Monday, 30 April 2012

Happiness: From Epicurus to Economics

He who is not satisfied with a little is satisfied with nothing.
Epicurus, Greek philosopher (341 BC – 270 BC)

Pursuit of individual self-interest is not necessarily a good formula for personal happiness.
Richard Layard, British economist (1934 AD - present)

We live, to say the least, in an age of stark contradictions. Whilst the world enjoys the wonders of technology, over one billion people live in hunger each day. The world economy has developed new heights of productivity, yet the natural environment is degraded in the process. National income levels have risen yet so have social harms and health hazards from obesity, declining literacy and numeracy standards, teenage pregnancies, substance abuse and addiction, suicide, anorexia, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, cancer, depression and other ills. Indeed, many of the developed nations with the highest levels of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), such as the United States, have achieved striking economic and technological progress over the past half century without gains in the self-reported happiness and social wellbeing of their citizenries but with widening socioeconomic inequalities, declining levels of trust and apathy to government. Economists and policymakers, both from the left and the right, have placed priority in utilising GDP as a means to measure social progress and yet rates of life satisfaction and subjective happiness have stagnated or even decreased since the 1950s according to a number of data, including from Gallup World Poll and the World Values Survey. This article will look at why measures of happiness should be prioritised as a policy and index by governments around the world for achieving and measuring social progress.

From Epicurus to Easterlin
Ever since the invention of agriculture which bequeathed opportunities for private property, wealth generation and fiscal improvement, humans have studied that causal relationship between financial income and personal happiness. Indeed the Greek philosopher of Epicurus stated that pleasure is the greatest good and that pain is the greatest evil and combined a theoretical hedonism with a practical asceticism. He stressed frugal life of pleasure, as the mere absence of pain is the greatest good, through achieving three fundamental tenets of friendship and love, self-analysis, and self-sufficiency being the key to the gate into wellbeing. He suggested that wealth is important for attaining various rudimentary needs, such as water and food and basic wants, but wealth for its own sake or wealth past the requirements to afford comfort is unnecessary. Rather we should focus on our friends and relationships, on self-reflection and philosophy, and on achieving self-sufficiency or merit in a chosen a subject or activity. Indeed “wealth beyond what is necessary is no more use than an overflowing container” is an apt statement whereby GDP past what is necessary for a developed economy is akin to an overflowing container. A simple meal and the company of friends in a modest garden is suffice for Epicurus and he tells us this should be and is suffice for our happiness too.

From the wellspring of the Enlightenment came the school of Utilitarianism as first developed by British philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748 AD – 1832 AD), influenced amongst others by David Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature. For Bentham utility is the test and measure of all virtue and the sole origin of justice and that the greatest happiness of the greatest number is the foundation of morality. In Utilitarianism, it is the greatest happiness in society that is the criterion by which the affairs of a state should be judged. The Felicific Calculus was an algorithm developed by Bentham to calculate the specific degree of pleasure accrued by a certain action. This calculus and the entire An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation can be synthesized by his own mnemonic doggerel:

Intense, long, certain, speedy, fruitful, pure–
Such marks in pleasures and in pains endure.
Such pleasures seek if private be thy end:
If it be public, wide let them extend
Such pains avoid, whichever be thy view:
If pains must come, let them extend to few.

Bentham can be seen as a foundational figure when it comes to studying and measuring happiness and the role of government in promoting it. If we agree that the normative role of government is to increase utility and promote the greatest happiness in society, than utilising GDP is a flawed manner in doing so.

In 1974, Richard Easterlin, a Professor of Economics at the University of Southern California, published a revolutionary paper entitled “Does Economic Growth Improve the Human Lot? Some Empirical Evidence” which established an essential paradox in economics. Easterlin discovered, through quantitative analysis of economic and social trends of developed and developing nations, that past a certain amount of income for an individual and past a certain GDP for a nation, subjective levels of happiness and social wellbeing do not increase and indeed sometimes decrease. In 2010, Easterlin returned to the paradox and published his findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. In it Easterlin utilised long term surveys from 17 developed countries, 11 countries transitioning from socialism to capitalism, and 9 developing countries to firmly re-establish the happiness–income relationship, come to be known as the Easterlin paradox, that over time a higher rate of economic growth does not result in a greater increase of happiness.

