If you wander through the main cloisters of London's University College, you will pass a large wooden cabinet. The doors to the cabinet are generally closed, but if, as is sometimes the case, the cabinet is open, the curious passer-by will be diverted or, more likely, disconcerted at the sight of its contents: the hatted figure of a man, seated on a chair, dressed in early 19th- century English costume. Except for the wax head, the original having been damaged in the process of preservation, what you see is the preserved body of Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), the political philosopher. The +real head was, until recently, situated in the cabinet beside the figure, but had to be removed. It had proved an irresistible allurement to students from rival colleges who made a habit of stealing it and, at least once, sacrilegiously using it as a football.
Bentham was a founder of the University of London, but if his name is at all familiar to you, it is likely to be as the reputed founder of a school of political philosophy that still has its adherents. Many of us know little more about utilitarianism than the catchy slogan that encapsulates its purpose: "the greatest happiness of the greatest number." At first blush, nothing seems more attractive than an ethical doctrine that has happiness for the majority as its ultimate good; but utilitarianism has had its critics. My principal problem with the doctrine is that it seeks to define happiness.
You might think, as I did, that a concept as woolly as happiness cannot be the subject of scientific inquiry. So it was with some surprise that I recently discovered that the economists, the hard men of the social sciences, having measured everything else capable of being measured, were producing statistics on happiness.
Don't ask what I was doing at a conference of intellectuals, but some months ago I took part as an observer at a colloquium, as it was grandly called, on the subject of "Wealth and Happiness: Quality of Life in Israel and the United Kingdom." The stars of the conference were the economists, but there is some question whether this subject belongs properly to economics or to the less-down-to-earth discip+line of psychology. The guru of well-being research, Prof. Daniel Kahneman is an academic psychologist who claims never to have taken a course in economics, the category for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize.
I mean no disrespect to the bright and articulate speakers who expounded on happiness at the colloquium. But I wonder at the accuracy of the figures that were being bandied about with such aplomb. They had been extracted from surveys of national well-being, painstakingly carried out by armies of researchers. I have no exaggerated affection for the dismal science, but I have never hitherto believed that there is anything airy-fairy about economics. So I confess to having been taken aback at learning that happiness is served by that infallible economic tool: an index. We are told with a straight face by some economists that the Satisfaction with Life Index is a more reliable guide to a nation's economic health than the traditional indexes of gross national product or gross domestic product. It's all very worrying. If this is what economists are getting up to these days, I ask myself whether I can trust them on the jute exports of Bangladesh.
Recipes and Suduko
To get an idea of the size of the bandwagon on which sober economists are jumping, take the findings of the grand-sounding International Society for Quality-of-Life Studies. Called ISQOLS by its intimate friends, it found that, on average, people placed themselves on happiness surveys at 7 on a 0-10 scale. That is a pretty boring statistic, but what is interesting is that to arrive at this finding, ISQOLS synthesized 916 surveys of over one million people in 45 countries. What we are to make of all this is that there are thousands of graduate students around the world, who but for the happiness boom would be lining up at labor exchanges, asking people of all sorts to grade their level of happiness. To me that sounds like an expensive exercise in futility.
There is no doubt that happiness is big business. Look at the number of self-help books at your local bookstore. There is even a Happiness Magazine that tells you each week how to achieve happiness. You might wonder why you need weekly refreshers when the publishers give the store away in the teasers: "Happiness! Joy! Contentment! These can be yours! Discover how you can be happy in your day-to-day life," and then give the answer to the elusive quest for happiness: "Enjoy yummy recipes and fun puzzles like Sudoku."
There are other surprises in store for the earnest seeker of happiness. You will probably be underwhelmed by the finding of the surveys that better-off respondents reported themselves as significantly happier than did their poorer counterparts. In my time as a lawyer in London, I had a partner who would solemnly and frequently declare that it is better to be rich and healthy than poor and sick. I have not spoken to him recently, but I know he will be thrilled to learn that his shot in the dark has been backed by 916 surveys in 45 countries.
With such findings, one quirk in a survey carried out for my colloquium was mildly surprising. A representative sample of Israel's Jewish population was questioned as to its level of happiness. Of those who claimed to be "very happy," the poorest sector of the country's Jewish population, the Haredim (ultra- Orthodox), romped home by a furlong: sixty-two percent claimed to be very happy, a condition boasted by only twenty-two percent of respondents who described themselves as secular.
It is not hard to find a rationale for this apparent blip in what is otherwise a worldwide trend. The warmth of life in a large family; the absence of any drive to get on; the unquestioning subservience of the ultra-Orthodox to a higher authority - all these make for a state of complacent contentment. But I still wonder how the questioners got their answers. I would like to have been a fly on the wall while the questions were asked, because there are surely grave difficulties in obtaining replies from Haredim to such intrusive questions. Did the questioners, in asking about feelings of well-being, factor in the known reticence of the Haredi community? It is a sector that is not bashful at expressing its needs, and uses its muscle to back its demands. Yet the community is notoriously tight-lipped about its own social problems - spouse abuse, child abuse, pederasty and the like - and it seems likely to me that the ultra-Orthodox, in responding to questions about their levels of happiness, might occasionally be economical with the truth.
I don't want you to go away believing me to be some kind of happiness heretic. I have learned a valuable lesson from the surveys. If I seek perfect happiness, I should earn more money. If that fails, I should take up Sudoku.
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