Was he free? Was he happy? …

1 Aug

This question is posed by W.H.Auden in his poem ‘The Unknown Citizen’, written in 1940. It’s part of an imaginary epitaph composed by state bureaucrats for an anonymous but exemplary Citizen.      

Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:                                  Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.

The bureaucrats in the UK’s Office for National Statistics think a query of this kind is better addressed to the Citizens themselves, while they are still alive. ‘Overall, how satisfied are you with your life nowadays?’ is one of the questions they ask in their Integrated Household Survey.


I approve of ‘happiness’ questions, and I’m certainly not out to criticise this initiative. But we do need to be aware of the problems associated with answers to life satisfaction queries. When we ask people if they’re satisfied with their lives, they’re inclined to say, ‘Yeah … it’s OK … it could be a lot worse’. Most people tend to believe that their lives are good enough. As the philosopher Daniel M.Haybron points out, (‘Happiness and Its Discontents’, The New York Times, April 13, 2014), even in some desperately poor countries the majority of the population are recorded as being satisfied with their lives. Perhaps this happens because we don’t like admitting, even to ourselves, that we haven’t got everything we want or need. It’s easier just to put up with it; there’s nothing worse than telling yourself you’re miserable and then not being able to do anything about it.  ‘This sounds like resignation, not happiness,’ Haybron comments.

And it’s difficult to draw any comparative conclusions from data garnered in this way. In some cultures they set the aspiration bar very low, while in others it’s ridiculously high. So how ‘satisfied’ you are depends very much on where you are living. Is Bhutan, for example, a happier country than the US?  Most world-wide happiness surveys will tell us that this is the case, but this may not be particularly meaningful. Perhaps people in Bhutan just aren’t aware how much better life could be if their homes had electricity and their food supplies were more assured. People in the U.S., on the other hand, may still be hankering after the American Dream, so don’t record very high satisfaction levels. 

Or maybe the surveys are right, and the secret of happiness really does lie in ‘not wanting very much’?  I think I heard one of the characters in Angels in America (possibly Prior) suggest something very like this while he was in a fit of existential despair.  Perhaps everyone, throughout the world, would benefit from a dose of low expectations? Whatever we think about this, we probably have to agree that the responses to the ‘how satisfied are you?’ question aren’t necessarily going to tell us a great deal about  relative levels of  happiness.

Another problem with the question is that a declaration of life satisfaction is compatible with highly negative emotional states, like depression. I speak as one who knows. When I’m plummeting into the abyss, a query about whether I’m satisfied with my life would be meaningless, to say the least. ‘On the face of it my life is fine,’ I’d have to admit if anyone asked. ‘It’s just that life’s too hard for me.  I’m too rubbish to be satisfied. Mind you, I’m not dissatisfied either. I’m just in hell. Sorry.’  But once I’ve  crawled out of the pit – inch by painful inch – I’d  probably report that my life is actually  rather wonderful.

So for me, it would depend on when you asked the question. On my good days – the majority of my days – I’d say that I’m  highly satisfied. But that doesn’t take away the pain of the thirty-odd days a year when I’d  probably prefer not to exist.

Others might freely admit to having sad and difficult lives, but to being nevertheless highly satisfied. Yes, they find their existence gruelling, yes, they’re overworked and badly paid, but what does that matter? They’re struggling to achieve something that is really worthwhile, and that’s what gives them satisfaction. You needn’t be a depressive to express this view  – in fact, you’re probably not one, since confidence in the validity of what  you’re working on isn’t  generally the hallmark of the depressive.  But people slogging their guts out on back-breaking projects and not minding that their existence is pretty bleak might  well say, yes, they’re gloomy, but yes, they’re also satisfied.

So is there any alternative to asking us about life satisfaction? How about trying to find out how we feel instead?  This is the question which is constantly being put to high achievers by interviewers in the media – how did you feel when you won the Oscar, broke the world record, received the Nobel prize? It’s also one of the further questions addressed to very ordinary people by the Office for National Statistics. ‘How happy did you feel yesterday?’ It concerns itself with our mental or emotional state. In my next blog I’ll be wondering if this is a better way of testing our happiness.


The three senses of happiness. Or is Donald Trump a happy man?

