Moon of Alabama Brecht quote
March 15, 2005

'Pursuit' not the Best Way to Happiness


I quote the Financial Times a lot. That's because (i) that's what I actually read, (ii) they have some really good articles, and (iii) it's a paper that not too many of you read here. Oh and (iv) I enjoy reading it. It's what I do when I get to work, just before going to get my coffee. It's actually a nice way to start the day... Actually, I also have to connect my computer to the bank's servers, which is pretty slow. I am usually going through page 2 (European News) when I finally have access to internet and click on dailyKos and Moon of Alabama. I then go back and forth between the three...

Anyway, this is just to introduce you to tomorrow's FT column on Happiness. (Yeah, I cheat - many articles are available online the previous evening already. That's enjoyable too - the feeling of being there before all others).

Here goes...

I liked the sentence that I used as the title to that diary, and I thought I'd share this article which fits with the 'zeitgeist' here on MoA; I am especially happy to report that what I read in the Financial Times (the - smarter - European answer to the Wall Street Journal) and what I read here on MoA are rarely incompatible, which should tell you something about the other side...

John Kay: Winners and losers in happiness stakes (behind subscription wall)

[A] fascinating new book* by Richard Layard, the British economist, argues that we should make happiness, not growth, the object of our economic policies. At first sight, there is not a lot of difference - the countries with the highest productivity are also the happiest. But on closer inspection, there are interesting differences.

People in rich countries are generally happier than people in poor countries. But once basic needs for food, clothing and shelter are more or less universally met - higher gross domestic product does not seem to make societies happier. All affluent countries are rather happy. Within this group, the Danes and the Dutch are at the top and the French and Italians at the bottom but the differences are not large. A generous welfare system does not seem to fulfil either the fears of the right or the hopes of the left. The best assessment is that welfare adds happiness if, but only if, most people believe the system is fair.


People who say that video recorders are more important than fair trials and free speech are just wrong. Still, richer countries tend to be happier and, within a country, richer people tend to be happier. Since people care a lot about their relative income, equality adds to happiness. But in a subtle way: we compare ourselves to people like us, we envy the neighbours rather than Bill Gates. Nothing seems so corrosive of social welfare as the sense that people in similar circumstances are freeloading at work or on benefit. Fairness, trust and the strength of social bonds make us happier. They also do a lot to make us richer.

That is why the notion that greed is good is doubly flawed - perhaps trebly so, because you do not become happy by taking out more than you put in. Almost every survey shows that stable relationships and fulfilling jobs are the most important contributors of personal happiness.

This evidence points to policies appropriate for a society that aims to promote the happiness of its citizens. Such policies are family friendly, and provide generous benefits to the unemployed. Decent employment is available to anyone who wants a job but people who are fit to work must accept that this is a condition of benefit. The happy country maintains social homogeneity and institutionalises trust between citizens.

Again, these messages should not surprise many here. The interesting thing is that they come in a serious business publication and are based on the work of a renowned mainstream economist (whose book you can find here: Happiness: Lessons from a New Science (if you don't mind Amazon), and an earlier summary of whose ideas on the topic can be found here (in html) or here (in pdf) from where the graphs on this post have been taken).

You may remember the story about child care ranking far behind watching TV among enjoyable activities. Well that table here shows where that came from...



Posted by Jérôme à Paris on March 15, 2005 at 22:28 UTC | Permalink


The finns happier than us swedes? This is an outrage of epic proportions. Our stereotype of the finns require a certain permanent depression only to be lifted by alcohol and sauna (preferably in combination). The mutual stereotype-balance has not been this disturbed since it was discovered that more finnish men than swedish men discribe themselves as gay. Oh, now I get it. That is just it. More people are gay...

Making word-jokes in english. If only my old english teacher could see me now.

Seriously though, I find this kind of statistics really interesting. Good post.

Posted by: A swedish kind of death | Mar 16 2005 1:54 utc | 1

Forgot to comment the top chart:
What strikes me is that the fifties were really the happy decade.

Posted by: A swedish kind of death | Mar 16 2005 1:55 utc | 2

When the fall comes, and it will come, here's hOw they will control the 'have-nots':
Military contract for (PEP)pulsed energy projectile pain study

New Scientists recently reported on the "non-lethal" Pulsed Energy Projectile weapon that fires a burst of painful plasma from up to 2 kilometers away. link BB pal Vann Hall points us to a military contract, unearthed by the Sunshine Project in January, for the University of Florida to conduct a study on the "sensory consequences" of such a weapon. Ouch:
The full capability of these directed energy systems (DE) are still being explored. At their current stage of development, each system has clear non-lethal (ADS) and lethal (PEP) capacities... Our experiments will examine the feasibility of PEP as a new generation non-lethal weapon. Pulsed energy can be configured to produce plasmas of exceptionally high energy...

