Increasing affluence has given us more and more to worry about. Rather than simply spending each day finding enough to eat and avoiding danger – like most animals and our earlier ancestors – most of us now have the luxury of a wide range of concerns to choose from. At the more extreme end of the spectrum, we find the search for new ways to be offended, with simple words taking on a significance far beyond their intention.
But even away from the bewildering world of identity politics and the attempted erasure of public figures tainted by colonialism from history, concerns about what were once relatively peripheral issues have come high up the agenda. To look at it another way, perhaps, it seems fair to say that many people are finding new ways to be unhappy. Which seems a little ironic, given that the achievement of happiness has always been important. As the founding fathers of the USA put it in the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
In the modern world, the pursuit of money sometimes seems to trump the search for happiness. GDP is the primary measure of progress, although there has always been a significant body of dissenters. Bhutan famously measures its state of happiness, and UK Prime Minister David Cameron promised in 2010 to measure gross national happiness, although this either seems to have been quietly dropped or else is no longer publicised.
This measure was based on a survey of the sort used by the OECD in their Better Life Initiative, covering eleven dimensions: personal security, environmental quality, civic engagement, social connections, health status, income and wealth, jobs and earnings, housing, education and skills, work-life balance and subjective well-being. More wide-ranging is the series of World Happiness reports, published by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network. This year, the headline is that Finland came out on top, but Denmark, Switzerland and Norway have been recent number ones.
This perhaps illustrates the difficulties of measuring something as intangible as happiness. Surveys are shaped by the preconceptions of their designers and may tend to confirm biases as much as reveal objective truth. Finland, as others have pointed out, has its share of misery, and a particularly high suicide rate. Include some of the negatives, and things may look rather different. The World Happiness reports also have another agenda, focussing to a large degree on the results of migration in both home and host countries.
Dissatisfaction seems to be intrinsic to the human condition. Although poverty causes hardship, money in itself cannot buy happiness. Most people need to feel some sense of fulfilment rather than just engage in the pursuit of pleasure. Without some goal in mind, life can lack meaning, so the happier billionaires seem to be those who use their resources to achieve something. Bill and Melinda Gates are probably extreme examples, but there are plenty of others who don’t simply spend time comparing superyachts.
A degree of dissatisfaction with life is necessary for progress to be made, and addressing that dissatisfaction can help to make us happy. A state of permanent happiness, on the other hand, is a recipe for stagnation. If as Dr Pangloss, you believe we live in the best of all possible worlds, why should we try to improve it?
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has ‘self-actualisation’ at the top of the pyramid, after basic existential and relationship needs are met. This is a difficult concept to define but, in essence, it is an open-ended quest to ‘find ourselves’ or ‘do something with our lives’. It encapsulates the need for something to occupy and stimulate us.
Our generation enjoys a better standard of living than any previous one, and vastly better than that lived by people living just a century ago. But it seems that every generation looks back to some golden age and sees things getting worse. In the present day, we worry about standards of education, addiction to social media, housing affordability, air pollution and plastics in the environment, to name just a few issues.
Meanwhile, we take for granted such things as the freedom to travel, the availability of a vast range of information and services at the touch of a smartphone, and a demonstrably cleaner environment than that enjoyed by our parents and grandparents. True, these things haven’t made us noticeably happier, but the truth is that nothing will. Innovation is the flipside of dissatisfaction and we will continue to make progress while this is the case.
Humans have become the dominant species because our intelligence is capable to seeing how to do things differently and better. It is impossible to conceive of a state of development at which everyone is perfectly happy and nothing changes. That in itself would imply a change in the human psyche that could herald the decline and extinction of societies. Nuclear war, artificial intelligence or virulent strains of disease have all been posited as destroyers of the human race. If we survive those, boredom could well prove the end of us.
Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness may indeed by unalienable rights, but it is the pursuit of happiness rather than the achievement of it that is the source of satisfaction and lies at the heart of our humanity. Onwards and upwards, as they say.