Friday, 26 November 2010

Happiness is...

Well. I don't envy Sir Michael Scholar KCB and Stephen Penneck. These are the two government statisticians who have been charged by David Cameron with coming up with a measure of the nation's 'happiness' and 'well-being'. The project is being run by JIll Matheson, the UK's National Statistician. You can join in the debate via The Office for National Statistics' website. I guess we can look forward to household surveys and the like, but if you click on the links you can download the consultation questions and provide some bottom-up input for The Powers That Be. *
It is intriguing that Lord Snooty has chosen to take a statistical approach to a topic that has bothered philosophers from Socrates and Plato down to the present day. I had a general sense of well-being and pleasure last week when Spurs beat Arsenal 3-2 but that is, sadly, only temporary. At the root of the debate is, of course, the definition of terms. Plato talks about the virtue of the soul (which assumes the existence of an immortal soul) and about moral virtue, the use of reason, and acting according to knowledge, leading to a healthy soul. And this leads us to the organised discussion of ethics. But others might define happiness differently. Nietzsche thought happiness came through overcoming hardship and gaining power. Mind you he was generally a gloomy kind of soul. Hume posited that happiness consists in a balance of action, pleasure and indolence. For Epicurus, happiness would be a lucid state, free from worry or, more specifically, not being bothered about Gods because they (he/she/it) aren't concerned with us; avoiding politics; associating with trustworthy and affectionate friends and being virtuous, affectionate and trustworthy yourself.
Be that as it may, I expect  Lord Snooty is looking for a mechanistic rather than a metaphysical methodology. If he, or the statisticians, did Business Studies at GCSE level they will be familiar with Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs (see diagram). Abraham Maslow was a psychologist who developed this model as a theory for understanding motivation - it has been adopted by business schools and management trainers as a way of encouraging employers to help their workers fulfil their potential. In Maslow's model, happiness or well-being equates with 'self-actualisation' - achieving personal fulfilment, personal growth and seeking 'peak experiences'. So it's kind of somewhere between what Plato and his ilk were on about and the more mundane aspects of human existence. Relative outcomes for individuals rather than philosophical absolutes.It remains to be seen to what extent Government policy and expenditure can or will be directed towards providing anything beyond the minimum physiological and safety needs. Maslow's theories don't fit well with present day globalised neo-liberalist economics where exploitation of capital and labour for profit is everything: 
"Classic economic theory, based as it is on an inadequate theory of human motivation, could be revolutionized by accepting the reality of higher human needs, including the impulse to self actualization and the love for the highest values." - Abraham Maslow
* You have until 15 April 2011 to submit your input to the Office for National Statistics.

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