In the studies described below we will determine the feasibility of using the plasma derived EMP to induce pain suitable to disarm and deter individuals or form barriers to the movement of large hostile groups. {Via Boing boing}

Posted by: Uncle $cam | Mar 16 2005 2:32 utc | 3

In Amurka, land of the Pursuit of Happiness:

The fact is, our children are already being overmedicated. According to a May, 2003 report by the New York Times, "National sales of anti-psychotics reached $6.4 billion in 2002, making them the fourth-highest-selling class of drugs, behind cholesterol-lowering drugs, ulcer drugs and antidepressants."

The number of children on antidepressant medication increased by over 500% between 1999 and 2003. Antidepressants and anti-psychotics now constitute two of the four top classes of drug sales.

From an article on the truly spooky and scary BushCo>New Freedom Initiative. As a side issue note that similar programs have already been tried as pilots or tests in individual states:

One program is the Texas Medication Algorithm Project (TMAP), a medication treatment program that screens people for mental illness and then prescribes highly profitable psychiatric drugs.

However, the plan came under intense scrutiny when it was implemented in the state of Pennsylvania. A whistle-blower by the name of Allen Jones,* who was an employee of the Pennsylvania office of Inspector General, published a report that described how medical leaders in Pennsylvania who controlled the medication plan, received payments from the drug companies who were going to benefit from the plan.

Through the Texas scheme, drug companies were able to gain unlimited access to the Texas prison system, juvenile justice system, foster care program, and state mental health hospitals, to recruit new customers.

After guerrilla marketing, I guess, comes State-mandated marketing. Where the corporadoes bribe the State to supply them with a (literally) captive market, sales to be paid for by the dollars extorted from taxpayers. Those taxpayers who refuse to pay up will be sent to jail where they can join the captive market. Boy, "The System Works" all right.

Posted by: DeAnander | Mar 16 2005 6:19 utc | 4

Hey Jerome,

Just making sure I've got the daily morning timeline right....

You get to read the FT....then you go out for coffee...

Now that is a part of French life that I like the sound of.

(especially because of the fact that it takes me 3hr minimum to get through the FT, although I'm not particularly good with graphs!)

Posted by: RossK | Mar 17 2005 4:13 utc | 5

In happiness research richer people tend to rate themselves as happy, as they know they should be happy as they have practically all they want. Poor people are not subject to these constraints and just tick the box that corresponds. (Lost love, despondency, a stroke of good look, all average out..)

They don’t need to worry, or lie, to themselves, or others. They are not, they feel, representatives of a class / group who has to adhere to conventional norms, be careful of what they say, even on an anonymous questionnaire. They don’t imagine themselves as being judged, as having to be PC. Their relation to the questioner (be if a sympathetic sociologist or the poor chap from down the road who got this silly job because he needs he money, good for him) is straight - honest dealing.

They will probably be the only ones who consider the question interesting and who will talk about them afterwards.

Posted by: Blackie | Mar 17 2005 19:20 utc | 6

Funny how no one had much to say on this thread, which is potentially a powerfully subversive one...

Tuesday, March 22, 2005 WE'RE NUMBER ONE AGAIN

DAVID PODVIN,>MAKE THEM ACCOUNTABLE - The World Health Organization has released a study that verifies the United States is the undisputed champion in mental illness, dominating various pathologies ranging from anxiety to depression to poor impulse control. We easily vanquished underachieving Old Europe in post-traumatic stress syndrome, bipolar disorder, and bulimia nervosa. Additionally, our magnificent land trounced the supposedly productive Asian countries in both senility and agoraphobia, while coasting past Africa in pediatric hyperactivity.

Why is this subversive? Because of course the fundamental tenet of the capitalist faith is that it maximises happiness. This is the basic premise behind all the babble about "utility maximisers" and "rational actors" and the rest of the freemarket Book of Common, Oops-make-that-Individual, Prayer.

If the proponents of capitalism said openly, "This is the most efficient system ever developed for stripping natural resources and converting them into concentrated wealth and social power for a tiny hereditary elite," they wouldn't have many fans. But instead (like all apologists for all feudal regimes) they say instead "This is the most efficient system for maximising individual happiness."

