work in progress in social theory and cultural sociology

Discontented with Happiness

04.12.2011 · Posted in Uncategorized

Today I’ve woken up to the news that the UK branch of the Action for Happiness was launched. What a coincidence – I’ve just finished reading Isaac Asimov’s The End of Eternity, which is a great book – and also a great manifesto against engineering “happiness”.

Mind you – I don’t have anything against the list of things that allegedly make you happy and you therefore should do – basically a list of decent things to do (like “Help someone in need”) – because they are decent. Clearly there’s a flaw here. The BBC’s Mark Easton writes

The movement attempts to counter contemporary cynicism with practicality, offering simple ways to give our own lives and those of our friends and neighbours greater fulfilment and meaning. There is certainly a growing body of science to back up many of the ideas, but that won’t stop many people assuming some ulterior motive.

Happiness itself is an ulterior motive – to help someone else primarily because some scientists have found that it will make you happy is cynical. Intuitively we say that altruistic deeds also have a benefit for ourselves to alleviate some of the burden of gratitute we are placing on the person we’re helping – but that doesn’t mean that this is the legitimate ulterior motive.

Easton quotes Labour peer Professor Richard Layard

He believes the evidence-based principles of the organisation might help deliver the ideals of the Enlightenment, when great British thinkers, including Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart-Mill, were arguing that “the good society is one where there is the most happiness and the least misery”.

That elevates the thing to a level where large scale engineering becomes tempting – and what will happen if someone finds proof that religion increases well-being? Would that constitute a legitimate reason to promote religiosity even if you think religions are based on mis-interpretations of the world? The conjured-up utilitarian Stuart-Mill also famously stated that

It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.

The search for immediate happiness, even one of the great Utilitarians knew, prevents the development of human faculties (which, for Stuart-Mill at least, come with greater fulfilment). And that is the gist of Asimov’s great novel on time travel and social engineering: To aim for the greatest possible level of well being “breeds out the unusual”. On the radio I also heard that people are happier in ethnically homogenous societies. Well, also on the radio, I once heard that immigration is good for winning Nobel prizes and I’m pretty sure that ethnic homogeneity isn’t good for the arts, literature, science…


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