Happiness: Lessons from a new science: Book summary

What is the problem?

There is a paradox at the heart of our lives. We have become richer but not more happy. Wealth has made our life comfortable but has not given us happiness. Once subsistence income is guaranteed, making people happier is not easy.

The greatest happiness principle calls for the concept of common good. The common good is defined as the greatest happiness for all, requiring us to care for others as well as ourselves. It creates a fellow-feeling for others that increases happiness and decreases isolation.

What is happiness?

Happiness is feeling good and misery is feeling bad. This can be measured by asking people or monitoring their brains with instruments. We are talking here about average happiness and not moment to moment fluctuations. The left side of the frontal lobe makes us feel positive; the right side makes us feel negative. The amygdala is responsible for raw emotion, but this is not something we can consciously control. This concept of happiness as feelings and not something deeper can be criticised. But one should remember no good feeling is bad in itself- it is bad only if it has bad consequences-either for oneself or for others.

Unhappiness Happiness
Aroused Agitation Joy
Unaroused Depression Contentment

We want to be prosperous. That is why we follow the Capitalist system. We want to be free. That is why we hate the Communist system. But we also want more. Our wants are influenced by what other people have, what we have accustomed to and education, advertising and television. We want to keep up with other people. This leads to a status race, which is self-defeating. It makes us feel better at the cost of making others feel worse.We want security in our family, neighbourhood and work place. But this is dependant on external forces. We want to trust other people. But trust has decreased. We are inherently social and happiness depends on the quality of our relationship with other people. Happiness also depend on our attitudes-people are happier if they are compassionate and thankful for what they have. Happiness and feeling good are good for our physical health-those who are happy are less ill and live longer. Happiness is also our greatest motivational device. We seek to feel good and avoid pain(not moment by moment but overall). But we can be short-sighted and choose actions that make us feel bad. But with some guidance and help we have a good chance of getting away from it.

Are we getting happier?

When people become richer compared with other people they are happier. When whole societies have become richer, they are no happier. This is further shown by an increase in depression, alcoholism and crime in richer countries over the last 50 years. If your income increases you are happier if it lifts you out of sheer poverty. Beyond subsistence income, it does not make a lot of difference.

If you are so rich why aren’t you happy?

Whether you are happy with your income depends on what others get( social comparison- each of us has our own reference group) and what you are used to( habituation). But we are not worried about relative leisure and would sacrifice leisure to increase our income. One secret of happiness is to ignore comparisons with people successful than yourself.

There are certain things you get habituated to-especially material comforts. If we do not foresee we get used to our material possessions, we shall over invest in them at the expense of our leisure. We underestimate this process of habituation. Our life can get distorted towards working and making money, and away from other pursuits. A good work life balance could contribute to happiness.

Extra dollars make less difference to happiness if you are richer. In a society where income is most equally distributed, the average happiness increases. The central mechanism at work here is our habit of comparison. This is due to our psychology. We constantly distort our perception of reality by unhelpful comparisons. So, one secret of happiness is to enjoy things as they are, without comparing them with anything better. Another is to find out which things really make us happy.

So what does make us happy?

Happiness is affected by both genes and environment. Environment is something that we can do about. Hence we should try to do something about it rather than worry about genes.
Family upbringing is important. Family breakup is also important.

Age, gender, looks, IQ, physical and mental energy(self-rated) and education are not important in being happy.

The big seven factors affecting happiness are family relationships, financial situation, work, community and friends, health, personal freedom and personal values(including goals).

  • Married people are more happy.
  • If your income goes down, you become unhappy.
  • Unemployment causes unhappiness.
  • Unfulfilling work causes unhappiness.
  • Health is important but not as important. Chronic pain and mental illness cause unhappiness.
  • Personal freedom is important for happiness. War causes unhappiness.
  • Personal values are important-gratitude, not comparing with others, able to school their own moods, belief in God, caring for others, striving to do good for others, rather than striving to do well for oneself.
  • Goals are also important. It is important to have goals that stretch, but not too stretching. Unattainable goals can cause depression, as does boredom.

What’s going wrong?

In Bhutan, once TV was introduced it led to more crime, family breakups and unhappiness. TV influences our life to a great deal and is not just a reflection of what we are. Science and technology are the prime sources that affect our attitudes and feelings. The adverse trends we are noting are broken families, increased crime and decreased trust.

One cause of this is change in gender roles-more women going to work and its financial and social consequences, control of childbirth and its consequences, and attitudes towards marriage. People have less time to spend with each other and this has led to a family that is not friendly.

Another cause is TV. TV has more violence and sex, and more wealth and beauty. This desensitizes us to violence and sex and we commit more violence and illicit sex. We are also discontent with our wealth and beauty.

There has also been a change in moral and spiritual values. With the progress of science, there has been a decline in religious belief. Moral values have also changed with individualism trumping the good of the society. People  feel that the best thing is to be selfish-if not you will be taken for a ride. And selfishness will give the greatest amount of happiness.

Can we pursue a common good?

The question is whether it is possible to forego short-term advantage for long-term gain by cooperating with each other. It is. The reasons why we do it are many. Reputation building, seeking approval, having a sense of fairness and emotional commitment and ability to think long-term are some of the reasons we do it. If we have a common predicament, we often agree to coöperate.


The greatest happiness: is that the goal?

The principle of greatest happiness according to Jeremy Bentham is: the right action is one that produces the greatest overall happiness. This involves two separate points: one about fairness and one about happiness. The idea about fairness is that everyone is equally important.The other idea is that happiness is the ultimate good.

