Who could be against defining a nation’s success by its level of happiness? Much more feel-good than grubby old GDP, especially in times when there’s less of the P to go around. This is what President Sarkozy of France is now urging, after taking delivery of a report by two Nobel Prize-winning economists, Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen.
But the auguries are not good. The country that famously already runs on these lines, Bhutan, is far from happy. In fact, as this report in the Independent shows, it has recently been suffering a spate of suicides.
The more obvious objection, however, is just how woolly Gross National Happiness is as a measure. Who decides what counts as happiness, and what happens when one person’s pleasure causes another’s pain? This applies in numerous ways to religion. Just the other night I was watching Sepet, a film by the much-missed Malaysian film director Yasmin Ahmad, in which Orked, the Malay female lead, meets her Chinese boyfriend in a cafe. As she passes the chef chopping up crispy pork, poor Orked looks as if she’s been stung by a wasp. She’s a Muslim, he’s Taoist. An essential pleasure for him is anathema to her. More generally, any kind of felicific calculus, as Jeremy Bentham titled his formula for quantifying pain and pleasure, is going to have problems recognising the value of actions and experiences relating to religion or, for that matter, attacks on religion.
Much as utilitarianism appeals, I’ve found it difficult to take these attempts to weave it into governmental programmes seriously since going to a talk that our own “happiness tsar”, Richard Layard, gave at the Palace of Westminster. When I raised the question of how elitism and higher pleasures fitted in with his theories, he gave me a very cold look. Enough said. Any attempt to enliven the “dismal science”, as Carlyle called economics, is to be welcomed. But discussions of happiness all too often start off vague and swiftly head towards vacuity.
Let’s see how much we hear about Sarkozy’s grand new plan a few months down the line.