It's a problem philosophers have grappled with for centuries. What makes life go better or worse is varied, personal, and indefinableby Julian Baggini / October 18, 2018 / Leave a comment
Back in his all-things-to-all-voters days, before the crash and austerity diverted the young David Cameron from his land of milk and honey, he liked to claim GWB (General Well-Being) trumped GDP. Virtually nothing else survives from the hug-a-hoodie days, but there is a legacy here. Since 2010, the government has been tracking national well-being, by surveying citizens on four questions about how happy, satisfied and anxious they are, and how worthwhile they feel their life is.
No one but a misery guts wants to stop people being happy, but the fundamental problem here is that all the measures are quantitative, ranking how you feel on a one-to-10 scale, whereas the most important variations are qualitative.
This is a problem that was recognised in the early days of utilitarianism, the philosophy that claims acts are good to the extent that they promote happiness (or other candidates for the ultimate human good), and bad to the extent that they do the reverse. Its founder, Jeremy Bentham, was adamant that all that mattered was pleasure; it didn’t matter where that came from, as long as it wasn’t at somebody else’s expense. His secular godson, John Stuart Mill, disagreed, arguing that “higher” pleasures were superior to lower, carnal ones, even when less intense—poetry was better than push-pin, a kind of low-tech Victorian alternative to Candy Crush.
Richard Layard, the former “happiness Tsar” who developed the well-being index, is a self-confessed Benthamite who doesn’t see Mill’s objection as a problem. Still, the final design of the index nodded at the dilemmas by supplementing the self-rating happiness and anxiety questions with those about satisfaction, and life feeling worth- while. But the questions remain blunt and still rely on a crude “one-to-10” answer. Laudable as the aim of transcending GDP may have been, the methodology is hopelessly focused on quantity over quality.
Even Mill’s higher/lower distinction only scratches the surface of the real complexities. Many of the things that make life most worth living are just not captured under the headings of happiness, satisfaction or even being worthwhile, and to make things worse, these things can cut against one another.
For me, writing and thinking are central to my “life project,” for want of a better term. Does doing it make me happy? Sometimes, but not as reliably as…