The politics of happiness

Sam Dalton
April 6, 2017

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.


All by
Sam Dalton