In George Orwell’s 1984, there is a Ministry of Peace (responsible for war), a Ministry of Plenty (responsible for rationing), a Ministry of Truth (responsible for propaganda) and a Ministry of Love (the secret police). There is, however, no mention of a Ministry of Happiness.
According to Juan Nagel in Foreign Policy, Venezuela’s socialist government has decided to create just such a department:
“Venezuelans are facing numerous problems: a soaring crime rate, faltering public services, a scarcity of basic staples, and increased social tensions. Worried about the effect of this on the country’s cheerfulness, the Venezuelan government has taken an extraordinary, and some would say unusual, step: creating a national office for happiness.
“According to official press reports, the Vice-Ministry for Supreme Social Happiness of the People (its official name) will serve as an umbrella group for various social programs. Most of them deal with early childhood, culture, race relations, youth, the elderly, and people with disabilities.”
It’s an unusual move, but not without precedent:
“The idea of public policies geared toward happiness is not completely insane. A few years ago, the Asian nation of Bhutan began calculating a Happiness Index. Ever since then, the topic has gotten more serious consideration: the World Happiness Report, for example, is put out by Columbia University’s Earth Institute.”
David Cameron’s proposal for a measure of General Well Being (GWB) to supplement GDP was inspired by this sort of thinking. Fortunately, the idea was dropped following the election. As Prime Minister, he must have felt that getting GDP moving in the right direction was enough of a challenge.
Still, is there anything wrong with governments being concerned about the happiness of the people? Or is there something suspect about the whole agenda?
Consider the way that the Venezuelan regime has used it:
“The Venezuelan happiness office underscores the importance of bureaucracy to the Bolivarian Revolution. Every major initiative the government has undertaken, from social programs to supporting the oil industry, has meant expanding the role of the state and minimizing civil society involvement.
“…As noted Venezuelan sociologist Colette Capriles points out, the move to put an individual goal (happiness) in a collective bureaucracy ‘is in line with the totalitarian inclinations of the government, which seeks to invade all aspects of privacy, including the concept of happiness. There is a tendency to transform the individual experience into a collective one, regulated by the State.’”
Even in our own lives, happiness is often employed as a euphemism for obedience. For instance, if your boss asks you if you’re ‘happy’ with something, what he’s probably ascertaining is whether you’ve understood his instructions and are ready to comply with them.
Happiness is such a powerful concept because its pursuit is generally assumed to be the purpose of our lives. One wonders whether this was always the case. It is difficult to know from our modern-day vantage point, but there was perhaps a time when most people would have said that the purpose of life was to do the ‘right thing’, whether it made you happy or not.
Of course, in such a society a dictatorial regime might try to define what this right thing is – and impose that definition on everyone else. However, should a government attempt to do this, it would have to make an exclusive claim on the truth – thereby exposing its totalitarian intensions.
The vulnerability of our happiness-centred culture is that it allows for a more subtle form of control. In theory, happiness is an entirely subjective, personal experience, with different things making different people happy in different ways. It would therefore seem that in a society like our own there can be no common goals and therefore no totalitarianism.
This is why the idea of measuring happiness is so sinister – because to measure something, you have to define it. Thus without ever having to justify their actions in terms of right and wrong, governments can use happiness policies as a tool for directing the purpose of our lives. It is a very post-modern, touchy-feely kind of totalitarianism – but we should resist it nonetheless.
The most rebellious thing that any of us can do today is declare that happiness is not important – and search for some other purpose in life.