Happiness is hard to quantify

January 1, 2012


Economist Carol Graham claims to have created a new science that can measure “the economics of happiness.” Her book, “The Pursuit of Happiness: An Economy of Well-Being,” offers the stunning revelation that money doesn’t buy happiness. Graham’s investigations of other cultures led her to a paradox, which she describes as “happy peasants and frustrated achievers.” Successful people often complain of being unhappy, she writes, while poor people seem content. As evidence of this dubious generalization, she observes that laid-back Nigerians are cheerful, while striving Japanese are for the most part miserable.

A leap into the pit of platitudes is irresistible to certain intellectual pilgrims. And Graham’s findings might seem like another example of harmless wool-gathering. But her subtext is a favorite of utopian busybodies: Individualism and capitalism are bad. Government-managed society is good. “Health, leisure, and friendships” count for as much as productivity and long working hours, she writes. Only Scrooge would disagree. But on the basis of that bromide, Graham argues that happiness should be factored into GNP, something French and British politicians have attempted to do. It’s really a device to rationalize the economic failures of the welfare state: high unemployment, low productivity, declining standard of living. And, ironically, it’s an attempt to put a monetary value on happiness.

Lurking behind Graham’s musings is the assumption that government is better qualified to make life choices than individuals. The state will take care of all your cradle-to-grave needs. It will even guarantee your happiness. All you have to do is give up your freedoms. Eat the lotus flowers and sleep your life away in peaceful apathy. Who will decide what’s best for you? Why, enlightened people like Graham, of course. And they’ll be the ones with power and its trappings.

Romanticizing peasant life is a familiar academic pastime. But Graham may have mistaken happiness in poor societies for resignation. Peasants all over the world have been fleeing the idyllic agrarian life in search of opportunity, dreaming of something more than a daily bowl of gruel and an early demise. Money may not buy happiness, but destitution isn’t a formula for bliss either. And there’s such a thing as too much leisure. Ask anyone who’s lost his job. Some people enjoy working. They find that it provides one kind of happiness.

Happiness is elusive and usually comes when we’re least expecting it, when we’re not consciously pursuing it at all. Above all, it comes when we’re not obsessing over ourselves. Besides, where is it written that we’re entitled to happiness? Freud said that the purpose of psychotherapy was to take people from “hysterical misery to normal unhappiness.” By the way, he was a workaholic himself who hoped to “die in harness.”

George Gurley, a resident of rural Baldwin City, writes a regular column for the Journal-World.


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