Tuesday, October 15, 2002

More (maybe less) happiness

Returning to happiness once more (it is after all a research area of one of the winners of this year's Nobel Prize for Economics), Don posts this interesting comment:

"A lot of people have seized on this research because they like the conclusions it seems to lead to - things like wealth and income redistribution, direct job creation and high taxes on luxuries.

These people ought to stop and think.

Try these thought experiments:

1. A neuro-psychologist invents a therapy which she guarantees will instantly resolve feelings of bitterness and injustice and induce long lasting feelings of contentment and well being. She suggests administering it to Indigenous land rights campaigners and members of the stolen generation. If it makes everyone happier then what's the problem?

2. Imagine that new research demonstrates that people who are poor in relative terms are only unhappy because they know that others are better off. This leads to contentment sapping cognitions of unfairness. Should we improve their level of happiness by banning media portrayals of wealth? Could we improve their standard of psychological well being by segregating poor people so that wealth disparities are concealed from them?

3. Imagine that researchers discover that some people are using opera, classical music, and listening to Radio National as positional goods ('cultural capital'). They choose these things in order to set themselves apart from ordinary folks who prefer things like action movies, Kylie Minogue, and Alan Jones. Should we abolish government subsidies to opera, orchestras, and Radio National?

Could it be that there's more to life than being happy?"

My response: A very good point.

I said (on ABC Radio National) some years ago that the ultimate goal of life had to be more to life than merely happiness.

Otherwise we would all take a happiness drug or connect ourselves to electrodes that stimulated the happiness parts of our brains.

We need struggle, we need to be unsatisfied, we need stress in order to make life truly rich.

As I say to my daughter, stress, even anguish is like salt. We need some, but not too much in order to make life truly taste good.