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If the moral basis of liberalism can be summed up in a single sentence, then this from Jeremy Bentham surely does the job: “it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong.”

Happiness, though, is a notoriously difficult thing to define let alone quantify, which is why progressive governments resort to financial proxies. From time to time, liberal thinkers wonder if a more direct approach can be taken – much to the puzzlement of most conservatives, who consider emotions to be an essentially private and personal matter.

Arthur Brooks, President of the American Enterprise Institute, is one conservative who believes that happiness is a proper subject for policy makers. His article for on the issue for the New York Times is full of thought-provoking insights – such as the idea that happiness is not merely the opposite of unhappiness:

“Happiness and unhappiness are certainly related, but they are not actually opposites. Images of the brain show that parts of the left cerebral cortex are more active than the right when we are experiencing happiness, while the right side becomes more active when we are unhappy.

“As strange as it seems, being happier than average does not mean that one can’t also be unhappier than average.”

When Brooks took something called the “Positive Affectivity and Negative Affectivity Schedule test” he scored highly for both happiness and unhappiness. “I am a cheerful melancholic” he says of himself – perhaps fitting for someone whose first career was as a classical musician.

Then there’s the related distinction between ‘intrinsic’ and ‘extrinsic’ life goals:

“In 2009, researchers from the University of Rochester conducted a study tracking the success of 147 recent graduates in reaching their stated goals after graduation. 

“Some had ‘intrinsic’ goals, such as deep, enduring relationships. Others had ‘extrinsic’ goals, such as achieving reputation or fame. The scholars found that intrinsic goals were associated with happier lives. But the people who pursued extrinsic goals experienced more negative emotions, such as shame and fear. They even suffered more physical maladies.”

Achieving extrinsic goals can, in some circumstances, reduce unhappiness – but without increasing happiness. This explains how a society can become richer without becoming happier.

It also suggests that there is a hard limit to what statism, even in its most benign form, can do for ordinary people. While a progressive government can redistribute wealth, thereby providing the net beneficiaries with the material means of achieving certain extrinsic goals; it cannot redistribute the means of achieving one’s intrinsic goals. In other words, the state cannot make you happier.

There is much else of value in Arthur Brooks’ essay and I’d urge you to read the whole thing. However, as a minor member of the commentariat I feel I ought to draw your attention to the following:

“I work in Washington, right in the middle of intensely public political battles. Bar none, the unhappiest people I have ever met are those most dedicated to their own self-aggrandizement — the pundits, the TV loudmouths, the media know-it-alls. They build themselves up and promote their images, but feel awful most of the time.”

This as true of the Westminster village as it is of Washington. Not every pundit or politician cares what the public thinks about them, but pathological attention-seeking is a pretty common sickness in these circles. Furthermore, the condition is made more acute by the fact that, thanks to the social media, just about anyone can now quantify their success in achieving public recognition – for instance, in the number of ‘friends’ they have on Facebook or ‘followers’ on Twitter.

As Arthur Brooks points out, this degrades the intrinsic goal of true relationship-building into the shallow, extrinsic objective of mere popularity.

That said, if you’ve enjoyed this article you’re more than welcome to leave an appreciative comment below!

10 comments for: Why the state can’t make you happy

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