Bhutan and the United Nations
The concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH) was developed in 1972 by the King of Bhutan Jigme Singye Wangchuck who opened Bhutan to modernisation but was committed to developing the national economy based on Buddhist spiritual principles. The Centre for Bhutan Studies, along with various academics from around the world, then began to develop both objective quantitative and subjective qualitative indicators for GNH culminating on a measurement based upon a robust multidimensional methodology known as the Alkire-Foster method. In 1990 the Human Development Index was established by the United Nations Development Programme and was used as the yardstick of measuring socioeconomic progress. It was established in response to the flaws of GDP being a holistic measure of progress and incorporated the measures of Life Expectancy Index, Education Index, Mean Years of Schooling Index, Expected Years of Schooling Index, and Gross National Income. However, HDI is also not a true measure of utility as it misses the important indicators of mental health, sustainability and environmental conservation. In July 2011 Resolution 65/309 was proposed by the Kingdom of Bhutan advocating for GNH as the primary measure of progress and was unanimously passed by the United Nations General Assembly. In April 2012 the High Level Meeting on Wellbeing and Happiness: Defining a New Economic Paradigm was held at United Nations Headquarters in New York hosted by Bhutan discussing the value of utilising GNH as a measure for social progress.

“We buy things we don't need, with money we don’t have, to impress people we don’t like”
In 2005 the Australian economists Hamilton and Denniss developed the concept of affluenza defined as:
1. The bloated, sluggish and unfulfilled feeling that results from efforts to keep up with the Joneses.
2. An epidemic of stress, overwork, waste and debt caused by the pursuit of the increased income.
3. An unsustainable addiction to economic growth.

At the crux of affluenza is that despite some of the highest levels of affluence in wealth, happiness has not increased, and rather the ideals of consumerism and materialism have led to a number of social harms. As Hamilton and Denniss state “above a certain level, increases in income have little or no effect on well-being, yet the single-minded pursuit of growth may come at the cost of personal relationships, social equality and cohesion, job security and the quality of the environment, all of which do add to personal and national happiness.” Indeed, affluenza reaffirms the Easterlin paradox and presents tangible harms that exist in society due to it.

Dismal Science of Economics to the New Science of Happiness
Economics, once described as the dismal science, is now at the fore of new discoveries in explaining our behaviour, emotions and indeed happiness. This new science of happiness is informed by insights from cognitive neuroscience, evolutionary anthropology, behavioural economics and positive psychology, and is making its mark. Richard Layard of the London School of Economics and Bruno Frey of the University of Zurichis are pioneering figures in this new field and they respectively lay their findings out in Happiness: Lessons from a New Science (2011) and Happiness: A Revolution in Economics (2008). Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience is making new discoveries in the neurosciences of emotions, and Nobel Economics Laureate Daniel Kahneman has been developing measures for subjective wellbeing. All the findings have profound implications, such as for the measurement of experienced utility and subjective wellbeing, for how human beings value goods and services and social conditions, and also for public policy.

World Happiness Report
In April 2012 The World Happiness Report (I definitely recommend having a read through), compiled by Jeffrey Sachs of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, Richard Layard of the London School of Economics and John Helliwell Professor of Economics at the University of British Columbia, was released. It is a tour de force promoting Gross National Happiness as a measure for sustainable development and socioeconomic progress. It provides a comprehensive overview of current world state of happiness, summarises findings from the emerging science of happiness, and offers analysis for further implications and benefits of using Gross National Happiness as the yardstick for development. It also looks at three major case studies (Bhutan, United Kingdom, OECD) where focusing on happiness has proved the most effective public policy in addressing poverty, development and a host of socioeconomic harms. The report shows that:

§  Happier countries tend to be richer countries. But more important for happiness than income are social factors like the strength of social support, the absence of corruption and the degree of personal freedom.

§  Over time as living standards have risen, happiness has increased in some countries, but not in others (the majority of developed nations). On average, the world has become a little happier in the last 30 years (by 0.14 times the standard deviation of happiness around the world).

§  Unemployment causes as much unhappiness as bereavement or separation. At work, job security and good relationships do more for job satisfaction than high pay and convenient hours.

§  Behaving well and acting selflessly makes people happier.

§  Mental health is the biggest single factor affecting happiness in any country. Yet only a quarter of mentally ill people get treatment for their condition in advanced countries and fewer in poorer countries.