9 Jul

Over the last  twelve months I’ve been using this blog to examine a range of philosophical ideas about happiness. How do we define it? … do we need it? … and is it achievable? I’ve looked at hedonism, desire theories, and objective list theories. At the end of this process I’m inclined to go with the objective list as the best way to describe my own personal pursuit of happiness. But for me what has been far more striking is my growing scepticism about the morality of pursuing happiness in the first place. It seems almost inevitably to foster individualism and self-absorption. 

Donald Trump

I’m still not clear about the overall distinction between happiness and well-being, but I’m reassured to find that at least one person writing for ‘Plato’ – Stanford’s online encyclopedia of philosophy – sees the two terms as being  to a certain extent interchangeable. In one sense, according to the author of  Stanford’s ‘happiness’ entry, the discussion of ‘happiness’ concerns itself with what benefits a person and serves her interests; on this level it has the same meaning as ‘well-being’.

If you describe someone as happy in this sense, then you are making a value judgement (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/happiness/  1.1.1: Two senses of ‘happiness’). Somebody with different values might disagree with you. Donald Trump – my example, not Stanford’s – might seem like a happy man to many people. He’s acquired  a lot of the things which he desires, including wealth and power. But others would certainly raise objections. A man who does so many bad things, they’d argue, can’t possibly be considered happy. Even if you’re convinced that most of what Trump does is good, and this is why he’s a happy man, you’re still expressing a value judgement about what constitutes ‘happiness’.

So ‘happiness’ in this sense denotes a life that, in your opinion, is going well for the person who is leading it. But the term can also be used to describe a state of mind, and here we move into the realm of psychology . If we refer to someone as being happy, what are we saying about his or her mental state?  In my next few entries, I’m going to be looking at this question, courtesy of the ‘Plato’ article.

There’s a third sense in which the word ‘happiness’ is used, and this is probably the one that we encounter most frequently. Happiness is …being with someone you love? a long lazy Sunday? a good cup of coffee?  It could be millions of things. The reason I’ve not written this blog for some time is that I’ve been working on two plays which were performed recently at a local festival. Right now I’m tempted to say that happiness is having completed a big project and feeling that it went pretty well. But how useful is that?

In ‘happiness is …’ statements we’re not talking about the nature of happiness, but about  some of its many possible sources. From a philosophical point of view these statements aren’t very interesting. To raise them to the level of philosophical enquiry you’d have to argue that the acquisition of things that people desire – coffee, Sundays, projects – is what makes people happy. Or you’d have to add  these items to an ‘objective list’ of the things that contribute to happiness. ‘You may not want a scary and demanding project to work on, but I’m here to tell you that it will make you happy in the long run.’  Well, so might a lot of things. Objective lists can’t possibly encompass all the myriad experiences or entities which have been identified over the years as representing the essence of happiness.

So of the three senses of ‘happiness’, I think probably only two  need to be taken seriously.

Say NEJ to positive thinking?

1 Mar


Bucking the current trend for candle-lit cosiness, the Danish psychology professor Svend Brinkmann  has written a book called  Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze, which rubbishes the whole business of  looking on the bright side.  Positive thinking, Brinkmann argues, is a maudlin distraction from the important things in life.  Rather like Oliver Burkeman (this blog, 29 Nov 2016), he maintains that  instead we should  be facing  up to the negative.

Last week, Radio 4’s Today programme pitted Prof Brinkmann against  Anthony Seldon, one of the pioneers of happiness teaching in this country.

These days, we’re not allowed to be unhappy, Brinkmann said. This is nonsense. We need  to understand the negative things in our world,  not cloud them in a sugar-coating of positive thinking. Nietzsche, he told us, maintained that  ‘man does not strive for happiness, only the Englishman does that’. This came as a surprise to me, and to the show’s presenter John Humphreys; but apparently Nietzsche was offering here a critique of the British philosophy of utilitarianism.  (I looked it up later: Nietzsche said this in The Twilight of the Idols). According  to Brinkmann, positive thinking is an ideology which grew out of an individualistic society, and it should  be resisted. People craving self-improvement are bound to fail, and then they will feel worse.

Seldon at first appeared to agree with him. An obsession with the positive can infantilise us and waft us away into la-la land, he said. But true positive psychology, rather than infantilising us, teaches us to cope with the terrible things that we’re almost certain  to encounter in life. He compared the traditional approach to therapy  with a waterfall: generally we wait till someone hits the bottom before we attempt to deal with the problem. By contrast positive psychology is  about prevention – about building the capacity to face adversity.

