Bhutan’s well-being measurements (or ‘how Buddhist are you?’)

The UN Happiness Conference last week looks to have been a fascinating event. The Prime Minister of Bhutan sent me a giant Willy Wonka-esque invitation, for which I’m grateful, but wouldn’t pay my air-fare, for which I’m lingeringly resentful (not really). Anyway, I didn’t go, but have spent this morning reading through some of the material that came out of it.

The main event was the publication of The World Happiness Report, edited by Jeffrey Sachs, Richard Layard and John Helliwell. Interesting that Sachs, once a champion of ‘shock therapy’ and the neo-liberal Washington Consensus, should have climbed on-board the happy train.

In fact, Sachs seems to be making a bid to be the train-driver – he wrote the intro to the report, which seems odd, seeing as he’s quite a recent convert to well-being economics, while Layard’s been banging on about it for over a decade. Anyway, Sachs (who says he’s an Aristotelian) has clearly reigned in Layard’s ultra-utilitarianism. There are five or so references to Aristotle and the Stoics in the report, many more to the Buddha, and not one to Layard’s beloved Jeremy Bentham. Sachs opines loftily in the introduction that western economists’ pursuit of GDP is “completely at variance with the wisdom of the sages”. Oh really Jeff? Do we need shock cognitive therapy?

Despite Sachs’ attempt to put himself forward as the global guru of love, the conference really marks another huge success for Richard Layard, who to my mind is by far the most influential British intellectual today – partly because of his success in British mental health policy and the spread of CBT, but also because of the global influence of the happiness agenda he has pushed.

Although there are many aspects of Layard’s agenda that I welcome (its support for CBT in particular) I remain wary of the agenda because I think utilitarianism and positivism can be too monist and authoritarian: they force an entire country to follow one particular philosophy of the good life, which they insist is ‘scientific fact’. That’s what John Stuart Mill warned in On Liberty, where he spoke of the danger of a ‘tyranny of the majority’, and insisted we need to encourage diversity, experimentation, non-conformity, and the right of people to pursue their own good in their own way. Layard, I suspect, would see all that as rank individualism. Continue reading