I said before that I suspected the Government would call in their version of Tony’s cronies to run the happiness index.
The BBC have just had debate on the point on the moral maze. So far so good. They included a psychotherapist, who is actually a senior person in the BACP which – as I’ve also mentioned elsewhere is a great organisation and well informed on mental issues such as depression. But that is, to an extent, the reverse of happiness. The movement towards positive psychology started by Martin Seligman has been looking at actual happiness for about 40 years – as I mentioned in the resources page, in the section on values and symbols. But a BACP member is a good start, at least it is somebody who has a clear picture of what happiness is not.
Then there is a teacher, involved in trying to bring “happiness” and the study of it to students. Again, good, it’s not expert comment, but it is a programme about morals not necessarily expertise and the concept of “what do we tell the children about life” is important. There’s a philosopher, and that makes sense from the point of view of “what is happiness” in abstract and in terms of ethics. And there’s an economist.
I’m not sure why there is an economist, except that the Government likes economists. There isn’t a psychologist who specialises in the study of happiness. Why not, there are plenty available?
The justification is, presumably, that it is a moral argument, they aren’t discussing whether you can measure happiness, but whether you should. But surely that means you have to know what happiness is and isn’t. You also need to have an idea of the meanings happiness has for different people. One element of psychology is an interest in individual differences, so what is “happiness” for one is misery for another. Economics doesn’t really have the tools to look at that, psychology does.
And to quote the programme blurb “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is all very well, but should happiness be an end in itself? Shouldn’t we be asking what we as individuals can to do make other people’s lives better, rather than asking what the state can do to make us happier?” Of course, if they actually looked at the happiness literature, they’d have seen that a big point about happiness is that it arises from altruistic behaviour, doing things for others, and that selfishness doesn’t lead to happiness any more than materialistic values do.
So, perhaps you, the reader would like to make the point to the BBC that, just like the Government they have fallen into the trap of assuming that all this is new and that we have to ask economists how to think about it and measure it. In fact, psychology has already asked a lot of the questions that the Government and BBC are just realising are questions, and even has some of the answers.