Human Exceptionalism

Government Shouldn’t Establish a “Gross Emotional Prosperity” Happiness Index

It is a modern presumption not only that life shouldn’t be a struggle–and for most of us, it isn’t anymore–but that we should always be happy.  Indeed, I consider one of the driving forces in the coup de culture today to be the intense drive–whatever it takes–to avoid suffering, the flip side of which is the notion that we “deserve” to be happy.  In Brave New World, that was the purpose of the drug Soma–to keep an empty smile on everyone’s face. 

The Declaration of Independence says we have an inalienable right to pursue happiness as individuals.  It does not say we have right to be happy.  Nor does it presume that it is the government’s job to make us happy.  Rather, it is the right of the people to establish government that is sufficiently limited in power that we have room for the pursuit.

That’s why I find UK Prime Minster David Cameron’s decision to have his government take a quarterly “happiness” survey of the British people more than a bit disturbing.  But NYT colunist Roger Cohen thinks it is an idea whose time has come.  From his column:

Starting next month, the government will pose the following questions and ask people to respond on a scale of zero to 10: How happy did you feel yesterday? How anxious did you feel yesterday? How satisfied are you with your life nowadays? To what extent do you feel the things you do in your life are worthwhile? Scarcely extraordinary, but Andrew Oswald, a happiness economics expert at the University of Warwick, suggested the questions were a good start, although he would have added, “How well have you been sleeping?” — an important mental health indicator — and “How pressurized do you feel your time is?”

The important thing, he argues, it to shift “from the concept of financial prosperity to the idea of emotional prosperity.” Perhaps that’s the 21st-century indicator we need: gross emotional prosperity, or G.E.P…Clearly, happynomics is no precise science, and how the happiness index will link to policy remains to be seen. But the idea is to put value on things that don’t have price tags…

So I’m ready to give Cameron the benefit of the doubt and even give a wary nod to his related “Big Society” project, also the source of much guffawing. The essence of this idea is that people can give more to one another — British A.T.M.s, for example, would automatically give customers an option of donating to charity. It’s a tough sell in a grim economy, but it captures a need among dislocated people to connect more.

Good grief. Let’s all wear chartreuse “happiness ribbons” on our lapels and hire a national court jester to put a smile on the collective face.

A GEP is a very bad idea precisely because it promotes the Utopian notion that government policies can make us happy–and indeed, that doing so is part of government’s job.  Frankly, the idea that we have a right to be “happy” itself causes a lot of unhappiness and personal dissatisfaction.  Once you go down that road, it is never enough.

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