The happiness crisis

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%.

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Nicholas Gruen
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Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
15 years ago

Thx for a great post Don.

I’d sign up as an Aristotelian in the sense you outline. Then again, Hamilton quotes Hayek too on akrasia. Hayek and Hamilton preach strength of character (and ‘inner freedom’) in achieving life’s goals, though it seems to me there’s a fair bit of a contradiction there in Hamilton’s idea that the government ought to regulate to give us more of a chance to develop inner freedom!

But the contrast between the libertarian idea that the human is always a work in progress and the Aristotelian idea which I guess you’re saying is teleological seems a bit misleading to me. I like the analogy of a human life unfolding like the telos of the seed of a plant, but I don’t take it quite that literally.

I wasn’t born to be a Club Troppo blogger. It just happened. There’s clearly an openness of texture about a life that means I’m quite happy thinking in terms of the Aristotelian metaphors and yet also thinking that life is always being made up and is a work in progress. I’d be surprised if Aristotle thought differently, but then I’m no Aristotelian scholar.

Don Arthur
Don Arthur
15 years ago

Nicholas – Yes, Hamilton does quote Hayek on the idea of ‘inner’ of ‘metaphysical’ freedom (as oposed to freedom as the absence of coercion). (And for anyone who’s interested in what we’re talking about, it’s on pages 15-16 of Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty.)

Hamilton wants to trade freedom as absence of coercion for an environment he thinks will be more favourable for ‘inner’ freedom. I’m not sure if there’s a contradiction here.

I worry about arguments that rely on things having essential natures that unfold over time. For example, Plato’s argument that the objective of democracy is liberty ends up with the conclusion that democracy leads to tyranny. Leo Strauss might have been convinced but I’m not so sure.

Jason Soon
Jason Soon
15 years ago

and what’s so great about unfolding your essential nature? Who draws the arbitrary line between what is your essential nature and inputs into that nature that modify it over time including the cultural milieu and technological influences including those that change and improve our cognitive capacities in certain ways?

Link
15 years ago

Jesus Jason, what an opening sentence. There’s nothing great at all about the unfolding of your essential nature especially when you can’t find it. You can live your life on the most superficial plane, completely disregarding your inner life and possibly even trying to deny its existance. But what exactly are your thoughts? Other than the products of your essential nature informed by what you’ve taken in from the outside world.

In our society, you can also get to appear successful and happy as you blithely maintain this folly, ie no inner life/no worries, in the face of your own deep unhappiness and anxiety.

As the moon retaineth her nature, though darkness spread itself before her face as a curtain, so the Soul remaineth perfect even in the bosom of the fool. ~Akhenaton.

Jason Soon
Jason Soon
15 years ago

You are the product of your genes and environment. Just about the only sense I can make of this ‘essential’ distinction is that your genes are truly yours. So what is this religious claptrap ‘unfolding your essential nature’ about? Does it mean reducing or eliminating altogether the environmental component of your feedback-response mechanisms that cull and hone your neural machinery and help form your current ‘self’? This environment by definition has to include your social and cultural milieu. And it includes the various acts of persuasion called advertising
but more broadly the various acts of persuasion in the business of getting on with life which in reality we cannot throw a clear line between and the acts of persuasion which people like Hamilton tend to privilege i.e. incoherent burblings from metaphysicians.

How far should we take this? Should I burn all my books and disconnect my Internet (which by stimulating my mind has probably helped increase my cognitive capacities in various ways), live as a hermit, stomp on my glasses? Should we undo all current medical advances to ‘unfold’ this essential genetically determined self?

Or does it mean only perhaps preserving the past environmental influences and drawing a line between those and current ones? Why?

Metaphysical balderdash and religious claptrap.

Purge the last vestiges of theism from your system or find yourself a good philosophical emetic, Link … and Clive Hamilton.

Jason Soon
Jason Soon
15 years ago

hmm, my previous comment was meant to be a reply to Link – don’t know how it appears above Link’s comment. did I just fall through a wormhole?;-)

Nicholas Gruen
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Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
15 years ago

Well, this is a complete mystery to me. I don’t know where Link’s first comment is – but Jason obviously saw it and responded to it. Now it’s gone and I can’t find it in the system. Perhaps Don can enlighten us.

Jason Soon
Jason Soon
15 years ago

Nicholas,
Link’s comment is there. It’s the one that was written at 938 am but both my comments referring to his/hers are above, timestamped at 926 and 927 am.

Tony.T
15 years ago

“The path to true happiness lies not in happiness surveys.”

Nicholas Gruen
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Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
15 years ago

Well readers will be really confused by all our chat Jason, but I’ve now set Link’s comment where it goes chronologically – between your first and second comments.

Andrew Leigh
15 years ago

I think it’s quite reasonable to expect that our level of wellbeing should increase over time. In that sense, Hamilton & Horin are right. The question is whether our rank on happiness questions is a good measure of wellbeing. One problem is the habituation effect (we rapidly get used to better medicines, lower infant mortality, indoor toilets, etc, and they don’t make us happier). The other problem is that unlike income, happiness is bounded (you can’t go higher than 10/10).

derrida derider
derrida derider
15 years ago

Hmmm. My views are well to the left of Jason’s (I suppose I’m sort of a bastard utlitarian), but I absolutely agree with his suspicion of “essential nature”, “spirit”, etc. They rank right up there with “culture” as revolver-inducing words. It is indeed untestable quasi-religious bulldust, that can be (and historically has been) turned into an argument for almost any course of action. Hume definitely has his limitations but his demolition of Platonic essentialism remains spot on.

And BTW I don’t think that hack Murray can reasonably be described as any sort of a libertarian, atypical or otherwise.

MikeM
MikeM
15 years ago

In a feature in The New York Times Magazine, “The Futile Pursuit of Happiness” in 2003, Jon Gertner wrote

If Daniel Gilbert is right, then you are wrong. That is to say, if Daniel Gilbert is right, then you are wrong to believe that a new car will make you as happy as you imagine. You are wrong to believe that a new kitchen will make you happy for as long as you imagine. You are wrong to think that you will be more unhappy with a big single setback (a broken wrist, a broken heart) than with a lesser chronic one (a trick knee, a tense marriage). You are wrong to assume that job failure will be crushing. You are wrong to expect that a death in the family will leave you bereft for year upon year, forever and ever. You are even wrong to reckon that a cheeseburger you order in a restaurant — this week, next week, a year from now, it doesn’t really matter when — will definitely hit the spot. That’s because when it comes to predicting exactly how you will feel in the future, you are most likely wrong…

Gilbert, a professor of psychology at Harvard, has been studying the gap between how people expect they are going to feel about some future event, and how they end up actually feeling:

Gilbert and his collaborator Tim Wilson call the gap between what we predict and what we ultimately experience the ”impact bias” — ”impact” meaning the errors we make in estimating both the intensity and duration of our emotions and ”bias” our tendency to err. The phrase characterizes how we experience the dimming excitement over not just a BMW but also over any object or event that we presume will make us happy. Would a 20 percent raise or winning the lottery result in a contented life? You may predict it will, but almost surely it won’t turn out that way. And a new plasma television? You may have high hopes, but the impact bias suggests that it will almost certainly be less cool, and in a shorter time, than you imagine. Worse, Gilbert has noted that these mistakes of expectation can lead directly to mistakes in choosing what we think will give us pleasure. He calls this ”miswanting.”

It is inevitable that the more affluent life becomes, and the more good things there are that we can want and subsequently acquire, the more disappointed we will be.

Once income reaches a point where we are adequately housed and fed, all the rest offers potential for disappointment.

The converse can also be true. According to results released by the World Values Survey in 2003, Nigeria was the country with the highest percentage of happy people, followed by Mexico, Venezuela and El Salvador.

The archetypal Gilbertian personality is Eeyore in A.A.Milne’s Christopher Robin books. He is consistently disappointed by life, but somehow manages to weather small catastrophes, as happened on his birthday

Chris Lloyd
Chris Lloyd
15 years ago

“It is inevitable that the more affluent life becomes, and the more good things there are that we can want and subsequently acquire, the more disappointed we will be.” If happiness equals affluence and consumption then that would be true.

Link
15 years ago

“Does it mean reducing or eliminating altogether the environmental component of your feedback-response mechanisms that cull and hone your neural machinery and help form your current ‘self’? This environment by definition has to include your social and cultural milieu.”

Caw blimey Jase, what a bloomy mouthful! I think you’re saying something simple but in such an utterly complicated, obfusucatory way. Perhaps to dazzle us with the brilliance of your mind?

There can be no doubt Jason, you are very intelligent and don’t need to prove it by saying simple things in a complicated way. (Commonly known of as being a wanker). Academe is full of them, but I guess everyone here fully realises that, so no need to remind everyone.

Life is not only about having intelligence. One day you may learn that you have emotions too and that these are actually far more powerful than your mere thoughts. Your emotions will confound you intellectually every time. Get used to them, get to know them and then you might be closer to conceding that you possibly have a soul. You cannot rely solely on your mind to get you through, else you live in fear and loathing of the more powerful aspect of your being. Living in your head alone will lead only to your abnormal development incompleteness, horrible unhappiness and you may have to hang yourself. Are you having any problems with your neck?

I cannot find the religious claptrap in my previous comment, would you be so kind as to point it out to me?

Jen
Jen
15 years ago

….or on the other hand you can lay off the thoughts and just let your emotions strangle you or you could have your intellect and emotions band together so they can suffocate you
– that’s is why we have anti-depressants, to help us breathe and they’re also doing great things to expand the happiness sector of the pharmeceutical industry.

Jason Soon
Jason Soon
15 years ago

actually Link, I was being very concise. In just a few sentences I was describing the (philosophical) naturalist theory of the self and simultaneously pointing out why the line that Hamilton attempts to draw is arbitrary.

Gary Sauer-Thompson
15 years ago

Jason,
how you get ‘metaphysical balderdash and religious claptrap’ out of Aristotle puzzles me.It sounds so much like a positivist swearing to me.

Aristotle’s conception of ‘happiness’ (a utilitarian category) is the good life which can be interpreted as a flourishing life well lived. That is an objective conception—what is good for the organism— and not the subjective one of the utilitarians—happiness according to my individual preferences or desires.

Aristotle operates with an organic conception of human nature—as distinct from the mechanistic conception of the utilitarians—and he holds that human beings are self-organizing and so are different from watches.

The talk about essences in Aristotle refers to what makes a thing or entity what it is as distinct from some other thing. So some hold that blond hair or a penis is not a what characterises the difference between a human being and stone. It is more likely to be rationality or language use.

Aristotle was reworked by Hegel and Marx in terms of essences and appearnces in that a thing can appear to be ‘x’ but is actually ‘z’ —(eg.,a market society appears to a collection of free individuals acting in terms of self interest but is essentially structured by power relations) whilst holding to the objectivity of appearances.(They are just as real as the power relations). Platonism (appearances are illusions) has been dumped.

It is interesting the way that Jason swears away about metaphysicians when he is doing metaphysics himself—eg., “the environmental component of your feedback-response mechanisms that cull and hone your neural machinery and help form your current ‘self’?” Aristotle (and Hegel & Marx for that matter) –would have understood such Jason talk as metaphysics, which is understood to the basic categories that we deploy in science, religion, commonsense etc —in this case we are being offered an account of the metaphysics of neo-classical economics.

The upshot of this is that Hamilton’s talk about a true self and spirit is a distorted interpretation of Aristotle.

Nicholas Gruen
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Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
15 years ago

As various philosophers have pointed out, the world is divided into those who do metaphysics by design (or at least try to) and those who do it by default. There are strong signs that Jason is in the latter category.

Gary Sauer-Thompson
15 years ago

To help the conversation along I made two posts on philosophical conversations on Hamilton and
ideology re the false needs and one on the split subject

Jason Soon
Jason Soon
15 years ago

“the environmental component of your feedback-response mechanisms that cull and hone your neural machinery and help form your current ‘self'”

is not neoclassical economics. it’s just a rough paraphasal of what neuroscience tells us about this elusive ‘self’ and ‘consciousness’. Call it metaphysics if you wish.

I notice that none of you have still not addressed my points – what is it that is so great about this arbitrary cutoff point between the genetically determined ‘self’ plus the bits that were moulded by past environmental influences which you all approve of versus the ‘evil’ bits from the current environment which you all want to excise? Who makes the call? On what basis? My view? We can’t draw a clear distinction. Of course our culture and social environment and material environment influences our self and vice versa. Of course our cultural and social environments are just composed of other selves whose bundles of nerves fire in almost exactly the same way as each other and spin webs of meanings which change the way other brains fire and so on. And So what of it? The notion of some wise entity transcending all this is just disguised theism.

And Gary, ‘self organisation’ is also found in the economy and the climate and our ecosystems and in rock formations. that doesn’t breathe a divine essence into any of these. Your distinction between the ‘organic’ and the ‘mechanistic’ is long outdated. Inanimate objects can also be ‘organic’ in the sense you use the term. I’m aware of the Aristotelian heritage. So what? 99% of philosophy has been rendered useless by Darwin thereon.

Jason Soon
Jason Soon
15 years ago

Hey where is Don anyway? I want to hear what he thinks about all the topics raised on this thread.

Don Arthur
Don Arthur
15 years ago

Where’s Don? He’s busy writing a new post about this very topic.

Gary Sauer-Thompson
15 years ago

Jason,
a deregulated market may be self-organizing but it does not have goals. Human beings do. They organize their conduct to achieve these goals. A libertarian cannot say that about markets because markets do not exist per se –they can only be collections of individuals acting on their self-interest (genetically determined).

So silly old Aristotle, who has been rendered useless by Darwin, has some staying power in these neo-liberal times. A distinction can be drawn between rock formations and organic individuals. There is no need to talk about divine essence.So stop indulging in inventions.

Jason Soon
Jason Soon
15 years ago

Gary
I agree that humans are goal seeking creatures. I just didn’t think your way of explaining why was very helpful.

Incidentally I tried to add a link to my comment on this twice which was to a paper on free will but it got swallowed by the spaminator.

Jason Soon
Jason Soon
15 years ago

Gary
here is the paper which I haven’t read in full though I have read the primary sources it cites that goes over a lot of the ground we’ve covered here and which reflects the ideas that I’ve attempted to put forward.

Let’s see if it can get through as an embedded link here

sdfc
sdfc
15 years ago

Bl**dy atheists, always preaching.

Gary Sauer-Thompson
15 years ago

Jason,
that is better–less polemics. I haven’t read Hayek’s The Sensory Order: An Inquiry into the Foundations of Theoretical Psychology.

From reading the linked article I can see that the text is very Kantian in terms of its assumptions and understandings of knowledge: ie. we cannot know the world as it is; the order that is found in our experiences is constructed by our minds; it is impossible to to have a complete knowledge of the world; all knowedge is partial and immanent because the mind is seeking to make sense of a reality of which it is a part; the mind is engaged in a continuous process of classification and reclassifications of experiences; the complexity of our classifications increase as human beings learn new ways of understanding and ordering their experiences.

I’m sympathetic to a lot of this —’tis far sophisticated than the crude empiricism that floats around Australian culture. My main line of criticism is that there is too much emphasis on ‘mind’ as opposed to ‘bodies’ in this text. I much prefer approaching ‘experience’ in terms of ’embodied subjectivity’ or the ‘body subject’.I would argue that the main strand of the philosophical tradition (and cognitivism in psychology) overlook the centrality of the body in human experience.

For Merleau-Ponty, bodies have their worlds and understand their worlds (eg., the world of the bushman is different from the inner city professional). The shift being made here (an important one) is to argue that consciousness—or mind– does not direct the body’s movements; these are directed instead by the intelligent body’s connections with the world at hand. It is the body, not an occupying consciousness, which understands its world and it does so in terms of a tacit knowledge.

This may obtuse but it is important for understanding what Hamilton is talking about re happiness. A lot advertising talks to our bodies not just our minds. We understand the world of advertising we are embedded in in terms of our embodied subjectivity and tacit understandings. We kinda know what’s going on don’t we.

Gary Sauer-Thompson
15 years ago

Don
one way to interpret Hamilton’s claim ‘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’ is that it implies an objective account as opposed the subjective of the libertarians. An objective account would hold that we can be mistaken about our conceptions of a life well lived, or a good life.

Succh an account would address Jason’s astounding claim that about the bits that were moulded by past environmental influences which you all approve of versus the ‘evil’ bits from the current environment which you all want to excise? Who makes the call? On what basis? My view? We can’t draw a clear distinction.

An objective account hold that too much of some things –smoking, cocaine, junk food, alcohol— can stunt our potential and make us sick.Though these things may give us pleasure they do not constitute a good life.

I’ve explored an objective account by looking at Ronald Dworkin’s argument here that most people would accept that happiness would involve living good lives.

derrida derider
derrida derider
15 years ago

Yeah, the spaminator got my post too – it’s getting really bad.

Nicholas Gruen
Admin
Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
15 years ago

DD, I’ve told the spaminator that it needs five links to spaminate you – but every now and then it does something odd. Just email me and I’ll drag your comments out of the moderating bin, though I usually empty it approximately daily.

But I can’t find any comment of yours in the spam or in moderation.

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