11 December 2004



There is a concept in high street politics known as the 'feel good factor.' Briefly, the idea is that voters approve of a government or governing party depending on how happy they are or feel. It does not matter how one's financial situation is; one can be doing quite well, but what matters is how one feels.

The consequence of the feel good factor is that parties are re-elected not necessarily on merit, but on the subjective feelings of the voters at the time of the elections.

The reason why I mention the feel good factor is because it is a very good illustration of the importance of happiness. Collective happiness can seriously influence our political and economic life. How important is subjective happiness or personal happiness?

The first issue we can look at is this: is happiness something we achieve or something that happens to us?

If happiness is something we achieve then the suggestion is that we can have a formula that we can apply to be happy. As a secondary consequence, if we can write a formula for happiness we can generalise it and make it applicable to everyone. In other words, happiness becomes an objective entity. Moreover, It can be harvested and wrapped in glossy packaging and sold at a premium price in department stores. This would, of course, make some people rich and many others happy.

Should happiness turn out to be something that happens to us then a number of things follow. First of all, there is nothing we can do to be happy. We are either fated to be happy or randomly chosen to be happy.

This also means that happiness is subjective. Subjective because it is something specific to each individual and therefore not transferable to others; my happiness cannot be used in any shape or form to help others become happy. To use Machiavelli's analogy, it is similar to saying that my suite of armour will not fit anyone else comfortably.

In issues like happiness we are always tempted to ask: what is happiness? We are not alone, many scientists, philosophers, universities and even countries (Bhutan established a Gross National Happiness metric) try to answer this question. And if we can give an objective answer we can then measure happiness. In a recent study* it was suggested that our happiness depended on mundane, day to day things such as sleep or commuting to work.

At the very least we can say that happiness is a personal state of affairs with two components. The first component is physical. This can range from not being in pain to experiencing certain physical sensations that make us have happy type feelings. The second component is maybe more elusive, since we can describe it as spiritual, emotional or even metaphysical. This is even harder to pin down. This type of happiness manifests itself as being at peace with one's self to relishing the lingering taste of beauty. Or a dinner in a two star Michelin restaurant, which ever comes first.

But we cannot escape an objective view of happiness. One thing about happiness is that not only do we know when we are happy, but also think we know when others are happy. And from here we are very close to claiming we are able to say who ought to be happy. The next port of call is the slippery slope towards value judgements so beloved by spoil sports, do gooders, busy bodies, elitists organisations, political parties and religions.

However, there is always the question, happy at what cost? Not only is this a complex issue, but the implications are enormous. I will not even try to go into the issue, but I will try to give a context relevant list: money, labour conditions, legal and moral acts, environment, friends, partners, social relations, you name it, it appears on the balance sheet.

The quest for happiness, however, continues. Utilitarianism gives us a frame of mind which tells us to maximise our happiness. Sometimes there seems to be some misunderstanding here. Maximising one's happiness does not necessarily mean that one has to be at an all time high 24/7. On the other hand, rejecting all the pleasures of the flesh, as some would put it, does not seem to be the best way out to what is already a difficult problem.

Collective happiness, in the form of the feel good factor, might not be the best form of happiness all round. We need something more manageable. A village fête is definitely more manageable. Yes, a village fête might be fun, but somehow it lacks that something special.

A group of close friends is always a good place to start looking for happiness and for once the idea of intimacy appears on the horizon. But then again the ultimate intimate experience is with one's self. I mean, why share when one can have everything, but I'm not going to advocate hedonism nor self gratification. Especially when it takes two to tango. Maybe the feel good factor can be re-interpreted as the good feel factor?

take care


* Financial Times 3rd December 2004

Dec 11, 2004

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