Solving Happiness

Here’s a long essay I wrote in the New Inquiry, a US magazine, about how governments are trying to solve the problem of happiness. It begins with a quote from Aldous Huxley’s preface to Brave New World: ‘

The most important Manhattan Projects of the future will be vast government-sponsored enquiries into what the politicians and the participating scientists will call “the problem of happiness.

Here’s another quote from the piece:

The linchpin of liberalism, forged from centuries of violence between Catholics, Protestants and Jews, is the idea that people should be free to pursue their own version of well-being, without interference from the state. As Sir Isaiah Berlin pointed out in his 1958 essay ‘Two Concepts of Liberty,” liberalism assumes that reasonable people may disagree on the definition of the good life.  Seeing as an entire population is unlikely to agree on one comprehensive definition of the good, any attempt by a government to find a “final solution” to the problem of happiness will likely end in coercion, oppression, and even totalitarianism. Governments should therefore confine themselves, Berlin argued, to protecting our negative liberty, our freedom from interference by others, rather than trying to enhance our positive liberty, our spiritual fulfillment, our self-actualisation. This warning sounded wise to policymakers after World War II and the horrors committed by Stalin and Mao on their citizens “for their own good.”

However, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Western governments needed a new mission to fulfill. So, just as Nietzsche predicted, at the end of history, the last men invented happiness. A handful of social scientists and policy makers insisted that the liberal mission was not complete, because although citizens in the west were free, they were not happy. They seized on the “Easterlin Paradox,” a graph that economist Richard Easterlin had plotted in 1974 to show that, while GDP has risen since the 1950s, our national happiness levels (based on how happy we report ourselves to be between one and ten) have stayed flat. This, then, should be governments’ new mission: to lift our happiness.  

The missionaries quickly found new demons to dispel. Western society was suddenly beset by a range of profound social and behavioral epidemics — drug addiction, alcoholism, obesity, depression, anxiety, consumer debt — all of which emerged (according to the technocrats of well-being) from people’s chronic inability to make intelligent life choices. Classical liberalism was based on a flawed model of human nature, in which we were assumed to be rational autonomous sovereign beings. In fact, as the new fields of behavioral economics and neuropsychology showed, we are irrational, unconscious, self-deceiving, dopamine-craving animals whose desires are shaped by our environment and culture.  To complete the liberal project of emancipation, then, we need a final revolution: to be freed from ourselves.

This project takes us well beyond the limits of Berlin’s “negative liberty” and into the dreams of the ancient Greek philosophers, particularly Plato and Aristotle, who both insisted it was the proper function of the state to enhance the well-being or eudemonia —  or meaningful happiness — of their citizens. This final revolution turns policymakers from bland technocrats into something closer to Plato’s exalted law-giver, who combines in their person the physician, the tutor, and the priest. That’s not far from the role envisaged by economist Jeffrey Sachs, one of the prophets of the new politics, who describes his work as “clinical economics,” combining economics with ethics, psychology, politics, health care, and cultural anthropology into a form of total politics designed to heal entire nations.

But the new politics of well-being faces two criticisms. Can a government really teach people to be happier? And what gives governments the right to indoctrinate people in their particular version of happiness in the first place? Policymakers’ answer to both these criticisms is “we have discovered the scientific formula for happiness. It’s been proven to work, therefore we have a moral obligation to teach it to our citizens.”