WHICH WAY TO HAPPINESS ?

Ralph Windle Posted by Ralph Windle.

Ralph Windle is the editor of The Poetry of Business Life, as well as the author of Boardroom Ballads and The Bottom Line, and co-editor (with William Keyser) of Public Enterprises in the EEC.


Since it was promised as an inalienable human right, ( in The American Declaration of Independence, 1776 ) the pursuit of ‘ happiness ‘ has ranked high on the human agenda.

Since it was promised as an inalienable human right, ( in The American Declaration of Independence, 1776 ) the pursuit of ‘ happiness ‘ has ranked high on the human agenda.
In troika with ‘ life ‘ and ‘ liberty ‘, it was taken to share their robust, pragmatic substance,
and only the occasional pesky philosopher bothered to ask what ‘ happiness ‘ actually was.

Kant gave it short shrift – “ happiness is not an ideal of reason but of imagination” - in line with the longer tradition, back to Herodotus, which asserted that we should call no man happy till he dies .

This has created a great dilemma for politicians for whom the ‘ happy ‘ voter is the best guarantee of re-election; whereas a dead one is of little use at the ballot-box. Clearly, something urgently needed to be done.

What is being done is the launch of an unprecedented, government-led, marketing exercise to establish ‘ happiness’  as the branded product of choice and market-leader. With the British Government in the van, and at a time of massive cuts in wider research, arts and science budgets, the new, national ‘Happiness Agenda ‘ promises an intoxicating bonanza, especially for psychologists and the ubiquitous, sharply-entrepreneurial, neuro-scientists.

For the imaginative inventors of ‘neuro-aesthetics’ and other such diversions from the serious agenda, ‘happiness’ suggests a dream-concept of almost infinite promise. Already the first questionnaires (200,000 of them ) are out from the Office for National Statistics, asking how ‘happy’ and ‘anxious’ we felt yesterday.

This concern with the pursuit of ‘happiness’ is clearly a more attractive and seductive proposition than acting urgently and decisively on what ‘harder’ science has already definitively shown. In its more tangible and less ethereal manifestations, talk of ‘happiness’ is simply a usefully opaque surrogate for the better known, but politically sensitive, elements which clearly and unequivocally condition and determine it.

For one of the more laudable outputs, first of our social and economic science research, and increasingly of physiological and biochemical studies, has been the confirmation of the longer-felt evidence of eye and heart - that it is the wide and widening gap between rich and poor in our societies which mainly determines not only our ‘felt’ measures of well-being, but also the starkly tangible realities of health, life-expectancy, educational expectation and performance, mental health and much else.

It seems a little premature, as New Scientist and others do, to talk of some new ‘Science of Inequality’ or ‘ new sciences’ related to the so-called ‘Happiness Agenda’. As ever, the real credit should go to some relatively modest scientific ‘foot soldiers - like epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett – whose 2009 ‘The Spirit Level’ brought together a massive, existing but largely disregarded data base ( World Bank, United Nations, World Health Organisation, National Census Reports etc ) . It raised, as good science should, some inescapable hypotheses; and enjoyed a rare, initial cross-political honeymoon of recognition and welcome.


Until, that is, its necessary implications for action soon offended the conventional left/right divides, and it was tossed to the Taxpayers Alliance, Policy Exchange ‘Think Tank’ and the dominant conservative press, for ritual dismemberment. The ‘ Happiness Agenda’ was substituted as a much more congenial and inoffensive substitute which, it is hopefully assumed, will spawn the appropriate ‘new sciences’ to foster and sustain it.

I hope not; for the more serious reason for dwelling on this ludicrous episode is that it marks a danger point in the supposed a-political, objective stance of science and the arts. Some near-panic at the unprecedented cuts in educational, research and arts budgets, which to the wise suggests the closing of ranks and concerted action, can also induce the competitive beggaring of neighbours and the perils of sycophancy. At the very least, it’s another reminder of the need for greater clarity of vision, and to alertness to what threatens the integrity and professional objectivity of the arts/science mission.

The ‘Happiness Agenda’ is merely the current, high-profile example of bigger potential irrelevancies to come in a harsh economic and political climate.

“ Despite the fact that we are getting richer …. we still haven’t managed to produce a happier society “ says ‘Happiness’ Czar, Professor Richard Layard; one of many comfortable generalisations from the more complex realities. Even this may come as a surprise to the social majority who have not yet experienced the angst and pain of an above £40,000 annual salary.

And the Professor’s prescription on the recent Action for Happiness Day?


“We are asking people for an individual commitment to aim to produce more happiness and less misery”. And, for our less than happy children, his answer is – school lessons in ‘emotional intelligence’ and wider access to cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), presumably to stop them dwelling too much on their job prospects and disappearing educational grants.

He is trying to say, I believe, that money isn’t everything, as our parents may have mentioned; and there are, no doubt, other useful homespun truths floating in the soup.


Yet, among all the pleasant ‘free hugs’ it’s sad that Layard should wish to position this mish-mash of a mission under the aegis of ‘science’. It was reportedly in the late 1990s (Stuart Jeffries, ‘Guardian’ 24 June 2008 ) when ‘Happiness’ became a new science ….Psychological researchers found a close correlation between reported happiness and activity in the cerebral cortex’. “ I have been struck with the sophistication of the science in this area “ was the Professor’s reported comment.


So, at last we’d got it in the bag , could define and measure and, who knows, maybe start creating it!

We haven’t ,of course; but, as Gilbert Ryle showed us in ‘The Concept of Mind’, there’s nothing like giving it a name to turn a notion into an entity. Better still, as Eliot told us in ‘Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats’ a choice of three names Is what most helps a cat change identity to suit all seasons.

Happiness? Feel-good? Well-being?

Take your pick — but let’s not call it Science.

RW.   May 2011.