Every time I hear someone say we elect governments to maximise our wellbeing – as I heard this morning with the Action for Happiness launch being discussed – I shudder. Er, no. The kind of culture where wellbeing is dispensed from Whitehall is the totalitarian one. (Ironic that this should come just as Martin Seligman apparently shifts.)
And then I hear that statistics, with their amorphous impersonal gaze, can tell us what policies a government should implement, and I shudder again. Statistics are blind to you and I. They trample on our differences, the elements that make life – yes – a struggle, and therefore complex and meaningful.
I notice the Action for Happiness website has an answers to sceptics section. I fear it doesn’t deal with the central problem that happiness is just not a good aim in life. It’s too shallow a concept for the desiring creatures we are. It’s not a goal in itself but something that comes and goes, rises and falls, as meaningful goals are pursued. Pain will likely be part of that as much as pleasure.
I’m with them, when they say that our view of life has been narrowed by a certain kind of political economy, and that the good society is about more than just GDP. But I’m not with them in responding to that by dumbing life down. That’s not to do people a favour. It’s to sell them short.