Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The pursuit of Happiness

In his Eudomian Ethics, Aristotle believed that (ethical) virtues led to Happiness. But the happiness that Aristotle spoke of was not necessarily the same that we would think of today. Today our view of happiness tends to be hedonic. We want to feel good immediately and tend not to think too far ahead. So we see a night out or a pleasant activity as a route to happiness.

The ancient Greeks had a very different perspective on Happiness. Aristotle spoke about achieving eudaimonia. He thought that the practice of virtues would equate to happiness, in the sense of being all one can be. For him it was the act of living in balance and moderation that brought the highest pleasure. Not in the action itself, but in the way of life. It is this way of life that would lead to the greatest benefit rather than just a passing amusement. A modern illustration would be the difference between earning a high income, but spending it all and living in more moderation and having great wealth that will last you and provide security.

Happiness is also an issue for economics and politics. For utilitarism, a fair society is a happy society. No supreme authority can decide what is good and fair for mankind; utilitarists like Bentham think in terms of states of pleasure or pain that human beings experience in their daily lives. Stuart Mill has broadened the notion of utility to all areas of life, but in substance utilitarism represents individual interests maximizing (their) well being, not collective interest, which is nothing else than the sum of individual interests.

My question is a different one: Is Happiness a right? All human beings are born equal and should have the same rights. The US constitution refers to 'life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness '. Some believe that the famous phrase is based on the writings of English philosopher John Locke , who expressed that "no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions. When Jefferson spoke of pursuing happiness, he had nothing vague or private in mind. He meant a public happiness which is measurable; which is, indeed, the test and justification of any government. But to understand why he considered the pursuit of that happiness an unalienable right, we must look to another aspect of Enlightenment thought - to the science of morality. In fact, as in the philosophy of Locke he meant property.

Gross internal product is traditionally used to measure economic performance but is rarely correlated with happiness. Rich societies are often unhappy as they pursue as their main objective the accumulation of goods and wealth. By essence, happiness is subjective, and it is therefore difficult to compare one person’s happiness with another. It can be especially difficult to compare happiness across cultures: are Buddhists happier than (Christian) Europeans?

Economists sought to determine from what source people derive their well-being. Historically, economists have said that well-being is a simple function of income. However, it has been found that once wealth reaches a subsistence level, its effectiveness as a generator of well-being is greatly diminished. This paradox has been referred to as the Easterlin paradox* : aspirations increase with income; after basic needs are met, relative rather than absolute income levels influence well-being. So income is not the only determinant of happiness. Children tend to decrease parental happiness, at least until they leave for college. Married people are happier, but it is unclear if this is due to the marriage or if already happy people tend to marry(!). Democracy and economic freedom bring more well being to individuals. Fair and free societies are the key to increased happiness, but a deteriorating natural and health environment with higher levels of stress, allergy, asthma, pandemics and so forth will bring those levels down.

The question of happiness in our societies is an ideological one. Many countries are developing a Happiness index since Bhutan did so in 1972 because the King (an economist) was concerned about the consequences of deforestation; the example was recently followed by Thailand after the military coup in 2006 and it now releases on a monthly basis a Gross National Happiness (GNH) index on a 1-10 scale with 10 being the most happy(!).

We tend to embrace some happiness myths quite willingly. We are in fact the product of our genes and our societies. From a societal and ethical point of view, it would be better to focus on economic and social progress and the ability of societies to meet the needs of their citizens. In this regard, the Stiglitz-Sen-Fitoussi Commission's “Report on the measurement of economic performance and social progress concludes that the notion of well being requires a multidimensional approach that includes the material conditions (income, consumption and wealth), health, education, personal activities (including work), participation in political and social life, environment and insecurity (economic and physical) which go beyond the traditional tools of measurement of income.

In fact, Happiness is a different thing !

* http://graphics8.nytimes.com/images/2008/04/16/business/Easterlin1974.pdf
** www.stiglitz-sen-fitoussi.fr/en/index.htm

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