Human happiness

Last night, the bourbon at a local bar led to S and I pondering human development and happiness, and the issue has remained with me since. To what extent is development correlated with happiness, and is that correlation even positive, as many of us assume? An easy way to sidestep the issue would be to say that, if happiness is a subjective mental state, any index you choose to measure it is going to be essentially arbitrary. And as a contrapositive, you could prove either that we are less happy or more happy by picking a convenient index to substantiate your claim.

But even if happiness is a subjective mental state, we can perhaps correlate measurables like life-expectancy, disease prevalence, literacy, economic and political freedom with our folk-psychological understanding of what it is to be happy. I’m certainly willing to say that in general, having more of those sorts of things do make us happier than having less of those things. And it’s difficult to dispute that the majority of the species do have more of those things than they used to.

There are complications: a more literate society could mean that people are able to learn more, and have richer intellectual lives. But it could also mean that the tentacles of consumer culture reach them more readily, and that they are sucked into intellectual trends that are far more a triumph of branding than sense (The Secret, Deepak Chopra, What the Bleep?, etc.). Having more disposable income could cause them to become increasingly obese, and to then subscribe to one or more of the ever-popular celebrity-endorsed diets.

So even if we have more potential (as a result of more income and the like), we don’t seem to be getting any better at using our resources optimally, and it starts sounding more reasonable to say that we are worse off in that we now have far more power to harm ourselves, given that our options are far less limited than they used to be. Which brings us back to Lord Acton: “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely”.

Perhaps this simply boils down to an issue of freedom: I’d far rather we have the means to enhance our lives, even if some of us use those means irresponsibly. The key failing is, as usual, that people aren’t taught to take responsibility, in that nanny-states and programmatic educations encourage us to imagine we’re living in a world with far fewer threats than our actual world has. And if it seems the case that most of us will never be able to engage with choice responsibly, one could begin to argue for the merits of their being fewer choices. But here starts the slippery slope, in that presenting us with fewer choices is the favoured trick of dictators throughout history. Who gets to choose which choices are good ones, and who chooses how many choices we should have? As always, I wish that we could simply trust evolution, and the gradual filtering of sense from nonsense.

And we could trust evolution to do so – if only we had the patience, and a lifetime long enough to see the results. In the meanwhile, pessimism regarding H. Sapiens is very difficult to shake…

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.