In the end there wasn’t that much disagreement between these two. Brinkmann  said he wasn’t really worried about positive psychology, but about the people who implement it  – about the coaches, team-leaders etc, who compel us to be upbeat all of the time. The defining mood of our age – if you’re unhappy you’re a loser – does not allow us to focus on the negative aspects of life.

But good positive  psychology, Seldon countered, tells us to embrace the real.

I like and respect Brinkmann’s  enthusiastic acceptance of the negative. But I also find it hard to disagree with Seldon. In the end it probably comes down to emphasis. We need to steer clear of the idea that everything in the world’s garden is simply lovely – it isn’t. To believe that we can think ourselves into being wonderfully fulfilled all of the time is also clearly idiotic. Ditto, the belief that every single person on the planet can be similarly happy and fulfilled, if only he or she tries hard enough.

But at the same time, we do surely have to try to steer people away from the pits of despair  into which it is so easy to fall. Mental health problems are not a joke, and if positive psychology can help some people survive them, I’m not inclined to argue against it. As long, that is, as it doesn’t blind us to all the real suffering that goes on around us, day in, day out. 

The greatest happiness – Harriet Martineau

8 Dec

harriet_martineau_by_richard_evansThe early sociologist Harriet Martineau became a hero of mine a few years ago, when I was writing a play about The Crystal Palace. Since Martineau was a great defender of ‘The People’s Palace’ and its educational potential, I decided to make her a major character in the drama. As a strong and outspoken woman, I found her a delight to work with.

Now I discover that she was also a disciple of Bentham and his philosophy of utilitarianism. For her, as for Bentham, the greatest happiness of the greatest number was a guiding principle in her prescriptions for economic and social reform.

In her work Illustrations of Political Economy, published in 1832, she announces that ‘the ends of life are virtue and happiness’ (vol.2). The promotion of happiness was a duty which should be undertaken by all governments. Want, she says, chills people’s affection for their country, and ‘hardship is fast breeding hatred to the powers which have not hitherto succeeded in securing the happiness of the people’ (vol.4).  

Never a proto-socialist, Martineau’s aim was to popularise the doctrine of laissez-faire capitalism.  ‘Where consumers abound in proportion to capital,’ she writes, ‘it is obvious that the way to bestow most happiness is not to take away one man’s share to give it to another, but to do what is possible towards creating another share in such a way as not to cause more want.’ (vol.9) She was living in an age when increasing industrialisation and the expansion of the British Empire meant that she identified capitalist growth as the cure for poverty at home. She was wrong, in my view – after over 170 years of capitalist growth we are still experiencing the hatred that is generated by government’s abject failure to tackle hardship. But I do admire the way in which Martineau places ‘the greatest happiness’ firmly at the centre of her political programme. 

Martineau ends Illustrations of Political Economy with these words: 

The last and best principle which has been professed, if not acted upon, by our rulers, because insisted on by our nation, is “the greatest happiness of the greatest number.” Was there ever a time before when a principle so expanding and so enduring as this was professed by rulers, because insisted on by the ruled? While this fact is before our eyes, and this profession making music to our ears, we can have no fears of society standing still, though there be brute tyranny in Russia, and barbarian folly in China, and the worst form of slavery at New Orleans, and a tremendous pauper population at the doors of our own homes. The genius of society has before transmigrated through forms as horrid and disgusting as these. The prophecy which each has been made to give out has been fulfilled: therefore shall the heaven-born spirit be trusted while revealing and announcing at once the means and the end —



Abandon hope

29 Nov

oliver-burkeman I’m pleased to learn that journalist Oliver Burkeman shares my sceptical attitude to hope. Last week on Radio 4, in a series on the power of negative thinking, he pointed out that relentless optimism can be quite dangerous. If you’re a safety supervisor on an oil rig, for example, just hoping that everything will be OK would be really stupid. Rather, you have to plan for disaster. If the worst case scenario actually happens, then you’ll be far better equipped to deal with it.  

Hoping for the best can be a sloppy approach on quite a few levels of existence. It doesn’t work all that well in your personal life, and it certainly doesn’t work  if you’re trying to tackle major global problems. Climate disaster isn’t going to be averted if we think, ‘Oh, it probably won’t happen.’  Hope robs us of our agency – our will and power to change things. Don’t shrug and hope for the best – do everything you can to halt it. 

