Patrick Hayes, 30 September 2006
An angry exchange in rural Nepal between my trekking guide and a travelling companion first led me to reflect seriously on this issue. My travelling companion, then seduced by the idea of being a Buddhist, pointed to a hunched porter carrying dozens of large orange bricks on his back and commented that despite his burden, ‘it’s quite remarkable how happy he seems to be’.
Our guide, who had until this point displayed great tolerance towards our naïve observations of his country, snapped at him: ‘You think he’s happy just because he’s smiling and laughing? This man will not be more than 30 but looks twice that, he carries these bricks on this path for 25 days and gets paid little more than the price of the dinner you had in the Western restaurant in Kathmandu. All that time he doesn’t see his family, who will have no education and live in villages connected by no roads and where people increasingly have to sell their daughters to the Chinese across the border. He may smile, but he suffers and that is not something to celebrate.’
What immediately sprang to mind in the silence that followed after my companion had finished apologising profusely was an article I’d read in the Guardian the previous year, where George Monbiot had painted an image of southern Ethiopia where in ‘the poorest half of the poorest nation on earth, the streets and fields crackle with laughter’ (Monbiot 27.8.2002).
Although at pains to point out that he didn’t want to suggest that poverty was the cause of happiness, in this article Monbiot certainly advocates the idea that the more wealth we possess, the less content we are. Following this logic through, therefore, any increase in wealth amongst the Nepalese or Ethiopians is likely to increase their unhappiness.
Even amongst those who support the ‘happiness agenda’ in economics and development thinking, very few would be against material wealth per se. Most would suggest that there is a threshold of material wealth one needs to cross before it ceases to have an impact upon happiness. This has been estimated to be about £10,000 in the UK, although another researcher has estimated that average happiness only increases due to increase in income in countries where people earn less than $15,000 per person.
Even so, there is a tendency to hear in the crackle of laughter present in the abject poverty of Ethiopian towns yet (apparently) missing in the cities of the West, a sense of wellbeing and happiness that is lacking in more affluent countries.
As a way of explaining this, Monbiot is not alone in arguing that ‘the more wealth we possess, the more isolated we become’. An increase in wealth triggers an isolating desire to protect it, a susceptibility to advertising and an increasing reliance upon technology, which ‘supplants our reliance upon ourselves and other people’.
In his increasingly influential work Happiness: Lessons from a New Science, Richard Layard broadly agrees, effectively summarising his views in the claim that income is addictive. The notion of people being addicted to expanding their wealth is telling, as it suggests that people are trapped in a cycle of habitual actions of which they may not be conscious.
In the same way that nicotine is seen to be the cause of people’s addiction to smoking, money is seen to be the cause of people’s addiction to the desire for more material goods. A desire for wealth is seen to be the cause of a global cancer, alienating us from ourselves and others and being the major source of unhappiness. We end up on the ‘hedonic treadmill’ where any material gain we have can never satisfy us.
As a result, we end up perpetually aspiring towards bigger and better cars and houses, fuelled especially by our envy of the wealth possessed by our peers. This problem has allegedly been exacerbated by television, which has served to broaden horizons and deepen envy. According to Layard, depression and anxiety typically result. Layard (2006: 48) gives a personal example:
...I grew up without central heating. It was fine. Sometimes I had to huddle over the fire or put my feet in a bowl of hot water, but my mood was good. When I was forty, I got central heating. Now I would feel really miserable if I had to fight the cold as I once did. In fact I have become addicted to central heating.
Living standards are, apparently, ‘to some extent like alcohol or drugs’. Underlying any notion of ‘addiction’ is the idea that we have a problematic dependency upon something external to us. Our actions are being dictated by something other than our free will. In the case of desiring more wealth, wealth – or money, its symbolic form – is seen to be the root of all evil.
The idea that we are weak-willed is also evident in Monbiot, who criticises advertising for creating ‘gaps in our lives in order to fill them’. We are, it would appear, so susceptible to manipulative advertisers that we are unable to distance ourselves from the rhetoric and decide whether or not such products being advertised to us will actually benefit us.
Is this true? Do we in our day-to-day lives find ourselves driven to dissatisfaction by a drive for illusory ‘gaps’ generated by advertising campaigns? Having purchased a plasma screen television, do we immediately yearn for a larger, more advanced version? The reality is that there is usually more substance in the ‘gaps’ than Monbiot would have us believe. The introduction of DVDs was seen to be a massive marketing scam. However, having recently blown the dust off of my old VCR, I was struck by how poor the sound and picture quality was. Whilst we can be inquisitive, we are far more rational consumers than we are given credit for: we may buy Vanilla Coke once to see if it tastes good, but very few of us bought it twice. The vast majority of us know ourselves well enough to know what we want, and when to stop, and don’t need to be patronised by ‘experts’ who believe they know what we want better than we do.
It is this lack of faith in our ability to act rationally that allows both Monbiot and Layard to appoint themselves as our enlightened moral guardians. Monbiot, predictably, points to our ignorance towards the way in which we treat the environment. Layard, in the guise of ‘science’, attempts to impose deeply reactionary conclusions about how we can attain a state of happiness. Apparently research has shown that ‘crime and mental illness are higher in transient or mixed communities, all things being equal’. As a result, ‘people like what is familiar to them’. Such research leads Layard to conclude ‘scientifically’ that ‘happiness, and not economic dynamism, should be the goal of public policy’.
But if an example of dynamism is to be able to switch on central heating rather than having to put your feet in a bowl of hot water, surely much happiness can emerge as a result? Those of us who advocate the idea of happiness as a by-product of being engaged in our chosen projects are dismissed by Layard as a ‘dismal philosophy’ as it is a ‘formula for keeping occupied at all costs’ (Layard 2006: 235). Layard is concerned that if we work too hard to try to attain wealth, and the satisfaction that comes with it, we will miss out on what he believes to be more spiritually enriching leisure time.
And if we disagree with Layard’s conception of happiness? Fear not, because now our judgments about what makes us happy are unlikely to matter much for much longer as ‘we can now take measurements of the electrical activity in the relevant parts of a person’s brain. All of these different measurements give consistent answers about a person’s happiness’ (Layard 2006: 224).
We are apparently ‘programmed to seek happiness’ (Layard 2006: 224) so anyone striving towards something altruistic, or self-effacing must in some way be malfunctioning. Such claims should be of grave concern to anyone who would dare to claim they have the ability to make up their own mind about what makes them happy.
Rather than saying anything scientific about our happiness, such a theory says a lot about Layard, who seems to idealise a stagnant world where happy neurons fire in blissful brains and people live a life of leisure, having become enlightened to the fact that the idea of working to better their lot is merely an unhealthy illusion akin to a heroin high.
Whilst one could simply dismiss Layard’s ideal as the retirement home beckoning to him, we cannot ignore Layard’s influence. For example, it has recently been announced that happiness lessons are shortly to be introduced onto the curriculum in the UK and Layard’s proposal to introduce 10,000 therapists into the NHS is currently being piloted. It is therefore important to question how such misanthropic ideas have gained such purchase today.
The problems caused by desiring greater wealth and money are far from fundamental today. A much greater problem lies instead with those who have such a degraded view of humanity that they pathologise the desire to live a wealthier life, and attempt to impose upon us their own reactionary views about what makes us happy as ‘established truths’.
Patrick Hayes is promotions coordinator, Battle of Ideas
Layard, R. (2006). Happiness: Lessons from a New Science. London, Penguin Books.
The richer we are, the more miserable we become, George Monbiot, Guardian, 27 Aug 2002
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