Absence of Nuisance, Increased Options, and Happiness
I am reading Arnold Kling's recommendable Learning Economics. Perusing his chapter on "Can Money Buy Happiness?" prompted me to rephrase my view of the happiness-matter. I wrote these encapsulating comments in the margins:
Happiness is finite in all stages of human and civilisatory development -- unlike the inclination of human beings to extend freedom from nuisance and increase the options available to pursue one's developing interests and preferences. One cannot be infinitely happy or content, but there are no limits to man's ability to improve his lot by shielding himself from nuisance and attaining better options.
Painless dental care or the right to choose freely among a large number of occupations rather than being forced to pursue one's father's occupation -- the attainment of aims such as these will not move the ceiling of happiness any higher than advancements achieved at earlier stages of human development. Yet, they will be pursued because they remove nuisances and widen the range of options from which one may choose.
This assessment is based on my anthropological views, whose core tenet states that
man is the animal that adjusts to its environment by constantly developing new desires, needs, interests and preferences.
Humans are neither built to enjoy permanent rapture, nor is their personal and social weal dependent on constantly high levels of happiness. What is far more important for human wellbeing is (a) the absence of nuisances and (b) the presence of fruitful avenues for personal development; both of which conditions will be accompanied predominantly by low levels of emotional involvement - think of the meditative quality of much of what one likes doing -, though they may lead to an overall situation associated with words such as "happiness" or "contentment".
Two Meanings of Happiness
Happiness as the object of assessment and happiness as an emotional state are two very different kinds of animals. The former will tend to refer to a cluster or series of episodes most of which do not involve high levels of emotionally present happiness.
While writing this post, I am largely free from disturbances and enjoy the pursuit of a large range of options (to argue this or that, to do something else) allowing me to apply myself to activities that I feel drawn to. None of these components of the overall activity are of an emotional quality that I would designate as "happiness". In fact, it is not rare that pain and effort are involved, as when I fail to find the right words or discover contradictions in my beliefs.
It is the overall activity, including the satisfactory result brought about by it, that I tend to refer to when speaking of happiness - happiness as the object of assessment. And this seems to be rather in keeping with my anthropological theory: to be in balance, man does not so much need a permanent stream of ecstatic feelings but the ability to adopt to his environment by creating and fulfilling new desires, which is why I do not read the same book a million times and do not stop playing tennis after the first match, but look for renewed challenges.
So, happiness can be either (1) a localised feeling, mostly of high intensity, or the object of a broader assessment, in which latter sense it is (2) the expression of a balance between our manifold human faculties and the surrounding in which we find ourselves. In its second import, happiness is not necessarily an event of high emotional intensity; in fact, it may be deemed pleasant precisely because it lacks the grip of passion.
At any rate, while happiness as a localised feeling, mostly of high intensity, is finite both in its intensity and frequency, and a mere component among many other components of wellbeing, happiness as expression of a balance between the human and her environment is infinite in its permutations, a challenge to be approached in an infinite number of ways, and a complex achievement comprising many components of very different kinds. Striving for happiness in this sense is part of human nature, and does not lose its high significance for a person because she has surpassed a certain level of income or wealth.
Happiness Research and Behavioural Economics
Happiness research and behavioural economics tend to be popular with those who believe in a world view that seeks to infantalise and hospitalise the average man, i.e. turning him into the subject on which political paternalism is eager to perform its human experiments.
The happiness researchers' perfidious argument then runs like this: our studies show that an income/wealth level above $ 50.000 does no longer increase happiness; so it is fine to take income/wealth above that threshold and to redirect it to those who at lower levels still stand to enhance their happiness either by receiving the redistributed funds directly or by the help of authorities thus funded.
"The rich" are thieves of happiness; they misappropriate resources that are needed to make other people happy. Wastefully happy, "the rich" are denying "the poor" their share of happiness, as the latter are lacking the very resources squandered on the richmen's exhausted capacity for happiness.
Headline: "Economic Research Shows Politics Needed to Achieve Just Distribution of Happiness" - when in fact, there is no economics involved whatsoever, but a highly biased, agenda-driven, and ill-thought through concept of happiness.
Behavioural economists, in their turn, work ardently on "proving" that human beings are (far more) irrational (than previously thought) and hence dubious candidates for responsible action that need to be taken custody of.