Index of Wellbeing: Our duty to be perpetually happy

The Indepedent, 27th July 2012

The government has recently published the Index of Wellbeing, or rather the ‘happiness index’. It was an attempt to measure the general happiness of the population and tailoring government policies to promote ‘well being’ and ‘happiness’. According to Professor Richard Layard, director of the Wellbeing programme at the LSE, this new index is a great step towards creating ‘policy-making with wellbeing as a priority’. In other words, we all have a ‘duty to be happy’, and the government will enact policies to ensure this duty is realized.

This whole idea is part of what French philosopher Pascal Bruckner has called the ‘Cult of Happiness’. It is now imperative that all are happy. Happiness is the optimal constant state of mind all should, and are, expect to reach. As no-one in most of the Western world struggles to ensure the bare minimum of survival, or must flee murderous tyranny and persecution, being happy is now what we must strive for.

As Bruckner explains in his principle work on the Cult of Happiness, Perpetual Euphoria: On The Duty to Be Happy, the idea that everyone must be in a constant state of happiness is a rather new one. With the final overthrow of Christian values by th 1968 generation, of which Bruckner was part of, a new moral order, one which said everyone must be happy, replaced it. This traditional Christian idea of was that happiness could only be achieved by salvation in the afterlife, while pursuit of earthly happiness was sinful. The Communist attitude, of self-sacrifice now, through manual labour in hope of the brighter red future of happiness is also gone.

That is not to endorse either Christian or Communist attitudes towards happiness, nor condemn the idea that people can be happy on earth in the here and now. What is problematic is the idea that everyone has some sort of duty to be happy or should be happy. For the thinkers of the Enlightenment, while placing happiness on earth as a central part of their thinking, they did not think of happiness as some sort of perpetual state that everyone should always be in, as the Happiness Index and its supporters do. The Enlightenments views toward happiness is summed up by the US Constitutions guarantee of its citizens right for the ‘pursuit of happiness’, as happiness is a subjective experience people can only make for themselves.

The problem with expecting everyone to be happy, and to try to subscribe policy to ensure this, is that happiness is a pretty vague term objectively. Happiness is a momentary state, not a permanent one. Someone will be happy one day and unhappy the next. The only way to ensure perpetual happiness would be for the constant consumption of brain altering drugs. As Pascal Bruckner puts it, ‘We are not the masters of the sources of happiness; they ever elude the appointments we make with them, springing up when we least expect them and fleeing when we would hold them close… We have the power to avoid or to heal certain evils, yes, but we cannot order happiness as if it were a meal in a restaurant’.

Happiness is a different subjective experience for each individual. According to the new Happiness Index, people on the islands of Orkney and Shetland are 1.1 measurement units happier than those who live in Thurrock. But what exactly does this unit of 1.1 happiness mean? Is it really possible or make any sense to say that those from one region are this specific unit less happy than those from another? Emotions are not measured in mathematical units. Such a subjective matter as happiness is impossible to quantify into numbers while being allowed to remain meaningful.

The overthrowing the old values of earthly suffering in wait of a future happiness was certainly a good thing, as it allows for people to be placed at the center of the world and recognises man’s ability to shape his own future and pursuing his own happiness. However, the new duty to be happy, with the misguided happiness index does not do this. It takes a view of happiness as some sort of constant state of mind and measurable unit, while it is a temporary feeling that is entirely subjective. It also assumes some sort of proactive government policy can make people happier. What is needed is for the government to step back out of such issues. Through liberty people can decide for themselves if they are happy and decide how best to shape their own life to make themselves happy.


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