The Endless, Inconclusive Pursuit

There are several problems with making happiness the goal of life.  It’s elusive, constantly shifting.  It’s ephemeral.  And it also leaves out too much of what makes life satisfying.

Four years ago, Arthur Brook argued in Gross National Happiness:  “what’s crucial to well-being is not how cheerful you feel, not how much money you make, but rather the meaning you find in life and your . . . belief that you have created value in your life or others’ lives.”

More recently, Martin Seligman, the founder of Positive Psychology, has joined the discussion.  Acknowledging happiness is not enough, he writes:  “Well-being is a combination of feeling good as well as actually having meaning, good relationships and accomplishment.”  It can’t just exist in your own head.

According to The New York Times, the idea is getting some government support.  David Cameron, the British, prime minister, has called for a measure of “GWB,” for general well-being.  This is a step beyond “GNP,” Gross National Product, the sum total of the goods and services produced in a country, the standard measure of success used by economists.  We seem to be slowly waking up to the fact that money alone doesn’t buy happiness – and that, even if it did, happiness is more complex than we had thought.  (See “A New Gauge to See What’s Beyond Happiness.”)

The tiny Himalayan country of Bhutan has been calculating “GNH,” Gross National Happiness, for years, and several other countries have shown interest in finding similar measures of general welfare and fulfillment that go beyond mere income.  In a Buddhist country, to be sure, happiness has always been thought of as more than the state of mind we tend to assume it is.  GNH includes health, education, community, environmental safety, and many of the other factors current critics argue we need to take into account.

An important reason for finding new measures is that the link between wealth and happiness has become a kind of default assumption in our culture.  After over two hundred years of living in a society dominated by capitalism, we tend to take for granted that virtually everything can be reduced to money.  Many of us know that it’s not exactly true, but it has become a kind of common sense to think that money is the key to security and success, and that most problems in our world can be solved with more goods or services.

Arthur Brook’s stress on meaning or Martin Seligman’s focus on what he calls “flourishing” are both welcome attempts to get us out of this conventional mindset.  But redefining such cultural assumptions is a slow process.  If we adopt new measures, that will change our view of what success is, and it’s not likely that everyone will be equally pleased with what they discover.

We may find that we are far less “wealthy” than we thought we were.