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

Herman Van Rompuy is thinking positive

Herman Van Rompuy is thinking positive. He is staring into his mirror each morning, and repeating to himself: ‘I am a strong, confident, powerful currency. I am A TIGER!’ He’s so positive, he’s sent out a hefty tome called The World Book of Happiness to 200 world leaders, with this extraordinary letter. I’m quoting from the letter he sent to Barack Obama:

Dear Mr President Barack

I am very happy to present you with this copy of The World Book of Happiness…with my best wishes for a ‘Happy New Year’ but also with my request to you as world leaders to make people’s happiness and well-being our political priority for 2012 [um…what about preventing the catastrophic collapse of the euro? No?]

Positive thinking is no longer something for drifters, dreamers and the perpetually naive. Positive Psychology concerns itself in a scientific way with the quality of life. At stake are not only the happiness and well-being of individuals, but also those of groups, organisations and countries. And above all, in today’s global world we can all learn from one another. It is time to make this knowledge available to the man and woman in the street….

People who think positive see more opportunities, perform better, possess greater resilience, take more often correct and sound decisions [sic], negotiate better, have more self-confidence, maintain better relations, take greater responsibility, have more trust placed in them and so on. In short, they give more hope to others because they can experience it themselves. In order to release this positive energy, people need oxygen. Society can offer this oxygen. Positive education, positive parenting, positive journalism and positive politics play a crucial role here. This oxygen we can also create ourselves by a balanced existence or a religious or philosophical rooting.

[I love this paragraph. My favourite line is ‘to release this positive energy, people need oxygen’, though I also like the idea of ‘a religious or philosophical rooting’ – ‘rooting’ is a slang Australian word for shagging].

Why not address women and men from all angles of their multiple intelligence? [Why not indeed!]...By addressing men and women who are on a growth path, we all become better and happier people. We then do not turn every incident into a trend and every anecdote into a general truth. [You’ve lost me Herman]. As a consequence our governing will stimulate self-knowledge, reflection, sense of responsibility and commitment.

Positively inclined people see everything in its right proportions. [etc etc for a few more sentences.]

Happy New Year!

Herman Van Rompuy

Chairman of the European Council

Woohoo! I love his cheery upbeatness in the face of chaos. And quite a plug for the book itself. The author, another Belgian called Leo Bormans, blogs excitedly: ‘Will Barack Obama and Angela Merkel in the near future read in the World Book of Happiness before going to sleep?’ You betcha Leo!

Now, a cynic might suggest Herman is reminiscent of the conquistador hero of Werner Herzog’s movie Aguirre Wrath of God, who dreams of ruling over new empires while monkeys swarm over his sinking raft. But that’s a cynical thought. Think positive. Think Belgian. Find a happy place!

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A technocratic solution to a spiritual question

There is a danger that we have become not just trapped in the ‘prison of GDP’, but trapped in the prison of statistics. We have become trapped in the idea that something can only be a serious goal if we can quantify it, measure it, and track our progress towards it on a neat Power Point graph. And we want to use this approach to find well-being. We want a technocratic solution to a spiritual question. Continue reading