Happiness is a serious business

Happiness is a serious business

Happiness is a serious business


The Spectator

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Lady Diana Cooper used to relate that, at a dinner she gave in the British embassy in Paris, not long after the war Madame de Gaulle was asked what she was looking forward to now her husband had left office. To the consternation of the table she replied, “A penis.” Whereupon the General spoke: “No, my dear, you are mispronouncing the word. You mean ‘appiness’.” Yes, but what did the lady really mean? What does anyone mean by happiness?

It is the most subjective of all emotional states. As Kant said in his Ethics, “Happiness is not an ideal of reason but of imagination.” Nevertheless, public-spirited people, wishing to “do good,” are always subjecting it to rational analysis, so as to devise government policies to maximize it.

As long ago as 1725 the Scottish philosopher Francis Hutcheson coined the maxim “That action is best, which procures the greatest happiness for the greatest numbers.” The idea was taken over, without acknowledgment, by Jeremy Bentham, as the ‘sacred truth” of his new political theory, utilitarianism: “The greatest happiness of the greatest number is the foundation of morals and legislation.”

He defined happiness, essentially, as the experience of pleasure accompanied by the absence of pain. His approach was crudely quantitative and unsubtle. It was left to John Stuart Mill in Utilitarianism to differentiate between pleasure and happiness.

Nonetheless, Bentham was not a fool. He argued that the best way to promote happiness was to synthesize utilitarianism with the free-market system advocated in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, to produce an adumbration of the welfare state, with guaranteed employment, free education and sickness benefits.

Welfare societies have now been created in the West in various forms and have not brought the degree of happiness Bentham and Mill – or, for that matter, Bismarck, Lloyd George, or other promoters of welfarism – expected. This in turn has whetted academic appetites, or as Kingsley Amis put it, the itch to pursue “pseudo-research into non-problems.”

The question “Why has not increasing GNP produced increasing happiness?” is a perfect example of such a problem, since no wise person ever assumed it would. But there are too many universities and far too many profs with too little serious work to do, so the science of happiness has sprung up as an “academic discipline” in the West, especially in America.

The best introduction to this new sophistry is by Professor Richard Layard, Happiness: Lessons from a New Science, published by Penguin in 2005. He operates from London University, the early progeny of utilitarianism, where Bentham’s embalmed body still sits in its glass case.

The consensus of the science seems to be that the failure of welfarism to bring happiness springs from the fact that there is not enough of it; the closer you get to the ideal welfare state, promoted by steeply progressive income tax, as in Scandinavia, the more likely joy will be unbounding. As with Bentham himself, the Neo-Utilities, as they are called, believe in quantification: The more research workers are drafted to a subject, the more likely it is that the ‘sacred truth” will emerge.

The notion that progressive taxation promotes general happiness was recently criticized in the Financial Times, which provoked a response from Andrew Oswald, professor of economics at Warwick University. He insisted that those working on happiness projects had “enough PhD certificates to wallpaper every floor of the FT’s London headquarters.”

And it is true that degrees, especially if embossed on posh parchment with colourful seals, make a striking contribution to interior decoration. A.J. Ayer began the fashion by using his honorary degrees to paper the front hall of his London house, and it is rumoured that the late British politician Roy Jenkins, who boasted he had been awarded more such degrees than anyone else, including the “Double Double” (Yale and Harvard, Oxford and Cambridge), adorned an entire residence with such diplomas.

I daresay you can recognize a happiness faculty in academia by the number of PhD certificates being waved from its windows. Oswald graciously admits that sheer quantity “does not mean the science is correct.” As he puts it, with that delightful turn of phrase that so endears economists to us, “Academics often wander down paths which turn out to be muddle-headed.” And he concedes that “the happiness literature” has not yet “proved the case for progressive taxation.”

It is probably correct that if you could eliminate poverty you would have a big quantitative impact on the amount of unhappiness in the world. Dr Johnson, in a letter to Boswell of 1782, agreed: “Poverty is a great enemy of human happiness; it certainly destroys liberty, and it makes some virtues impracticable and others extremely difficult.”

But he had also argued, in 1766, that it was absurd to think “a peasant and a philosopher” could be equally happy, since “happiness consists in the multiplicity of agreeable consciousness.” Very true: variety is a key element in content. But then, so are many other things. Keats insisted immediacy was essential. Writing three years before his tragic but not wholly unhappy death, he taught,

It is a flaw

In happiness to see beyond our bourn —

It forces us in summer skies to mourn

It spoils the singing of the nightingale.

Robert Frost agreed with this, even entitling a poem Happiness Makes Up in Height What it Lacks in Length. It is a point made by Charles Lamb in his essay Old China, that slight means, and their skilful use, might be a source of happiness, and he is echoed by G.K. Chesterton, who said, “I dream of when we were angry and poor and happy.”

I, too, sometimes find happiness in righteous anger. We do not have to go as far as Shaw, who wrote in Man and Superman that “a lifetime of happiness” would be “hell on earth.” But it’s clear to some of us anyway that the pursuit of happiness is unlikely to get you there.

When I was an editor, one of my staff told me he wanted to resign as “I’m not very happy.”

“Happy?” I roared. “You are not here to be happy. You are here to do your duty.” He scuttled off, terrified, but resigned all the same. I suppose the attempt to perform one’s duties, conscientiously and warmly, is an essential step towards achieving peace of mind, which, in my experience, is the best definition of happiness.

Certainly the spiritual dimension cannot be left out. St. Thomas Aquinas thought that “the very seeing of God,” defined by him as “an act of the intellect,” was ‘substantially and basically our happiness.” And that is the message of St. John of the Cross’s wonderful little book The Dark Night of the Soul, which is probably a better guide than a PhD in Happiness Science. For it’s all very well sitting for degrees in the subject, but what if you fail?

Then you realize, in the words of old Dr. Whately, the famous Anglican archbishop of Dublin, “Happiness is no laughing matter.”

Indeed no. As I wander down the muddle-headed path of life, I tend to agree with Evelyn Waugh’s last sentence in his book Labels, written in misery when his first marriage collapsed in humiliation: “Fortune is the least capricious of deities, and arranges things on the just and rigid system that no one shall be very happy for very long.”

Paul Johnson is a London journalist and historian.

ê_Ô© The Gazette (Montreal) 2007