Why Societies Should Pursue Happiness

Darrin McMahon has offered us a cautionary tale that is worth taking seriously. I think, however, that he’s made one significant error. He thinks he’s cautioning us about the pursuit of happiness. I think he’s cautioning us about the pursuit of pleasure. These pursuits are not the same, and if citizens of affluent modern democracies think they are, that’s what we should be worrying about.

Aristotle tells us that happiness — eudaimonia — comes from human excellences, virtuous character, and virtuous acts. Like John Stuart Mill and George Orwell, quoted by McMahon, Aristotle understands that happiness can only be achieved indirectly. It is the result of a life well lived, and those seduced by pleasure will not live well.

This idea is carried forward in modern social science by Martin Seligman, the founder and prime mover behind the new field that calls itself “positive psychology.” Seligman titled the book that launched the field Authentic Happiness. The word “authentic” is there for a reason — to distinguish happiness from mere pleasure (or, in modern scientific parlance, “positive affect”). And the way you achieve authentic happiness, according to Seligman, is by cultivating “strengths of character” (“strengths” being a value-neutral term for virtues.)

It is hard for me to see much reason for concern over a society that dedicates itself to promoting happiness by cultivating virtuous character and human excellence. It strikes me that this is a vast improvement on the pursuit of increased per capita GDP. Making this point, I think, is Richard Layard’s main objective in his book, Happiness: Lessons from a New Science, which is cited by McMahon as a prime example of the current interest in identifying happiness-promoting policies.

Layard’s argument, in essence, is that one of the things nations do is pursue policies. Given that nations pursue policies, they ought to be pursuing policies that promote the welfare of their citizens. All nations have pretty much taken it for granted that the way to promote the welfare of citizens is by increasing national wealth. If citizens live below subsistence, this goal is a no-brainer. But even if they live above subsistence, it has seemed reasonable to take wealth as a proxy for welfare, because the more wealth citizens have, the better each citizen will be able to pursue welfare as he or she sees it. Vast amounts of blood and treasure have been spent in the pursuit of the policy of national wealth enhancement. If wealth is not an end in itself, but rather a means of promoting welfare, then it would certainly be good to know whether it is achieving this end. Layard says it isn’t. And Avner Offer (in The Challenge of Affluence) and Robert E. Lane (in The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies) go even further, suggesting that increased affluence is in many ways decreasing welfare. Surely, if this claim is true, it is something that states and citizens should know.

Economics, the emperor of the social sciences, takes utility, not wealth, as its ultimate dependent variable. Although utility does not rise in a linear relationship with wealth, the assumption has been that the relation is monotonic, so that more wealth brings more utility. And it has been further assumed that there is nothing other than wealth that could do a better job of enhancing utility, because wealth is a proxy for pretty much everything else that matters in life. It liberates people to pursue whatever it is that they find valuable. So why not just try to increase wealth, especially since we know how to measure wealth and we don’t know how to measure utility?

Utility, like “happiness,” is a subjective entity. It’s a response of human beings to the material and social conditions of their lives. If that’s what we really care about — even those of us who are hard-headed economists – then why not try to measure it? That’s what the new “science of happiness” is mostly about.

Figuring out what does and does not bring happiness, or utility, might vastly improve the ability of national policies to increase welfare. This needn’t mean, by the way, a “single social welfare function,” as McMahon asserts. There is no reason why a state devoted to increasing “Gross National Happiness” can’t enable different citizens to do this in different ways. What it can mean is that state policies can be more effective than they currently are in meeting their ultimate objectives.

Indeed, if Offer and Lane are right, the problem is not simply that wealth enhancement is not the most efficient means to utility enhancement; it may actually decrease utility. That is, the relation between wealth and utility may not only be non-linear, but also non-monotonic. I mention this because my own work, on the problems posed by choice overload (see The Paradox of Choice), suggests that the relation between choice and freedom, and choice and satisfaction, is not only non-linear, but non-monotonic.