The twenty first century is an epoch already infamous for unprecedented individualism exemplified by the Global Financial Crisis. The highest obligation that many people feel is to realise their own potentials and make the most of themselves. This has proved a terrifying and lonely objective and the epitome of anomie. Whilst we are finding solace in online social networks, these are simply lacking the face to face interaction that we humans long for and are ironically making us feel disconnected. Indeed, we feel obligations to others, but there exists no unifying social fabric. The old religious worldviews are fast losing congregations, the post war and Cold War ideals of national solidarity are gone, and the neoliberal ideologies of consumerism and individualism from Regan still percolate into the psyche of the population of the developed world and we have been left suffering from affluenza. In response to this status quo, a number of organisations and figures have made their marks on the intellectual and social topography. Using the philosophies of Epicurus to Bentham and the economics of Easterlin to Layard as inspiration and theory, organisations such as Action for Happiness and the New Economics Foundation have been at the fore of the intellectual and social fray, taking on board the research from the insights of economics and neuroscience. 

The World Happiness Report (again, definitely have a look) is a milestone. Economics is no longer the dismal science and, just as Bentham developed his felicific calculus to measure pleasure, we can measure happiness. A generation of studies by psychologists, economists, pollsters, and social scientists have shown that happiness, though indeed a subjective experience and perhaps culturally relative to an extent, can be objectively measured, assessed, correlated with observable brain functions, and related to the characteristics and indicators of an individual and the society and economy. Asking people whether they are happy, or satisfied with their lives, offers important information about the society. We understand certain predictable factors that cause and facilitate happiness that reflect various facets of our human nature and social lives. Focusing on happiness provides a broader range of possible ways to build a better world, including more effective solutions for poverty, development and health. Indeed there are profound implications for public policy (Layard also lays them out here): improving mental health services, promoting volunteering and investing in communities, conserving the environment, regulating commercial advertising, making flexible workplaces, and valuing empathetic education. The United Nations has recognised this and many nations around the world led by Bhutan, such as the United Kingdom's Office for National Statistics Measuring National Wellbeing Programme, and even the OECD is developing measures for wellbeing and progress, are beginning to realise the importance of happiness for all aspects of society and the economy. It seems that Epicurus was accurate in this philosophy of a frugal life of pleasure, that Bentham was on the right track with his Felicific Calculus, and that the Easterlin paradox that we are all subject too points to a certain truth in our happiness-income relationship.

Create all the happiness you are able to create: remove all the misery you are able to remove. Every day will allow you to add something to the pleasure of others, or to diminish something of their pains. And for every grain of enjoyment you sow in the bosom of another, you shall find a harvest in your own bosom; while every sorrow which you pluck out from the thoughts and feelings of a fellow creature shall be replaced by beautiful peace and joy in the sanctuary of your soul. 
Jeremy Bentham, British philosopher (1748 AD – 1832 AD)
Tasman Bain is a second year Bachelor of Arts (Anthropology) and Bachelor of Social Science (International Development) Student at the University of Queensland. He is interested evolutionary anthropology, public economics and philosophy of science and enjoys endurance running, reading Douglas Adams, and playing the glockenspiel.


  1. Dear Mr Bain,

    An excellent post, but a few things to perhaps consider:

    Firstly, I think perhaps the gist of your arguments could be distilled into the decreasing marginal utility of wealth and the fact that people are often unable to grasp this concept.

    Furthermore, although a happiness indicator would be truest to Bentham's ideals, it would be nigh-impossible to effectively create an indicator. HDI would look comparatively accurate. I think this is mainly due to the cultural element of any happiness indicator and that social values will distort the 'happiness utility' that different policies create. Presumably, such indicators are used as a gauge of the effectiveness of different policies - the social variability factor will probably lead to a distortion of the actual good caused meaning that it his hard to evaluate whether a policy can be universalizable.

    Economics, particularly indicators, revolves around universalizability - that is why almost everything is quantified in monetary terms. I'm not quite convinced that happiness can be used to such effect.

