the pursuit of happiness

Are you happy?

Do you find that question embarrassing? Many of us do. We’re comfortable answering it with respect to some specific, restricted area (“I’m happy with the way the centerpiece works with the tablecloth”), but get progressively less comfortable answering it with respect to our life as a whole.

Happiness is one of the Great Ideas of the Western intellectual tradition, and I’m reading a book on it right now: The Idea of Happiness by V. J. McGill, published in 1967. I’m interested in all the Great Ideas, but I was led to this work when I sensed that happiness, or the Great Idea of Happiness, which I will capitalize, may be a cornerstone of a political philosophy of the future—one that provides for a thriving natural environment on Earth. This future-oriented philosophy has been named the Commonwealth of Life by Peter G. Brown, and I have posted about it before. Many writers on the environment have criticized the use of gross domestic product (GDP) as a measure of the wealth or welfare of society, but without proposing anything specific to take its place. I believe the ideal candidate would be happiness.

This idea is not new. Indeed, it has been implemented: for the Dragon King of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, has instituted “gross national happiness” (GNH) as an official metric of his country. They compile a “GNH index” based on 33 indicators under 9 “domains” or categories, including psychological well-being, health, and education, derived from both polling and other more objective sources. The idea is gaining some traction, and world conferences are held on it from time to time.

For myself, I haven’t studied their system in any detail, but on the face of it GNH seems like a much better metric of social well-being than GDP. Why, indeed, is GDP used as a metric at all by governments? It is taken to be a measure of wealth, and wealth in turn is taken to be a proxy for happiness. But both of these assumptions are false, and therefore all policy based on them is misguided and even counterproductive. If a government really does care about the happiness of the people, why not focus directly on that, as Bhutan has done, instead of using these proxies?

I see two problems: definition and measurement. On the one hand, there is no consensus about what happiness is or how to attain it. On the other, there is no concrete way to measure it, which presumably would be necessary if it were to be made a practical goal of public policy. But pretty much everyone prefers wealth to poverty, and wealth can be measured, at least in theory, so we have GDP as our metric. The bad news is that wealth doesn’t make you happy, and GDP does not even really measure wealth. The worse news is that this relentless chasing of GDP is possibly more responsible than anything else for the degradation of the biosphere of Mother Earth.

Before I got into this subject in more depth I wanted to acquaint myself with the Great Idea of Happiness—hence the book, which I’m almost finished reading. Some of the main thinkers on Happiness in the Western tradition are Aristotle, Epicurus, the Stoics, Kant, and Bentham. There seem to be three main threads:

  • happiness arises from virtuous living (Aristotle)
  • happiness is synonymous with pleasure in the widest sense (Epicurus, Bentham, and the Utilitarians)
  • happiness is not a proper concern for an ethical person, who is instead focused on performing his duty (the Stoics, Kant)

Of these three broad points of view, the one that seems to best reflect my own experience is that of Aristotle. For if I think of when I have been happiest, it has always been when I have been engaged in some virtuous, or at least wholesome, activity. Some of my happiest moments were when I was a temporary monk at Gampo Abbey, Nova Scotia, in 2002. I was seeking to train my mind and body in the service of all sentient beings.

To me an excellent example of a happy man is Ebenezer Scrooge after the spirits of Christmas have brought about his transformation. He is grateful for his life, he knows exactly what he wants to do with it—help others—and he has the means to do it. And he says, memorably, “I don’t deserve to be so happy.”

So I’ve formed my own tentative definition of happiness: “wholesome pleasure.” And I’m tempted to say that the more wholesome the pleasure is, the greater your happiness.

How do we measure something like that? I honestly don’t think we can. But that doesn’t mean that happiness can’t or shouldn’t form the basis of enlightened public policy. I believe that, in the long run, it must. So quite likely Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the Buddhist king of Bhutan, is showing us the way, and all we need to do, for our own happiness and for the happiness of others, is to follow.

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