Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Happiness is a warm league table

Via Mind Hacks, Slate has a quick article on happiness and economics. The move towards "positive psychology" and new evidence to counter the tradiitonal economic idea that choice = happiness (yadda yadda) are apparently getting some influence in government circles.

Except, of course, this is crap. For many reasons.

1. Governments, well, the UK one at least, equates happiness with having things. Or, rather, getting things, which is different as it's a process, rather than a state. But here's the paradox, the vicious circle: progress then gets fed off unhappiness. 'Happiness', as defined, depends on more things. More things depends on people wanting to be 'happy' (note the magician's sleight of hand trick there), which means the entire system gets defined in terms of non-happiness. See previous ranting, elsewhere for arguments/discussion.

2. The question 'are you happy?', apart from being rather subjective (dependent on how you experience and remember life) and according to what just happened, is rather like asking 'are you asleep?' You are, if you are happy, generally quite unlikely to think about the question, or think to yourself 'OMG I'm so Happy yay'. This is because happiness, even defined as a calm sense of comfort and satisfaction, is a state of being. When you're scared, you don't (without training) ask yourself "am I scared?" - you're too busy being scared, and acting/reacting accordingly. The same thing is true of happiness - why bother to ask the question if you're feeling too good?

This, I suspect, leads to a very dangerous operation in terms of measuring happiness. When the UK government not only wants people to be 'happy', but also a) determines what happiness is, and b) determines how to measure it, for their "happiness league table" purposes, they are thereby killing the whole "definition", the whole meaning behind happiness. (This is in much the same way that they try to measure "intelligence" by giving tests, producing individuals that are good at, uh, passing tests, but not necessarily thinking.)

Alas, with our rationalist, measure-happy way of doing everything these days (happiness through drugs is still the easiest way to gauge things), expect more floundering and scratching of heads over something that is, in reality the simplest thing we can possibly do.

No comments: