Still Pursuing Happiness

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Happiness is in the air these days. Maybe it’s just that spring has finally sprung in New England. Or maybe it’s that I spent last night in our Maine cottage for the first time since we closed up for the winter, even though the electric blanket was on high and we added an extra comforter.

A few days ago I spotted news that the government of Bhutan has officially changed their primary policy metric from the familiar Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to their own, unique concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH). They are developing a system to characterize the new index, but, unfortunately, are being forced to follow the rules of the institutions of the developed, Westernized world.

“Once Bhutan said, ‘O.K., here we are with G.N.H.,’ the developed world and the World Bank and the I.M.F. and so on asked, ‘How do you measure it?’ ” Mr. Dorji said, characterizing the reactions of the world’s big economic players. So the Bhutanese produced an intricate model of well-being that features the four pillars, the nine domains and the 72 indicators of happiness.

Specifically, the government has determined that the four pillars of a happy society involve the economy, culture, the environment and good governance. It breaks these into nine domains: psychological well-being, ecology, health, education, culture, living standards, time use, community vitality and good governance, each with its own weighted and unweighted G.N.H. index.

All of this is to be analyzed using the 72 indicators. Under the domain of psychological well-being, for example, indicators include the frequencies of prayer and meditation and of feelings of selfishness, jealousy, calm, compassion, generosity and frustration as well as suicidal thoughts.

Not quite yet a proper indicator of the holistic quality of well-being, but, at the least, the change signals a recognition that purely economic measures are grossly inadequate.

Closer to home comes a different kind of story about happiness. The main feature article in the Ideas section of the last Sunday Boston Globe, entitled Perfectly Happy, suggests to me that we here in the US could be just about to jump from the frying pan into the fire. The subtitle tells the story in a nutshell, “The new science of measuring happiness has transformed self-help.” I could write a whole book about this subject, but the headline shouts out the fundamental error. Human well-being is not something that can ever be put under a microscope and measured. Scientific surveys that ask respondents, “Are you happy?”, are bound to elicit responses constrained by the question. No respondent is likely to ask first what do you mean by happiness and no one is likely to fail to respond.

One theme of the article is that subjective happiness surveys give results that suggest individuals do a poor job of assessing their state of happiness. Lottery winners are not significantly happier than some normal set of people. Paraplegics are only slightly less happy than the control group, surprising the researchers who had expected a larger gap. The “scientific” conclusion is that people don’t do a very good job when asked “How happy are you?” Could it be simply that happiness is a poor indicator of a person’s sense of how their whole self is doing. In spite of this, legal scholars, including Cass Sunstein, now overseeing all new regulations in the Office of Management and Budget, has written several books and papers arguing that our policies and legal procedures should incorporate findings from this new science of happiness. He would have the experts designing policies write them to sidestep the real, observable behavioral patterns of people, and substitute their own beliefs about how they should behave.

Toward the end of the long article after discussing the data that scientific surveys have produced, the writer quotes Rick Swedloff, a visiting Professor at the Rutgers Law School.

"Thousands of years of philosophers have struggled to define this term," points out Swedloff. "Do we mean, 'How do I feel right now? Am I in a pleasurable state or in an unpleasurable state?' Or we might mean, 'Am I flourishing? Am I becoming the best that I could be?' A heroin addict who's just had a fix, there's very little doubt that she's happy, but is she flourishing?"

As a result, studies in which quadriplegics report themselves nearly as happy as when they had the full use of their bodies, Swedloff argues, may be revealing as much about the limitations of our communal emotional vocabulary as about the subjects themselves.

Having defined sustainability in terms of flourishing, I am “happy” to find it mentioned here. I believe human actions are not the outcome of some kind of cognitive computer that is wired to maximize well-being along some unitary axis, in this case, happiness. Happiness is too ego-centered a concept to explain everything that everyday actors do all the time. We normally act to satisfy something only loosely associated with happiness. Our actions, rather, are directed to satisfying a bundle of concerns. Further, it is meaningless to lump these concerns into a single measure. How I feel about taking care of myself in the domains of body, spirit, leisure, and so on cannot be simply conjoined with how well I assess my inner reporting channel about taking care of my family, my friends, and the world I live in.

Although, as I said, it’s good to see some thinking that purely economic metrics are poor ways to determine damages or fine tune social policy, the substitution of yet another unitary measure, even with some 72 components really doesn’t go much farther. It is the result of our cultural need to simplify and metricize everything. A common mantra of many business gurus is “If you can’t measure something, you can’t manage it.”

Flourishing is something that should be neither measured nor managed. It is simply present or not. Maybe that’s why people with disabilities give answers that confound psychologists and behavioral economists. Flourishing only shows up when the whole system is functioning coherently. We can never describe any complex system sufficiently to permit us to use a single metric, however complicated, as the standard by which we intervene in the workings of that system. Holistic standards, like flourishing, can, however, be used along with pragmatic, adaptive governance processes, to move ever closer to a state we would then agree is producing flourishing.

The pursuit of happiness is a most ridiculous phrase; if you pursue happiness you'll never find it. C. P. Snow

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