There's something bland and unsatisfactory about the concept of happiness as a measure of worth. What does it mean to be happy? A fairly reliable way to get happy is to get drunk. So is that better than, say, performing a life-saving operation? That would maybe give you satisfaction, but it would sound strange to say it made you feel happy. If someone was described as happy all the time, you'd probably assume they were some sort of moron - or at least someone you'd have no interest in meeting. And what would you say if an interviewer asked you if you were happy? Well, um, it depends....
There is a shocking fact: we are no happier than we were 50 years ago, despite unparalleled economic growth. This fact, revealed in surveys in Britain and the US, challenges our most basic assumptions about the goals of society and our personal life.
No it doesn't: or only if you're the sort of idiot who thinks that polls about happiness tell us something profound.
A society based on getting ahead cannot be truly happy, for as many get behind as get ahead.
Where do you start with that? Here's someone who not only hasn't learnt from history: he seems unaware that it happened. You don't need to be a libertarian to find this whole approach completely wrong-headed. What's particularly depressing is that the author, Richard Layard, is apparently a Labour party advisor.
He sets himself against what he sees as our age of "unprecedented individualism", yet brings in utilitarianism as a measure of a healthy society:
The desire to be happy is central to our nature. And, following the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham, I want a society in which people are as happy as possible and in which each person's happiness counts equally. That should be the philosophy for our age, the guide for public policy and for individual action. And it should come to replace the intense individualism which has failed to make us happier.
If you want to combat intense individualism, it seems strange to proceed by simply summing the happiness of each individual. But it gets worse:
To measure happiness, we can ask a person how happy he is, or we can ask his friends or independent investigators. These reports yield similar results. The breakthrough has been in neuroscience. Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin has identified an area in the left front of the brain where good feelings are experienced, and another in the right front where bad feelings are experienced. Activity in these brain areas alters sharply when people have good or bad experiences. Those who describe themselves as happy are more active on the left side than unhappy people, and less active on the right side. So the old behaviourist idea that we cannot know how other people feel is now under attack.
So, as Robert McHenry suggests, why not just implant electrodes in that good-feeling area and hand each of us a little button to push as often as we like? Or develop some new soma-like pills we can all ingest?
Layard thinks he's battling individualism, but his whole approach simply reinforces it. Or, to put it another way, the whole emphasis on happiness is part of the problem, not part of the solution. It makes me unhappy just thinking about it.