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
Published in November 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
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 a good breakfast does. Does it make me satisfied? Sometimes, but more often than not it is dissatisfaction which drives me on. If I thought that I had it all worked out and had produced the best work I could then I would perhaps be retired. Do I think my work is worthwhile? It would be arrogant to assume it is. Philosophy, especially, always runs the risk of being a futile search down a blind alley that leads only to error.
Yet pursuing what I most value makes an unquantifiable qualitative difference to my life. Asking how much “better” it makes my life on a scale is a bizarre question that I have no idea how to answer.
Even when it comes to happiness more narrowly, numerical scores are pretty meaningless. People tend to plump for seven because they’re less than elated but don’t think they have anything special to complain about. As a result, the average national score hardly moves. Last year it didn’t budge, leaving news reports to fixate on regional differences: the Outer Hebrides scored highest for happiness, while London was worst for anxiety. As for cross-national comparisons, culture clouds everything: there is much that is fine about the French way of life, but Gallic gloom (or candour) means they tend to score lower on self-rated well-being than sunny-side-up Americans.
We can and should measure the things that generally help us live better—access to education, healthcare, a basic income and so on. But once our material needs are met, what makes life go better or worse is too varied, too personal, too indefinable to be meaningfully measured. Governments should measure, and ensure, the pre-conditions for flourishing. Flourishing itself should be spared the bean counters.