Burkeman ended his programme with a quote from the Roman philosopher Seneca, my favourite constructive pessimist. ‘Cease to hope,’ Seneca wrote, ‘and you will cease to fear.’ (Moral Letters 5)

Objective lists

20 Oct

listAccording to ‘objective list’  theorists, if we itemise the things which contribute to our well-being, we will often find that not all the entries on the list relate to pleasurable experiences or desire-satisfaction.  So neither hedonism nor desire theories work all that well as an account of  the ingredients of individual well-being.

There are problems with lists, of course – particularly with the stipulation ‘objective’. In the words of the contributor to Stanford’s ‘Plato’ entry, how do we decide what should  go on the list?  “It is important that every good should be included.” (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/well-being/#ObjLisThe).  This often seems to come down to a question of who decides what goes on the list.

Most of us can probably come up with some reasonable suggestions. A year ago I heard  Professor Andrew Oswald present a convincing check-list of factors which we need to be aware of in any quest for well-being. These include items such as employment, exercise, and friendship (see this blog, 4 October 2015). Exercise may provide a good example of what objective list theorists are talking about. Some people hate it – they neither enjoy it nor want it. But somebody is telling them that they need it if they’re going to achieve well-being.

Hedonists may protest at this point that objective list theories are elitist. The theories are claiming that certain things are good for people even when those people don’t want them, and don’t derive pleasure from them. We might get round this by arguing that deep down people do enjoy what’s good for them. I don’t really like spinach, for example, but I do enjoy the sensation that I’m eating something that will make me healthy.  So I sort of enjoy eating spinach. In my head I enjoy it.

Another response to the elitist objection is to bite the bullet, and point out that a theory can be both elitist and true.

Even so, objective list theories aren’t necessarily authoritarian. Somebody could have a highly elitist view of what constitutes well-being, while maintaining the liberal view that it’s up to the individual to decide whether he or she wants to engage with it. No nanny state here then, just a set of ideas about what’s good for us, take it or leave it. Nobody’s forcing me to eat spinach, are they? This may be seen as the position adopted by John Stuart Mill.

While desire theories tell us that what we want is what is good for us, objective list theories tell us that what is good for us is what we want. According to Stanford’s ‘Plato’, “what is most at stake (in objective list theories) is the issue of the epistemic adequacy of our beliefs about well-being”. In other words, how do we know what is good for us?  Do we trust others to tell us?

Desire and the grass-counter

12 Oct

Pleasure and pain exist in the minds of the people who experience them, and are hard to measure. So economists interested in social welfare – who in the last ten years or so have been among the most prominent happiness theorists – have begun to link well-being with the satisfaction of desires, rather than sensations of pleasure. And since present desires are often transitory, and may evaporate quite quickly, comprehensive desires are the ones that theorists tend to concentrate on. What’s important for a person’s well-being, they argue, is the overall level of desire-satisfaction achieved in his or her life as a whole.

In thinking about desire and well-being, it’s necessary to circumvent the hypothetical situation where a drug addict can get hold of the substance he or she craves, very easily and at no expense, for a whole lifetime. Drug addicts generally aren’t happy, even when their desires are satisfied. So we probably shouldn’t measure well-being through straightforward desire-satisfaction. Rather, it’s suggested, we need to give desires a ranking, so that the more long-term desires – ones that encompass the shape and content of one’s life as a whole – are given priority.

So what about the people whose desires are very limited, because they have very little knowledge of what’s on offer in the world at large?  Like John Stuart Mill’s pig, they may be satisfied with very little. This prompts an informed desire version of the comprehensive desire theory: the best life is the one which we would desire if we were fully inforgrassmed about all the possibilities.

The American philosopher John Rawls has come up with an objection to this, which we can term the grass-counter example. Imagine that a brilliant Harvard mathematician, fully informed about all the options available to her, develops an overwhelming desire to count the blades of grass on the well-trimmed lawns of Harvard. Is a life of grass-counting really the best thing for her, even though it’s what she wants? (Theory of Justice, p. 432).

Rawls himself is inclined to conclude that such lives can be good for the people who are living them. But we can see what the problem is. Hence we come to objective list theories. These lists may include stuff that people neither want nor enjoy, but which even so may contribute to their well-being …