The politics of happiness

I am in Singapore at the moment and am reading The Straits Times as my start to the morning and a very nice read it is too. On Thursday there was an article on happiness by Derek Bok who was formerly President of Harvard. For myself, I find this happiness business very much against the grain since I think of all of it as a personal matter. It is not something I want to see governments involve themselves with. I can hardly think of a single reason for anyone to find a measure of how happy we are other than to try to interfere in our lives by telling us what to do to fix things. The title I have given this brief note is the same as the title of a book written by Bok which suggests in its own way that there is a political agenda that lies behind his interest. He, in fact, makes no bones about it in the conclusion to his article: 

Further research will doubtless provide more detailed and reliable information about the kinds of policies that add to people’s happiness. Someday, perhaps, public officials may even use the research to inform their decisions. 

This is all very Brave New World like. It is the kind of thing that worries me a lot about the left since this is typical of their ways of thinking. Find out what makes people happy, at least so far as their statistics are concerned, and then force them do it. For their own good, of course, whether they like it or not. 

But what caught my eye in particular was this: 

People who claim to be happy tend to live longer, are less prone to commit suicide, abuse drugs less often¸ get promoted more frequently, and enjoy more good friends and lasting marriages. (My emphasis) 

None of that seems improbable but it is those bits that I have emphasised that got to me. The happier ones are older, do not use recreational drugs and stay married to the same people. Less happy are younger, use drugs and end up in unstable marriages. 

These happier ones, not to put too fine a point on it, have the characteristics of those who might be described as – how can I put this delicately – conservative. 

There may really be a useful dichotomy here between those miserable interfering druggies with their fractured marriages on one side and, on the other, the more contented conservatives who are pretty well happy enough to get on with their own lives without trying to run someone else’s. But while this is the kind of thing that stares out at you from the data that Bok has produced, you may be sure that this is one conclusion he and his mates will never draw. 

Bok goes on to argue that wealth does not make you happy, that there are other things in life. This I can readily agree with but it is not something I would go too far with either. Friday’s Straights Times had another story, “Lessons from Singapore”, which had been reproduced from a paper up in Malaysia. And as part of those lessons there was this statistic: that per capita GDP in Singapore today is $US36,573 in comparison with its level in 1965 when it was $US512. 

I suspect that whoever wrote the story didn’t adjust for price movements and inflation, but even so, there is plenty left for real improvement when the numbers have grown by 70-fold. Real living standards have risen by a sensational amount since the days when Singapore was a sleepy fishing village at the foot of the Malay Peninsula. 

It may well be that those people back then were just as happy as the citizens of Singapore today but I wouldn’t count on it. And to replicate the famous Rawls  experiment with variable per capita income, where individuals do not know the kind of world into which they are going to be born. 

I would guess that in such circumstances, those disembodied shades, if they knew nothing else other than the per capital income of the place they would live in when finally brought into the world, would, I suspect, pick Singapore today compared with Singapore then. 

Who wouldn’t? I bet Bok would too.

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