Why Governments Should Stay Out of the Happiness Business

Rather than governments dabbling in the murky waters of the happiness business, we would all be better off if our leaders focused their attention on more objective, less easily exploited measures like democracy, human rights, economic security, and the provision of adequate services.
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Denmark is yet again the happiest country in the world, claims the UN's annual hit- parade of the world's most contented nations, with the rest of Scandinavia in hot pursuit, providing another welcome opportunity for middle-class liberals like me to sink back into our fake mid-century modern sofas and expound on the virtues of the robust welfare state. Unfortunately for us, then, that just two months earlier, another organization released its own set of happiness rankings that placed Colombia in the top spot, with Saudia Arabia coming in at a scarily respectable third place, and not a single European country in the top ten. This list got less press attention, probably because it is harder for journalists to spin drug cartels, political oppression and extreme gender inequality into a recipe for a happy life (and the furniture just doesn't work that well on Pinterest.)

There has been a huge push in recent years to include happiness as an explicit aim of government policy. The UN has decreed the 20th March to be the official "International Day of Happiness," while a global campaign has taken hold to introduce Gross National Happiness as an alternative measure of a nation's progress to GDP. The United Arab Emirates has recently appointed a 'Minister for Happiness and Tolerance' (although the tolerance doesn't appear to stretch to critics of the regime who are still routinely imprisoned and sometimes tortured.) UK Prime Minister David Cameron is a fan, having introduced a UK 'National Happiness Index' at a cost of £2 million, to quantify the nation's contentment levels at a time when virtually every other government service was being cut to the bone.

But the fact that the whole happiness agenda can provide handy PR to unsavory regimes, or deflect attention away from other more pressing matters isn't the only problem with its being a basis for government policymaking. As evidenced by the whole Denmark versus Colombia debacle, one of the main pitfalls with happiness research is that it is staggeringly inconsistent.

With the recent explosion of the field of academic 'positive psychology', like some kind of Brave New World-style parable of joylessness, one estimate suggested that there have been more than 64,000 research studies carried out in the last decade or so into the nature of human happiness and the ways we might go about improving it. But nestled within this number it is possible to find at least one study to back up pretty much any conclusion or agenda that an individual or government might be keen to promote.

There are studies that show that money is of critical importance to happiness and others that show that it is of minimal importance. Several studies can be found to show that right-wing people are happier than left-wing, but also at least one slightly peculiar study showing that when right-wingers smile, their smiles are less 'genuine' than those of their more liberal counterparts. There are studies that show that men are happier than women, and also that women are happier, that both young people and old people are the happiest, and that both working mothers and stay at home mothers have the edge. Depending on their design and methodology there are studies to show that almost any lifestyle or value system is the key to happiness, but so is its exact opposite. As such, happiness studies often reveal more about the agenda or value-system of the people funding and quoting them than the realities of human experience.

As a result, happiness data has been co-opted in service of all kinds of different agendas. Research showing that women have become less happy in the last few decades has been used (somewhat gleefully) by men's rights' activists, to make the case that feminism has been a disaster for women. Studies showing that married people are happier than singles have been used to push conservative family values, similarly those showing that religious people are happier than atheists have been drafted in to boost the case of the religious right.

In the UK, the idea that in a time of austerity, when public services of all types have been stripped back beyond recognition, and in which mental health services have been particularly badly affected, a vociferous narrative of happiness seems bizarrely hypocritical. But David Cameron's professed interest in the topic is not just an odd disconnect between words and action. In reality, the positive psychology movement that Cameron has found so influential is a deeply neo-liberal and rightwing proposition.

Positive psychology is an American import and since its inception, its driving philosophy has been that happiness is the result of individual effort and that our life circumstances are of minimal importance. As the discipline's founding father, Professor Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania, a key influence on David Cameron's own thinking, put it in one interview, "your troubles were brought on by yourself. You are responsible for them." In positive psychology's worldview, there are no actual problems, just "problematic thinking" and no matter whether you live in poverty, sickness, inequality or oppression or you can will yourself happy via positive thinking, optimism exercises and gratitude journaling.

The key financial backer of the academic positive psychology movement, providing funding to most of the major positive psychology research institutions in America, has been the Templeton Foundation, a quasi-religious organization whose long term leader until his death last year was Sir John Templeton Junior, a deeply right-wing billionaire political donor. As well as his multi-million dollar funding of positive psychology research over the years, Templeton also donated millions of dollars to the Republican Party and other right-wing causes, such as small government and anti-gay marriage initiatives.

While the Templeton Foundation itself is ostensibly politically neutral, at least in a party political sense, its cash has consistently gone towards funding research efforts that stress the primacy of individual effort in achieving happiness, with an almost belligerent denial of the importance of life circumstance and social context to wellbeing.

This is clearly an appealing philosophy to an austerity-pushing government like David Cameron's. If happiness is not dependent on peoples' circumstances, but is purely a case of individual effort, why worry if people are struggling?

Rather than governments dabbling in the murky waters of the happiness business, we would all be better off if our leaders focused their attention on more objective, less easily exploited measures like democracy, human rights, economic security, and the provision of adequate services. The proper role of government is not to make us happy but to work to improve the conditions under which happiness can flourish.

Ruth Whippman is the author of The Pursuit of Happiness and Why It's Making Us Anxious (Hutchinson, Penguin, available now) US edition forthcoming from St Martin's Press.

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