Researchers say we’ve never been happier — so where’s the problem?
According to economist Andrew Leigh only a handful of nations outrank Australian on measures of happiness and life satisfaction. Looking back over survey data collected since the 1940s, Leigh finds that our "our happiness levels have been stable and high" (pdf). You might be forgiven for thinking that this is good news — evidence that we’ve been doing something right here in Australia. But read Saturday’s Sydney Morning Herald, you’ll discover that we are in the midst of a crisis. What’s going on?
According to Adele Horin, "There are many signs that a seam of deep unease runs through prosperous Australia … The insecurity of large mortgages, long work hours, and a cult of busyness is robbing many Australians of happiness." The Herald commissioned, Ipsos Mackay to conduct a national telephone poll and, says Horin, 39% of respondents said that life in Australia was getting worse rather than better.*
So are things really getting worse? As Andrew Norton explains, it’s often difficult to make sense of answers to questions like these. The real test will be whether Australians report being less happy and satisfied next time they’re surveyed. And so far there’s no solid evidence that Australians are any less happy than they have been in the past.
For anti-growth activists like Clive Hamilton, however, it’s the lack of any improvement in happiness scores that shows the failure of the neoliberal project of economic growth and rising consumption. After all, if consumption and growth were the path to happiness we ought to be much happier now than in the recent past. And so far, there’s no solid evidence for that.
But in the end, Hamilton doesn’t place much weight on happiness surveys. His idea of the good society is not one where the quantity of pleasure outweighs the quantity of pain. Instead he argues that happiness "is a desirable by-product of living a fully human life but in itself it is not the aim."
For Hamilton the aim of life is to fulfill your potential. In the same way that that a seed needs the right amounts of nutrients, heat, water and sunlight in order to grow and produce fruit, so too human beings need the right kinds of physical, social and spiritual conditions in order to flourish. Implicit in this idea is the assumption that each of us has an inner nature that we can find and actualise. The trick to living well is to discover our true nature and develop our potential.
Hamilton sees two major opponents to his view — utilitarians who think that "wellbeing is produced by pouring goods and services into a receptacle marked ‘human being’" and libertarians who think that individuals should be free to pursue whatever they desire.
There are two reasons libertarians might believe that individuals ought to be free to make their own life choices. The first is that individuals themselves are the only people who can judge what might bring them happiness or develop their potential. And the second is that freedom is a valuable thing in itself. Many libertarians reject Hamilton’s idea that everyone has a true self that can unfold according to some preordained pattern. For these libertarians, the self is an ongoing project — an individual chooses the kind of person they want to become. This is the real meaning of freedom — taking responsibility for your own life.
Hamilton’s concept of freedom is radically different. As he explains in his 2004 paperThe Disappointment of Liberalism and the Quest for Inner Freedom:
The good life is similar to the Aristotelian idea of eudaemonism. It can be thought of as a life devoted to developing and honing one’s capabilities and thereby fulfilling one’s potential, Aristotle argued that each of us has a daemon, or spirit, and the purpose of life is to discover and live from this inner purpose.
It goes without saying that nobody’s daemon or inner purpose directs them to dominate or harm other human beings. Hamilton has faith that the universe is, by design, fundamentally harmonious. Unrestrained capitalism distorts this natural harmony. As a result, most people’s awareness of their true purpose in life is clouded by the false needs thrown up by advertisers:
In a post-modern world people create their own selves, but they do not create them just as they please: they create them under circumstances and with materials made and transmitted by the ideology of growth fetishism and the marketing machine (p 130).
Where the debate has the potential to become more interesting is where Hamilton’s ideas overlap with those of atypical libertarians like Charles Murray. Like Ayn Rand, Murray is also heavily influenced by Aristotle. In his 1988 bookIn Pursuit of Happiness and Good Government he writes that:
The more we learn about human motivation in the laboratory, the more it seems that Aristotle was saying something true and important about how human beings enjoy themselves (p 137).
Murray argues that human beings have a deep need to develop their potential by mastering difficult tasks. And by overcoming these challenges, people are able to achieve a kind of happiness that goes beyond the pleasure they get from simple consumption.
Some of Murray’s arguments are strikingly similar to Hamilton’s. But where they differ is over the roles of government and the market in achieving the kind of society that allows individuals to fulfill their potential. Murray also thinks that we are in the midst of crisis — but one caused by too much government, not by too much marketing. It seems to me that there’s the potential for an interesting conversation here.
* A smaller percentage said that they thought life was getting better, but it’s not clear exactly how much smaller. The report on page 1 says 25% thought that life was getting better while the report on page 28 says it’s 35%.