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Against Happiness?

September 24, 2012

A new blog post is long overdue. This is despite the fact that September has been an eventful month, especially as I attended the Human Development and Capabilities Association (HDCA) conference in Jakarta. The 3-day conference was packed with paper presentations and plenary lectures and discussion, including a recorded interview with Tony Atkinson as interviewer and Amartya Sen as interviewee. One plenary session in particular caught my interest – Frances Stewart gave a lecture entitled ‘Against Happiness’.

In her lecture, Frances made a convincing case not to use happiness measures to guide policy and mostly development efforts. She said that of course she is not against happiness per se – she was not advocating for people to be unhappy, but rather attacking the argument that happiness is the ultimate goal and that all else is instrumental in reaching that goal. Thereby her critique was mainly directed towards Layard and his work on happiness and measurement of that concept.

 She outlined a number of arguments to support her case:

 –       There are many different definitions of happiness, and it would be impossible to capture that. A single person’s definition can even change during the course of the day. (Apparently people are most miserable early in the morning and happiest when they go to bed in the evening.)

 –       The different definitions of happiness for different people make it impossible to look at the distribution of poverty across a population. Also, people are more affected by losses than they are by gains, implying that redistribution may lead to overall loss of happiness in the short term.

 –       If everything becomes instrumental towards reaching the ultimate goal of happiness, we may find ourselves accepting issues that include violations of human rights. Things that we have considered unacceptable before now become part of the means to an end.

 –       There is the problem of adaptation. When faced with a particular situation for long enough, one adapts and gets used to that situation and starts to change its comparators. What seemed like a terrible situation before (or to others), may not be that bad after all if everyone else has the same experience.

 Many of these arguments hold for other measures of progress (such as wellbeing or multidimensional poverty) as well. Trying to capture different definitions or notions of what progress or a good life represents is a struggle across the board. The issue of adaptation is not new either, with some measures of relative poverty incorporating the fact that people living in different countries have different comparators.

 But the most pertinent issue that Frances raises with respect to the problem of using happiness as an ultimate outcome is the potential for adverse policy implications. If losses cause a greater decrease in happiness than gains lead to increases in happiness, we may just want to maintain the status quo. And if accepting our situation leads to greater improvements in happiness levels in the short-term, we may end up promoting adaptation and acceptance rather than actual change.

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