The Corner

Whatever Makes Them Happy

In LF I wrote:

For generations our primary vision of a dystopian future has been that of Orwell’s 1984. This was a fundamentally “masculine” nightmare of fascist brutality. But with the demise of the Soviet Union and the vanishing memory of the great twentieth-century fascist and communist dictatorships, the nightmare vision of 1984 is slowly fading away. In its place, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is emerging as the more prophetic book. As we unravel the human genome and master the ability to make people happy with televised entertainment and psychoactive drugs, politics is increasingly a vehicle for delivering prepackaged joy. America’s political system used to be about the pursuit of happiness. Now more and more of us want to stop chasing it and have it delivered. And though it has been the subject of high school English essay questions for generations, we have not gotten much closer to answering the question, what exactly was so bad about the Brave New World?

Simply this: it is fool’s gold. The idea that we can create a heaven on earth through pharmacology and neuroscience is as utopian as the Marxist hope that we could create a perfect world by rearranging the means of production. The history of totalitarianism is the history of the quest to transcend the human condition and create a society where our deepest meaning and destiny are realized simply by virtue of the fact that we live in it. It cannot be done, and even if, as often in the case of liberal fascism, the effort is very careful to be humane and decent, it will still result in a kind of benign tyranny where some people get to impose their ideas of goodness and happiness on those who may not share them.

And now here is Derek Bok, former president of Harvard University and author of The Politics of Happiness interviewed by PBS Jeffrey Brown:

JEFFREY BROWN: In other words, for both Bok’s, the study of what makes us happy can illuminate a great deal. But our values, our relationships to each other, to our jobs, money and so on. But it can also quickly become complicated. For Derek, for example, the question becomes what exactly government could do differently to make us happier?

DEREK BOK, author of The Politics of Happiness: Let me give you an example from health care, for example. If you look at the research you find that, remarkably, a number of the unhappy things that could happen to you from a health standpoint really don’t have long-lasting effects on your unhappiness at all. You get over the loss of an arm quite quickly. But there are three health conditions that produce lasting unhappiness of a very acute kind. One is clinical depression—millions of people suffer from that. Another one is chronic pain—more millions of people. And the third one is rather unexpected is sleep disorders, and there are again millions of people who suffer from insomnia and related disorders. Now, the interesting thing from a policy point of view is that all of those three illnesses are comparatively under resourced and underemphasized by government policy.

BROWN: You mean that government could step in and help people with sleep disorders?

BOK: Absolutely.

BROWN: And you’re not worried about proposing something like that at a time where there’s, you know, people are out, protesting over health care. Government in this, government in that.

BOK: Not particularly because I think in the end the research also tells us that the thing that matters most to people is happiness. And so I think a government that tries, systematically, to relieve what causes lasting misery and emphasize what gives lasting happiness will eventually win the support of the people.


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