14 April 2008

Another 'expert' on happiness

It appears we have an addition to the gaggle of academics supposedly able to tell us what happiness is, and how to get it, this time a trained philosopher: A.C. Grayling, writing in the Telegraph.

Fortunately, we get at least a soup├žon of scepticism about the notion that happiness is a suitable object for facile ‘scientific’ study and for the generation of similarly facile conclusions.

''happiness'' is too vague and baggy a notion to be truly helpful. It is like an old pair of knickers that has lost its elastic and become over-capacious and shapeless.
Unfortunately, Grayling's scepticism on the topic seems to begin and end with the above extract.
The lack of relationship between wealth and happiness has long been common knowledge ...
It has? Is it like the “common knowledge” that the US government is suppressing information about extraterrestrials? Surely Professor Grayling is familiar with the concept of argumentum ad populum, so it's sad that he does not demonstrate a more critical attitude to it. I suspect he is not even basing this statement on social evidence (e.g. survey results showing that a majority answer 'no' to a question like 'does more money make you happier'), though even that wouldn't make it 'knowledge'.

The data provided by the latest edition of Social Trends, on which Grayling's comments are based, seems to be limited to people's answers to the question "how satisfied are you with your current standard of living?". Using these answers to measure changes over time in happiness (assuming this concept even has a precise meaning) requires a series of questionable leaps of logic.

Given the observation 'real income has increased but reported satisfaction has not', there are plenty of other possible explanations to consider before concluding that money does not make you happy. For example, the fact that in a mediocracy, certain things may become inexpensive (e.g. clothes, toys) but certain other things become more or less unobtainable, e.g. genuinely reliable service in areas such as air travel. Or, it could be because restrictions on personal liberty have been inexorably increasing over the last twenty years. Or perhaps because contemporary ideology encourages people to feel angry and resentful.
If mere happiness were the point, we could easily achieve it for everyone by suitably medicating the water supply.
A rather sweeping and tendentious assertion. There may well be a general assumption that feelings of happiness could, at least in theory, be engendered by appropriate medication, but the evidence for this is mixed to say the least.
The other confusion concerns wealth. If a person has a million pounds in the bank and never touches a penny of it, or a huge mansion and never occupies it, it is the same as if he had neither the money nor the house. What this shows is that wealth is not so much what one has, but what one does with it … If you would like to know how rich a person is, you need to ask not how much money he has, but how much he has spent. [my emphasis]
This is utter nonsense. It's understandable though, in the light of the prevailing anti-bourgeois ethos, according to which storing up for a rainy day is regarded as dubious.
This idea is associated with the wise teaching that the philosophers and poets of antiquity never tired of repeating: that a rich person is he who has enough. If his needs are modest and his habits frugal, then so long as his resources provide enough to meet both, he is rich.
Really. But weren’t the philosophers and poets of antiquity often independently wealthy? Otherwise, how could they afford to indulge their philosophical and poetic activities? Perhaps their supposed advice about “having enough” and “modest needs” needs to be seen in that context.

Further lyrical waxing about the rewards of being poor, but satisfied, follows.
Ruskin tellingly remarked ''a man wrapped up in himself makes a very small parcel'', and this, alas, characterises too many people. The limited surface area of such parcels does not attract much of the golden dust of satisfaction.

The true equation between happiness and wealth is this: that happiness is wealth. Unlike wealth in the form of money and possessions, such happiness can never be quantified, only felt; and if one has it, it does not matter if the level of it always stays the same.
I beg to differ. You might as well say that wealth is happiness. It enables you to get most of the things you need. And a prerequisite for being happy is having one's needs satisfied.

One of my needs is to be a productive intellectual. Sadly, this turns out to be a need which the British academic system will no longer provide for, except in distorted ways — though it appears to do so adequately for Professor Grayling’s requirements, as far as this can be inferred. The only way I appear to be able ever to satisfy my need is if I can build up sufficient savings from investment activities to finance an institutional environment. I wonder what Professor Grayling would make of my situation. Perhaps he would counsel me against the accumulation of wealth, and urge me to scale down my needs and habits, so that they are "modest" and "frugal".