Thursday, October 21, 2010

Happiness and Society

When we say we want to make a better society, how do we judge ourselves? A classic economic one is standard of living. If a nation's standard of living goes up over time relative to other nations, then it's doing a good job relative to other nations. Similarly, policies which would improve standard of living are good policies, and policies that would decrease standard of living are bad policies. Some economists choose to go with GDP, since it's simpler to understand and also buttresses notions of free enterprise. Still other people believe that a good society is a society with a high voting rate, or low inequality, or happy people. I'm not sure what we should judge our success based on, but I wanted to address for the moment the idea of trying to make a happy society.

On the one hand, the notion is tempting. It leaves open the idea that people can have their own ways of reaching happiness, allowing for acceptance of the idea that we are all individuals. On the other hand, it also allows us to note that there are some things that almost all human beings find make them happier, and there's some stuff that doesn't seem to be very effective at all at making us happy. It seems, for instance, that material acquisition doesn't really make us happy, and that love actually does. If these things are generally true, that would certainly seem that happiness is not necessarily going to be well served by improving general econometrics. I look forward to seeing what comes out of the burgeoning field of happiness research, but call me a skeptic with regards to using happiness as the important metric for a well run society.

To illustrate my doubts, let me propose an example. Let's say we find out that being happy is largely about seeing improvements. We get happy when things get better, but happiness gains disappear when we get used to what we've gained. To simplify things, let's pretend that that's basically all that concerns people: the continual improvement of life conditions. If that's true, wouldn't an ideal society do whatever it could to enforce that outcome?

Maybe it would be the case that that society would try in general to make standards of living rise continually throughout everyone's lifetime, but as we can see during our current recession, that task is impossibly hard. To manage continual growth is no easy matter and at some point you're going to falter, hurting peoples' expectations and their happiness. Wouldn't a more effective method be to artificially make peoples' lives worse early in their life? Start kids off in concentration camps, and gradually as they grow older give them amenities and improvements and kindness and iPads until when they're 70 years old they are the collective kings of society? You'd certainly be able to foster a continual improvement in conditions and, because of the assumptions of the argument, people would be happy continually. They'd be used to crummy conditions when they started, so the improvements they saw as they grew older would only lead them into bliss.

I'm not sure about you, but I'm morally concerned with that scenario, even assuming everyone is happier for it. Something about it seems wrong; not worth the happiness. Maybe it's because I have an irrational value of freedom and the proposed system is definitely not a free one. I am repelled by systems which try to manage my happiness for my own good. I would reject them even if they made me happier. Maybe as I mature I'll grow to realize that that position is a mistake, or an irrational one. But I can't help but feel that morality and wellbeing aren't always aligned the way we hope they would be, and I feel that given the choice between the two, one should choose morality.

I don't really have a reason for that belief, but that tends to be true of beliefs. They're instincts, assumptions, axioms. Beliefs are things you feel, not things you know. Don't get me wrong, I don't think happiness research will end up telling us that all we need to be happy is to start off poor and end up rich. Clearly it's more about social relations and a feeling of connectedness. But it doesn't seem implausible that we'll find out that some aspects of happiness could be best served by limiting the freedom to choose things that make you unhappy (like getting rich early in the example), and call my irrational but from where I'm sitting I'd pick the freedom.

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