Putting happiness first would create an oppressive Brave New World

This naive proposal ignores the fact that many people prefer health, wealth or justice.

(THE GUARDIAN)   Richard Layard commends the “overall quality of people’s lives” as the best measure of social progress, and argues that consensual happiness – the “one overarching good” – is achievable (This is the greatest good, 14 September).

Tony Blair similarly claimed this week that secular materialism endangers us, and called for a return to religious values (Granny told me not to marry a Catholic, Blair tells paper, 15 September).

Few would spurn greater happiness, but Layard fails to acknowledge serious objections and nuances. He says: “It is time to reassert the noblephilosophy of the Enlightenment. In this view, every human being wants to be happy, and everybody counts equally.” But, first, we don’t all agree that happiness is what we really want – some people prioritise health, wealth, jihad or justice.

In addition, mutually exclusive views about happiness exist: fundamentalist Muslim happiness versus liberal secular happiness; free-market happiness versus socialist happiness. Fat-cat capitalists happily flourish while many justifiably unhappy workers are underpaid. Third, unhappiness can generate creativity – which some artists, writers and philosophers value above happiness. And fourth, Layard splashes around mesmeric terms like “no nobler ideal” and “principle of the greatest happiness”, mistaking rhetoric for likelihood.

He naively announces a “civilisation based on the Greatest Happiness Principle”. How does he propose, for example, to reduce the inequalities that make for unhappiness? Perhaps in the same way that Tony Blair proposes to square the circle in which an allegedly (“New”) Labour prime minister becomes a multimillionaire simultaneously embracing a form of conservative Christianity – a religion whose founder was probably an ascetic religious socialist?

If “happiness” and spirituality are compatible with doublethink, Layard and Blair are on to something. If cognitive behaviour therapy – of which Layard is an uncritical champion – generates happiness, and CBT convinces you you’re happier in a low-paid dead-end job than being unemployed, fine: another squared circle.

A civilisation of happiness isn’t going to happen, but would be an oppressive Brave New World if it did. There hasn’t been, as Layard claims, “a huge increase in our … knowledge of [happiness’s] causes” but rather a lot of hype and flimsy ideas, aka positive psychology. Our civilisation is too vast and multi-ideological for any social engineering to be effective.

To argue with Layard is to risk being regarded as an anti-apple-pie killjoy. When Layard prioritises relief of misery in his article, I would happily line up with him. Let’s reduce misery wherever possible – and where CBT, like other forms of talking therapy, can help, let’s have it.

But don’t exaggerate what talking therapies, positive psychology, political or religious mantras can do. That way lie unrealistic expectations, disappointment and further unhappiness. If Layard is serious about misery reduction, let him agitate against warmongering, hypocritical politicians and glaring economic injustices.


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