Just as the apologists for the Divine Right of Kings preached that maximum happiness was realised when everyone knew their place in the divinely-ordained hierarchy and stuck to it; just as the Confucians (male and adult) preached that maximum happiness was reached when women and children obeyed adult men, men obeyed the nobles and the nobles obeyed the Emperor... Every winner in a rigged game wants the designated losers (i.e. the marks) to believe that they are somehow also winners, or at least that they would be worse off out of the game than they are in it.

The ostensible rationale justifying American casino-capitalism is that it makes people happier than they would be under any other system, and America "stronger" and more successful than any other country. If Americans are not, in fact, happier than other people -- if they suffer a higher incidence of depression, violence, poor impulse control, addiction, suicide, etc. -- then one of the primary marketing slogans foe casino capitalism is undermined, just as the high incidence of alcoholism, sabotage, and absenteeism among workers in Stalin's Russia (not to mention the number of dissidents in gulags) undermined the Soviet mythology of the Happy Healthy Worker.

This may explain why the ruling class is content to invest so much money in controlling the media and forcing it to spit out HappyTalk News (TM) when it is not coordinating 15-Minute Hates of the designated hate-object du jour. Americans must continue to believe that this is a happy, happy, happy country. Those who are unhappy must (a) be convinced that they are isolated individuals with individual emotional or neurological failures, not representatives of any kind of cultural anomie or structural failure, and (b) be drugged into a bemused state of contentment lest their unhappiness be too visible to others.

There are always individual "failures" in every culture, and I'm not completely dissing the role of brain chemistry in emotional "disorders." But what are the odds that problematic brain chemistry would affect Americans more than other populations, and how does one explain the increased incidence of depression and depressive behaviours in, e.g. Hispanic immigrant families after they take up residence in the US?

Is the type and intensity of brainwashing required to keep the infinite-consumption mythology churning, inherently guaranteed to produce emotional/mental distress as a side effect? Is the endless commercial overstimulation of every primate instinct (from gatherer/hunter habits to sex to display behaviour) producing pathologies much as endless exposure to other forms of overstimulation (noise, bright lights. etc) would do? Are we deliberately making ourselves mentally ill?

And speaking of which, Zeynep wants to know why no one wants to talk about>Terry Schiavo's bulimia and how it contributed to her terminal condition.

Posted by: DeAnander | Mar 22 2005 21:08 utc | 7

Though happiness is a relatively conditioned by experience--i.e., is historically variable--capitalism sucks because it requiures every moment of happiness deferred to a moment that seldom arrives. On the one hand, commodity consumption promises fulfillment, even while such fulfillment is persistently delayed by the promise of an "new & improved" consumption. Expectations of happiness are piled up as high as the heap of commodities.

I know I'm preaching at the choir, but amazingly, all this has been said before by Marx, Weber, Durkheim, Simmel, Freud (lookit all them Germans).

Even accounting for an inherency to accomplish completely unproductive expenditures, there's surely a better more "sustainable" means to do this, as our previous interesting discussions about "potlatch" attempted to discover.

Suppose I should get reading those Diamond books.

Posted by: slothrop | Mar 22 2005 21:49 utc | 8

You only have to walk through a slum in Mumbai or a fringe suburb in New Delhi and be bowled over by the smiles and the happiness of these people who have, in material terms, nothing, but have a much more 'centred' life than us in the affluent west for whom postmodernity and anxiety are flipsides of the same project.

Posted by: theodor | Mar 24 2005 6:09 utc | 9

theodor, that was my impression too. What shocked me on the other hand was, when after traveling for over 4 weeks over South India, experiencing the 'luminosity' of Indians and then entering the international lounge of Mumbai Airport, being full of western walking Zombies. I can not describe it any other way. India is definitely an experience that touches deeply into the soul. That airport experience made me aware, how much we in the west have lost touch with our center or if you want to our soul.

Posted by: Fran | Mar 24 2005 9:55 utc | 10

Speaking of the world and relative happiness, a friend sent me these.

Posted by: beq | Mar 24 2005 12:51 utc | 11

darn. I'll try again.

Posted by: beq | Mar 24 2005 12:52 utc | 12

This was spam and deleted by the blogowner

Posted by: unique baby names | May 12 2005 16:47 utc | 13

those links aren't working for me

Posted by: annie | May 12 2005 17:23 utc | 14

Bernhard/Jerome, you can delete my useless link too.

Posted by: beq | May 12 2005 18:06 utc | 15

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