Happiness is the ultimate goal, because, unlike other goals, it is self-evidently good. Other goals like health, autonomy or freedom are instrumental goods- we can give further , more ultimate reasons for valuing them. A happy society has to be built on two foundations: first the greatest level of sympathy for others and second the strongest moral principles of impartiality.

There are a few things to remember:

  • An action that causes suffering to a person could increase the happiness of millions of people. We could decide to do such action if we want to help many people.
  • The paradox of happiness is that happiness is a by-product of doing something else. We do activities that give more satisfaction, in the perception that they will make us happy, although they might be things we would rather not do, but we do them for the sake of future good.
  • The greatest happiness principle takes into account the consequences of an action and the nature of the action itself, and looks for the overall greatest happiness.
  • The greatest happiness principle also takes into account what people can adapt to and what they cannot.
  • It should also be fair:it is more important to cut suffering than to generate extreme happiness. It is also important to avoid oppression of any group or person.
  • It also has to help us choose the rules and then to help us choose the action when the rules conflict.
  • The basic rights of an individual should be based on the principle of greatest happiness.
  • We should remember there may be a conflict between the rules. We should be able to review the rules if necessary. There are also a lot of situations in which rules provide little guidance.

So we should have an over arching principle.

This is:

People want to be happy. But we also have a moral sense, which tells us to consider other people as well as ourselves, Our reason helps us think how to do this, so that we come to value the happiness of everyone equally. That should be the rule for private behaviour and public choice. We shall not always do what is right, but if everyone tries, we shall end up happier.

Does economics have a clue?

Modern economics is based on voluntary exchange: you give something, I give something-you are happy, I am happy. It is efficient. But it is efficient only if three conditions are met-

  1. The market must be truly free so that new entrants can come into the market and sell at whatever price they like.
  2. Next, the buyer and seller must have the same information as to what is being sold. If the buyer is ill-informed, he needs consumer protection.Voluntary exchange works well if each deal affects only the parties to the exchange. If a deal affects other parties negatively, there may be net losses to the society as a whole, although the two parties gain. We would then need to tax or regulate the parties.
  3. Cost benefit analysis should not only take into account the monetary costs but also other intangible costs.

There are five main features that must somehow be included in this vision of how our well-being is generated:

  • Inequality. Extra income matters more to poor people than to the rich. We should treat the dollars of the rich and the poor as of different value.
  • External effects. Other people affect us indirectly and not only through exchange. If other people’s income increases, I become less satisfied with my income.
  • Values. Our norms and values change in response to external influences. If someone could get the same standard of living as his parents, he would generally get less happiness, because he expected a better standard of living. Within a standard of living there are a whole range of factors that influences how happy a person is: importance he attaches to social comparisons, the value we attach to money and the issue of altruism.
  • Loss-aversion. We hate loss more than we value gain.
  • Inconsistent behaviour. We behave inconsistently in many ways. These are because of simple innumeracy, failure to forecast your future failings and ill-informed behaviour towards risk.

Simple economics is not the answer as there are a lot of intangible factors which need measuring. We need to assess these while forming effective policy.

How can we tame the rat race?

We all want status-or atleast respect. It is wired into our genes and is a major source of satisfaction if we get it. It also improves physical health. So the desire for status is utterly natural. But it creates a massive problem if we want to make people happier, for the total amount of status available is fixed.

The fallacy of consumer sovereignity: It is not a good thing for the consumer to get people to work harder because the consumers are also the producers. If the consumers are to consume more, it is they who will have to produce it. If they work harder, they can indeed consume more but only at the sacrifice of something-their family life or their tennis or whatever. People like to have more relative income and therefore will work harder to achieve it. But the result will be too much work and a distorted work-life balance and less happiness. That is why we tax. mor income and more ‘pollution’ in any sense, and addictions. Taxes therefore perform an useful function-beyond that of raising money to pay for public expenditure: they are holding us back from an even more fevered way of life. We also work to respected. Status obviously has respect.

One way to tame the rat race is to increase the respect that is given to other things. Performance related pay also worsens happiness. If we want a better work place, we should teach our children that job satisfaction comes from work well done and not from getting ahead. Advertising increases wants and decreases happiness. Without advertising less would be bought, less work would be done but we would want to do less work as we would buy less. So there would be no change in the demand and supply of labour. Our current notion is that life is a competitive struggle. Rather than comparing yourself with others, a good way to improve one’s own performance is often to compare it with a benchmark that is absolute and not relative. Risk taking is good to an extent, but what use is risk taking if we become more stressed and discontent the more we become richer.

Can we afford to be secure?

We hate loss more than we like gain. That is why we like to be secure. People say this is not possible in a globalised world. But this is wrong. People want security in income, work, family life, community and health and if that is provided, people are generally happy.

Can mind control mood?

We can train ourselves in the art of being happy. Buddhism, positive psychology, mystical traditions, cognitive therapy and the like can all help. We need a school subject that imparts these values of the spirit Sometimes we will need to use good psychiatric drugs.

Conclusions for today’s world

Happiness is an objective dimension of all our experience. We are programmed to seek happiness. It is thus self-evident that the best society is the happiest. Our society is not likely to become happier unless people agree that this is what we want to happen. Human beings are deeply social beings. As social beings, we want to trust each other. People are also deeply attached to the status quo. They are also status conscious.They are also adaptable. In any case extra income increases happiness less and less as people get richer. In fact happiness depends on your inner life as much as on your outer circumstances. Public policy can more easily remove misery than augment happiness.

Are the sceptics right?


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