach would not realise the individual freedom and control that it promises.

Happiness, therefore, seems one area in which the personal is very much political. It is impossible to completely separate private life from public socioeconomic forces. ‘Letting individuals get on with it’ does not necessarily give individuals the best opportunity to ‘get on with it.’ At least some form of collective political discussion seems necessary bring to light the ideas of happiness that have become pervasive in the neoliberal period. Without this, the supposedly private ideas of happiness that individuals are committed to are, at least partly, scripted from above.

Conclusion: What can this Politics of Happiness Hope to Achieve?

Essentially, what I have argued for is a political framework in which happiness is explicitly discussed in relation to socioeconomic forces. Recognising the existing public forces shaping private life would give individuals greater agency over those forces. Collective politics can benefit the personal. But what could this political discussion actually achieve? What do we want it to achieve? Yes, politicians and citizens could talk about the ways certain socioeconomic forces impose particular ideas of happiness, but what substantive policies should result from this deliberation?

If individual self-determination over happiness is our aim, then policy could try to lessen the impositionary impact of socioeconomic forces. That is, we can try to pluralise the sources of happiness present in society, so that individuals have access to many different avenues for realising a ‘happy life.’ They do not have to follow the dominant vision of happiness put forward by the socioeconomic system. American political scientist Robert Putnam conveyed an idea of how this could be achieved in his book Bowling Alone, published in 2000. Though not writing specifically about happiness, Putnam demonstrated that American society was becoming more individualistic and self-interested, with people becoming increasingly isolated and lacking in social capital to achieve collective goals. This chimes with the particular idea of happiness that has pervaded society during the neoliberal period, according to Binkley and Davies. To counter this, Putnam advocates that political, civic and religious organisations be enhanced to strengthen the bonds between individuals. Civic education could play a greater role within schools, for example. These strategies might be ways of pluralising conceptions of happiness in light of pervasive neoliberal notions centered on competitive individualism.

The problem might be that these efforts to increase social capital would still operate within an overarching economic structure promoting neoliberal happiness. These rival, more collective visions of happiness would be ‘fighting against the stream’ of indvidualism. So, is there something that we can do to modify the economic structure itself to make it easier for people to pursue their idea of ‘the happy life,’ free from imposition? Phillipe Van Parijs has argued for a basic income because it would provide the resources for individuals to realise their conception of ‘the good life,’ or ‘real freedom’ as he calls it. The basic income would be an unconditional amount of money paid to all individuals by the state, which they would be free to top up with other money from the state, the market or savings.

As a foundation, it would more securely ensure that individuals could pursue the versions of happiness that they wished to. A basic income would be one way to alleviate the imposition of a neoliberal work-ethic, which sees it as the individual’s sole responsibility to help themselves in an effort to achieve happiness. While focused on the realisation of individual ends, the basic income would be grounded on a greater sense of collectivism in which common resources are distributed to citizens evenly so that this realisation is possible. Rather than being forced to undergo a full working week in order to realise their vision of happiness, individuals would have the opportunity to spend more time caring within the family, participating in sport or music, or whatever else occupied prominence within their life plan. They would not have to ‘fight against the stream’ of neoliberalism’s pervasive force to the same extent. Those who did value a full working week would still be able to carry this out, whether that work was deemed valuable because of the intrinsic enjoyment gained from it, the extra money earnt, or for some other reason. However, the basic income’s central result would be in allowing a wider variety of ideas of happiness to flourish in society, less constrained by a dominant neoliberal vision of happiness.

A basic income is only one potential policy proposal for the enhancement of self-determination over happiness in the context of a socioeconomic framework promoting certain ideas of happiness over others. I put it forward not to argue that it is the single best solution to the problem, or that it is objectively better than other ideas. I simply suggest it as the kind of outcome that democratic discussion on happiness and society could lead to. If we want to enhance self-determination, then pluralisation and variety in ideas of happiness must be our aim, not the domination of a singular conception.

Sam Dalton has an MA in Social Sciences from the University of Chicago, and a BA in Politics, Psychology and Sociology (PPS) from the University of Cambridge. His Master’s research focused on the question of whether happiness should be considered an appropriate political goal, and, if so, what kinds of public policy this might lead to.

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