Governments have to have some way of figuring out whether they’re succeeding or failing, and the way they’ve tended to do this is by looking at some sort of measure of economic growth. The Easterlin paradox that we talked about earlier makes one suspect this may not be such a good idea because it’s clear that societies are getting richer, but they don’t seem to find that their citizens are getting any happier. Now, a natural alternative, then, would be to try to maximise, or to improve, happiness directly, and there have been such proposals.
Could it really make sense, though, to try to orient public policy or even our own private actions around the goal of maximising gross national happiness or individual happiness of us and our friends? Well, I think the issues that we’ve talked about today suggest that it’s going to be extremely difficult. One reason is the relativity of judgement. So if it’s the case that we can’t judge weights in an absolute way, we can’t judge darknesses of patches in an absolute way, and we can’t judge the badnesses of our own pains in an absolute way, this suggests that when we ask people how happy they are, they’re not going to be able to do this in an absolute way either.
So one reflection on the Easterlin paradox might be the following. It might be that all our lives are much better than they used to be going back from one generation to the next, but of course, when you ask people about their lives, they’re judging in a comparative way. And who are they comparing with? Mainly people around them now. So they’re thinking things like, well, my life’s pretty good compared to other people and compared to how it was 10 years ago, but it’s just an average sort of life. And other people are thinking, oh, compared to other people, things aren’t so good for me. But this is always going to be true.
At any time in human history, there are always going to be people for whom things are relatively good compared to the people around them, and there are going to people for whom things are relatively bad. Now, in times of absolute calamity or terrible political repression, then one may get very different results, very extreme results. But in normal times, it may be that one won’t see effects of actual changes in human well being on happiness reporting any more than you’ll see changes in people reporting levels of brightness in the room changing if we gradually turn up the lights. Because we’re comparative machines, if you gradually turn up the lights, we just don’t really notice.
Everything’s a bit brighter, but nothing looks any brighter to us because everything’s being made brighter equally. That’s one perspective. So you might think, well, perhaps the Easterlin paradox isn’t so worrying after all. Maybe gross national product or some other measure of growth isn’t so bad and the reason we’re not seeing any effects on observed, reported human well being in surveys, for example, is just because people are comparing against other people, and if everyone’s getting richer, everyone’s getting perhaps better lives, then those comparisons just yield the same results whatever we do, however much the society may really be changing. So it might just be a measurement effect. Really, in reality, perhaps everyone is getting happier.
On the other hand, though, maybe that’s not so easy because maybe a lot of human well being is intrinsically comparative. So maybe it’s the case that if my life is better than other people’s lives, I feel a sense of well being. If, on the other hand, I feel my life is bad compared to other people’s lives, I may feel gloomy and depressed. In that case, it might turn out that making the whole of society have materially better lives is really having no impact on the psychological state that we’re in, how much stress we’re feeling, whether we feel our lives are succeeding or failing, our propensity to depression or mental disorder.
And in fact, it does seem to be the case that on most measures of psychological well being - not subjective, self-reported ones on surveys, just objective levels of stress or mental disorder and so on - that there’s certainly no particular indication that as societies are getting richer, they’re actually getting mentally better adjusted. So I think the question of how wealth relates to well being and how we can even understand this problem is an incredibly hard and deep one. There’s one perspective which would say, don’t worry. We’re all getting richer, and richness must mean happiness, but the scales in these surveys aren’t showing that because everything’s being reported comparatively.
Another perspective would say, yes, but for human beings, comparison’s all that matters. That’s what actually is the very stuff of human experience. So if that’s not changing, then we’re getting nowhere. We’re on a pointless, endless treadmill. Which of these answers is right? I think it’s very hard to tell, but very, very important.