Is It Time for a Politics of Happiness?

Sam Dalton discusses the politics of happiness.

Covid-19 has created an undeniable urge to change the way we live. Recent research by YouGov found that only 9% of the British public want life to return to “normal” after the outbreak. People have noticed the cleaner air, community cooperation and more regular conversation with family and friends. Shouldn’t we use this moment to create a society where the things that really matter are put first?

Dare I say it, but rather than dazzling GDP figures, might we look towards a future which prioritises our…happiness? This isn’t a wholly new idea. Since 1971, Bhutan has measured prosperity through Gross National Happiness. Last year, New Zealand launched what it called the first ever “wellbeing budget”, informed by a Happiness Index and centred around priorities such as mental health, child poverty and domestic violence. The idea of a politics promoting happiness goes back to philosophers including Aristotle and Jeremy Bentham, the latter of whom said our ultimate aim should be to realise the “greatest happiness of the greatest number”.

Making happiness a central political aim certainly comes with challenges. In many instances, it would be a completely inappropriate measure of success. With happiness so good at adapting to circumstance, many people suffering from poverty and disadvantage may well be very happy. That doesn’t make their situation any less wrong, or weaken the imperative to tackle the structural inequalities that have put them in that position. Unfairness means unfairness, regardless of the consequences for happiness.

A further difficulty is that happiness is extremely difficult to measure, and means very different things to different people. Just look at Aristotle and Bentham: the former defined it through virtuous action while the latter’s version was more about maximising pleasure over pain. This might not seem too surprising given that we usually think of happiness as a personal thing; something we define for ourselves and pursue in our private lives. If two people disagree on the meaning of happiness, how is a government ever going to make it a concrete policy goal on behalf of a country of 70 million? And what right would a government have to define such a personal and subjective concept anyway?

While much of what constitutes happiness belongs in the personal realm, from the relationships we form to the way we spend our leisure time, the idea of an entirely private retreat of happiness totally independent from the social and political world around us is a fantasy. Happiness really is one of those subjects that shows us how much the personal can be shaped by the political. If we don’t keep an eye on politics, politics keeps an eye on us – and our happiness.  

Take the evolution of politics over the last four decades. The market-driven approach of what is often called ‘neoliberalism’ has cemented an idea of happiness built around individual pleasure and consumption rather than collective endevour. Work hard to climb your way up the ladder. To earn more money. To buy more things. An endless stream of advertisements tell us that their product or service is the thing that will make us happy. As William Davies showed in his book The Happiness Industry, marketing bosses now target emotions and facial expressions to lure people into pleasure-inducing purchases. This has been aided by what Shoshana Zuboff calls “the age of surveillance capitalism”, with large technology companies profiting from user data through highly-targeted advertisements claiming to know the ‘real’ us.

This is not to say that other, more collective sources of happiness are not still abundant, from family and friends through to community activities. Nor does it mean that everyone simply goes along with what they are told by adverts. But it provides one example of how the power to define ‘happiness’ does not rest equally. If we don’t pay attention to the way the social and political world around us manipulates our ideas of happiness, that doesn’t mean it will stop manipulating us. The path to more personal autonomy over our private life paradoxically runs through political engagement.

So while happiness is not the right political goal in many circumstances, it is something we must pay attention to in this period of reflection caused by coronavirus. Is the consumer-driven, individualistic model really what we want? Do we want a stronger focus on community life and, if so, how do we achieve that? What about the importance of tackling inequality and the climate emergency?

The answer for many people might well be that they like much of the present. The important thing is that we at least have the debate. Because if we don’t, our ideas of happiness will continue to be moulded without question by powerful people and institutions – and there’s no freedom in that.

Sam Dalton is a policy and public affairs professional, and campaigns organiser for the Labour Party in London. He has done extensive research on the politics of happiness and subjective wellbeing, including for his Master’s thesis at the University of Chicago.

He tweets at  @Sam_Dalton_1.

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