As mentioned before, I'm currently editing a series of articles at Open Democracy, responding to the burgeoning field of happiness economics and policy. I've authored a new piece myself, seeking to distinguish four different scientific, intellectual and philosophical traditions that contribute to public discussions of happiness. These are the Aristotelian, the statistical, the economic and the psychological. Each is fine, within limits; the problem, it seems to me, is that they become confused and conflated, leading the happiness 'movement' to make exaggerated claims, and their critics to make exaggerated, curmudgeonly rebukes in return. For example:
At a recent ONS event on measuring ‘national wellbeing’ at London School of Economics, Paul Dolan claimed that 2,400-year-old Aristotelian ethical questions regarding the nature of a good and happy life were now finally answerable using statistical, survey and neuro-scientific techniques. It was provocative and attention-grabbing, but it wasn’t smart. Who, after all, would even want to be a human being, if fundamental questions of virtue and fulfilment were amenable to econometric modelling? Dolan is at the forefront of an exciting new field of health and psychological economics; it just hasn’t got a great deal to do with Aristotle.
Then look at how Action for Happiness has presented itself. We are told to do things for each other, ‘notice’ the world around us, participate in social events. These touchy-feely tips and preaching smack of positive psychology, and get on people’s nerves. Is there an ethical issue regarding the socialisation and exchange of goods in our capitalist, increasingly privatised economy? Certainly there is. Is there a medical and economic issue regarding levels of depression and anxiety in our individualised, atomised aged? Certainty there is. But neither of these requires optimisation, optimism or the abandonment of irony.
The question 'for or against happiness?' seems to me an unhelpful one, that leads to caricatured answers. Whether the nuances I'm asking for can be sustained in the public or media debate is, of course, questionable.