The mess of happiness


Psychologist, Daniel Gilbert, writes the “problem is that people seem pleased to use this one word [happiness] to indicate a host of different things, which has created a tremendous terminological mess on which several fine scholarly careers have been based”. He adds: “If one slops around in this mess long enough, one comes to see that most disagreements about what happiness really is are semantic disagreements about whether the world ought to be used to indicate this or that. . . “.

Let’s think more of happiness as a mess. “How can that mess be managed better?” is an important policy question then, if only because public policy has something to do with making people happy.


Start with the macro-design node for happiness. For years, we have been told that it is a right, or at least the pursuit of happiness is self-evident truth. We’ve also been told that the more income—purchasing power—we have, the happier we will be.

Yet the systemwide patterns recognized, our second node of analysis, consistently fall short of these macro-principles. Vast swathes of the world don’t agree on what that right to happiness means. Data showed that, after a point, more income does not mean we become happier. “People in rich countries are generally happier than people in poor countries. But once basic needs for food, clothing, and shelter are more or less universally met—high gross domestic product does not seem to make societies happier,” John Kay, Financial Times economist, once put it. When a country passes a threshold level of income, the correlation between the happiness of its people and the nation’s aggregate wealth has been weak, studies found. Worse, affluence can make people unhappier. It was reported that in the US as income doubled or more, yet the percentage of people saying they were very happy remained by and large constant.

Nor do localized scenarios of design principles, our third node of analysis, conform to their originating macro-design assumptions. Specific regions of the world are happy in unprincipled ways, it seems, with (1) Latin American countries registering far more subjective happiness than one would have predicted from their economic status and (2) Africans optimistic in the face of documented travails.

This takes us to the last node, the level of individual micro-operator. We were told for years that happiness, like personal utility, was next to impossible to compare with others. Even as social-psychological measures improved for the comparison of interpersonal happiness, strong evidence remained that individuals often are not very good at predicting what will make them happy, or unhappy for that matter.


Almost just as worrisome, the temptation has been to jump from pattern recognition to macro-design bypassing all the mess in between.

Since the marginal utility of a dollar is higher from poorer people that for richer, since the gains in happiness are palpably greater among poorer people than losses are among richer people, since more affluence above a point can make people unhappy and since people care a great deal about their relative income, therefore it is better to tax the rich (if simply to contain their unhappy rat race), transfer that money to the poor, and make incomes overall more equal. Many still believe these syllogisms.


I’d rather first know just what those in the middle of these four nodes are doing about sorting out this happiness mess. Who reliably translates the systemwide patterns and localized scenarios into what we can call happiness or provide those services that lead to that happiness?

Typically, the initial answer is our network of family, friends, partners—those immediate social relationships that matter for personal happiness.

Less typically mentioned is the networked wraparound of large infrastructures for water, electricity, transportation and telecommunications, without which society-wide happiness would be even more of a gamble.

Who would have thought that, as these wraparound services wither in the name of hollowing out the state, individual happiness reduces to the techno-speak of being one’s own full-time “infrastructure” manager!

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