This said, why is there such alarm at the idea of national pursuit of happiness rather than national pursuit of wealth? I think the reason is that most people these days equate happiness with pleasure. And if that’s true, then McMahon is correct, and it’s a small step to the brave new world. But then the real question is: Why is it true that most people equate happiness with pleasure? Here’s my hypothesis: What we have nowadays in the developed western world is unbridled individualism coupled with extraordinary materialism. Life is about what you have, not what you do, and it’s about what you have, not what we have. What else can the pursuit of happiness mean to citizens like this except the pursuit of pleasure?

Then the question becomes: Why are we a collection of individualistic materialists? My answer is that it’s a by-product of the success of free-market capitalism. It is the pursuit of wealth, individually and collectively, that has induced us to equate happiness with pleasure. Benjamin Barber makes this point with great force in his new book, Consumed. The problem for modern capitalism, Barber notes, is that these days, “the needy are without income, and the well-heeled are without needs.” The task of modern economic players is to create needs in people who can afford to satisfy them, and doing that turns us into infantilized pleasure-seekers. No one is going to get rich in a society full of seekers of human excellence. Even President Bush seemed to understand this about his citizens when, in the wake of September 11, with an extraordinary opportunity to bring Americans together in the pursuit of some set of national objectives, he told us that the way to do our part in this new struggle is by shopping.

So to conclude, I think McMahon is right that the unbridled pursuit of pleasure is cause for alarm. I think he’s wrong that the pursuit of happiness is equivalent to the pursuit of pleasure. But I think he’s right that for many of us, the pursuit of happiness has become equivalent to the pursuit of pleasure. Our task then, is not so much to criticize efforts to increase happiness. It is instead to make sure that we are trying to increase happiness, “rightly understood.”

Barry Schwartz is a professor of psychology at Swarthmore College and the author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less and The Costs of Living.

Also from This Issue

Lead Essay

  • The Pursuit of Happiness in Perspective by Darrin M. McMahon

    In this month’s lead essay, Darrin McMahon, Ben Weider Associate Professor of History at Florida State University and author of Happiness: A History, puts the contemporary obsession with happiness in historical and philosophical perspective. Tracing our current notion of happiness back to “a dramatic revolution in human expectations” in the seventeenth century, McMahon argues that we have come to see happiness as not only something that is possible in this life, but which ought to be the aim of life. Noting that the recent spate of worried meditations on happiness is a luxury of the already wealthy and secure, McMahon argues against the single-minded focus on happiness as both an individual and social goal. Casting a critical eye on the aspirations of the new “happiness research,” McMahon argues that there may be natural limits to happiness, agrees with John Stuart Mill that “The only chance is to treat, not happiness, but some end external to it, as the purpose of life,” and asks us to heed Aldous Huxley’s warning of a society in which everyone is happy “and yet the world is a nightmare.”

Response Essays

  • The Data Tell a Different Story by Ruut Veenhoven

    Ruut Veenhoven, editor of the Journal of Happiness Studies and director of the World Database of Happiness, argues that happiness levels are not stagnant, as McMahon maintained in his lead essay. Citing the most recent data, Veenhoven observes that levels of average happiness have increased over the past 30 years in the United States and the European Union, while the increase in the expected number of “Happy Life Years” is even more dramatic. “This increase in overall quality of life is unprecedented in human history,” Veenhoven writes. McMahon’s concerns about an overemphasis on happiness are misguided, Veenhoven argues. Far from making us complacent, happiness improves health, creativity, and citizenship. Though Denmark is the happiest country on record, Veenhoven notes that “this does not seem to have damaged the Danes.”

  • The Quest for a Scientific Politics of Happiness by Will Wilkinson

    In his reply to McMahon, Cato Unbound managing editor Will Wilkinson lays out three “enormous problems” for the “quest for a scientific politics of happiness.” First, happiness is just one value among many. Second, no one knows for sure what happiness is. Third, Wilkinson sets up a dilemma. On the one hand, if a scientific politics of happiness is understood as the active management of social welfare by political elites, then it pseudoscience. On the other hand, if it is understood as a science of social coordination, then the specific aim of happiness becomes secondary to the requirements of effective coordination. This “institutionalist” conception of a scientific politics of happiness can overcome the problems of pluralism and definition, Wilkinson argues, but at the price of losing focus on the preeminent value of happiness.

The Conversation