Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Don't Worry, Be Happy!

Talk of human happiness is enjoying something of a Renaissance in the media of late. The Prime Minister wants to compile a "national happiness index" and from this month, the Government's Household Survey will demand to know not only how much we earn, but how content we are. Last Tuesday saw the launch of Action for Happiness, the first global movement devoted to spreading wellbeing.

Speaking at the launch event in London, Richard Layard, head of the wellbeing programme at the London School of Economics said: "Despite the fact that we are getting richer, after 60 years we still haven't managed to produce a happier society.We are asking people for an individual commitment to aim to produce more happiness and less misery." The question this begs, is what do we mean by happiness and how do we acheive this?

In his book on happiness published in 2005, Layard suggests that happiness can provide a clear concept of the common good that all can accept and work towards (Layard 2005:108). Happiness can be the social good, the 'one ultimate goal that enables us to judge other goals by how they contribute to it' (Layard 2005: 113). Commenting on this assertion in a recent article published in the volume The Practices of Happiness - Political economy, religion and wellbeing, Patrick Riordan, who teaches political philosophy at Heythrop College, University of London, says it depends on what we mean by happiness (whether this is a natural inclination based on personality type and brain activity, or moral excellence). He proceeds in this article to explore different rhetorical styles for talking about human happiness and highlights the discontinuity that emerges when considering notions such as desire across different disciplines.

He offers Aristotle's concept of eudaimonia which is generally translated as 'happiness' or 'flourishing' as a possible means of identifying human flourishing with 'a lifetime of morally virtuous action.' However, linking hapiness to moral or virtuos action does raise the rather tricky question of how as moral agents we choose between competing values and rules to guide our actions. In addition, is it i) right action based on the rightness or wrongness of one's conduct from the character of the behaviour iteslef, or ii) the good consequences from one's conduct that determines the morality of our action, or iii) virtuos character that determines the outcome of a morallly virtuos life? Riordan concedes that this poses a dilemma for proponents of these positions and suggests the notion of wellbeing as a common good based on Aritotle's understanding of political relationships as a form of friendship as a way of realisng the goal of happiness.

He explains that 'for Aristotle the distinctive factor of political community is that citizens are bonded by genuine concern for the quality of the life they share which enables each one to flourish. This is friendship in a full sense, beyond what os useful and what is pleasant. Beyond mutual material benefit and pleasure there can be concern for the other as living well, precisely for their own sake' (Riordan 2011: 215).

At a time when debate around public spending cuts and bankers’ bonuses rages, social flourishing is often assumed to involve Government arbitrating as different socio-economic groups fight for their share of the collective ‘pie’. It is encouraging that the idea that prosperity and happiness are inseparable is being questioned, especially for Christians and members of other faiths who see happiness as a spiritual and religious category. However, critics will point out that saying happiness is distinct from prosperity and other human goods has often allowed churches to avoid their responsibilities to intercede for the poor and the marginalised through urging contentment with their lot, and heavenly rewards. Riordan’s approach based on common good and political friendship offers a potentially radical approach to linking religious visions with social action. Let us hope churches and politicians engage with this.

Without such engagement we are left with an empty concept of human happiness made famous in the words of Bobby McFerrin's song from the movie "Cocktails"

"In every life we have some trouble
When you worry you make it double
Don't worry, be happy...... "

See Riordan,P., Human happiness as a common good - Clarifying the issues in The Practices of Happiness, Political economy, religion and well being, edited by John Atherton, Elaine Graham and Ian Steedman, Routledge, 2011