    Lastly, you may be interested in this:;example=75

  2. You've probably read this article, but if you haven't I'm sure you'll be able to sort through the glib analysis to find some interesting arguments-

    I tend to disagree with you on a philosophical level. I remember reading somewhere a sociological analysis (which I unfortunately can't find) that concluded that the happiest people (and, one would suspect, societies), are those that don't value happiness. This conclusion coincides with a Hegelian perspective on the matter that embraces such paradoxes. I think the problem with happiness is that it works well as an end but not a means. If it is to matter at all, given how much weight the Greeks and Benthamites have given it, then it must also be the ultimate end. And although it may look on its face like what we're doing when we measure happiness like we measure GDP is measuring how well we have achieved our ultimate ends, what we forget is that there is no "finality" to the whole process by which government uses such metrics in the way it governs; rather it constitutes a process by which the government constructs policies, then gets feedback on it, then acts on that feedback by constructing more policies etc. In that sense, it becomes a means to governance, rather than an end in itself. I realize this logic could be applied to all sorts of social policy but I think that (without elaborating that much because it would take a while) 1) it only works within our specific modern context and 2) it only applies to forms of governance that utilize numerical metrics. What we forget is that even before the conclusions within these studies are reinjected into society through clever social and economic engineering that makes everyone happier (which seems to be the point of them), they are already being interpreted by the people they are intended to represent as a way of seeing themselves and their value to the rest of society (because after all this is the primary role of what government experts do- value the role of people and their actions within society). And although seeing oneself as a means to an end is a regular part of life and indeed can be quite empowering, happiness is something so intrinsic to one's sense of self that it should never be used as a commodity by which individuals are seen as a means to an end of the "greatest pleasure for the greatest number". So I would take a more Zen view perhaps and say that there is no "way to happiness", rather "happiness is the way"- understanding that we don't have to consciously seek happiness to be striving towards it, because it is so intrinsic to our conceptions of our lives, is surely a much better ethic that will produce regular happiness.

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  4. This argument is a little counterintuitive, and based on Hegelian dialectical logic that isn't that familiar to most people, so I will expand on it a little. It will be useful to flesh out what you expressed in passing about how social networks make us more lonely. I'm going to express it at a very basic level but it also works on other levels- such is the nature of dialectical logic. So people in this day and age want self-actualization. I've been reading a bit of Lacan (not essential to this argument but useful in illustrating it), who uses dialectical logic and talks about how every human interaction requires the presence of a Big Other- that is, some kind of symbolic order by which boundaries, differences, and similarities are constituted. On the most basic level this is language. This sounds a lot like basic discourse analysis, however within his schema the Big Other has to be so fundamental that the "value judgments" implicit within its structure (if there are any) are so fundamental that they cannot be expressed through language. It is so fundamental that without it we would not exist as separate individuals (regardless of our constitutive identity). One of the biggest influences on the way we use language is the public/private divide. This is a very useful and essential divide according to Lacan because it mirrors the divide between the truths of human interaction and the "lies" that they depend on. The way this divide mirrored itself upon language was in its effect on what we could and couldn't talk about in public. This, in turn, gave what I would call a threshold power to certain words and discourses- to announce that you are perfectly happy, or in love, or fulfilled, as a public act, was to bring together the way you saw yourself and the way others saw you, and therefore indicate that you had passed some kind of threshold in moving towards that end. What facebook does, by blurring the public/private divide, is that it forces every small act to be interpreted in terms of self-actualization, and therefore trivalizes those thresholds. "If I do this, I will be happy for the rest of my life", "This was the best thing ever". You get my point. This is because Facebook has become something of a Big Other, this abstract entity that we build up through or own contributions, by which our acts are validated and our words are given value. What facebook ideally should do is to allow people to be who they are not while they're on facebook, by clearly and reflexively articulating the fact that everything that we do there is a form of representation and a means to an end and a lot of it is quite fake. It should give people greater power to show the inherent futility of language and pictures in expressing life and the incomparable, incommensurate experience of everyday interaction. It should give them the power to understand that there's this whole side to themselves away from that representation, which their acquaintances, friends and maybe even themselves are yet to discover. But because the fakeness of it has been forgotten, so to has the order and now it has become a bit of an end in itself. And in doing so it cheapens self-actualization as a whole.

    This logic is most useful in interrogating the difference/relationship between an economics influenced by ideas of happiness and a happiness influenced by ideas of economics. This is a very important difference and I think that, contrary to what you express in this article, the ultimate conclusion of dialectical logic is that we are moving towards the latter.