Happiness and Uncertainty

The happiness agenda imagines people as individuals living constantly in the now. But in this age of uncertainty, there is a pressing need to recognise the importance of history, relationships, identity and agency to personal wellbeing
Chris Groves
29 June 2011

Championed by New Labour, the happiness agenda has been taken up within policy debates not only nationally in the UK, but internationally as well. Representing nothing less than a new vision of social progress, it has found an enthusiastic supporter in the OECD, whose Better Life Index, launched last May, includes an assessment of subjective wellbeing or “life satisfaction”. Yet some have suspected that the reason for widening adoption lies not in what it includes, but in what it leaves out. Its focus on a particular definition of “well-being”, as Pat Kane and William Davies have suggested in previous contributions to this series, may mean that it tends not to consider the wider social conditions which both enable and constrain the life-chances of individuals. Does happiness research therefore fall victim to the charge typically leveled by sociologists at economists, namely that they view individuals only as isolated consumers, interested in obtaining the most bang for their hedonic buck?

A version of this charge is made by the political philosopher John O’Neill. To understand the happiness agenda, an obvious philosophical point of comparison is often assumed to be Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarianism. As O’Neill points out, however, Bentham’s hedonism, his belief that happiness – and social progress – depends fundamentally on the promotion of pleasurable experiences is too indiscriminate for happiness advocates like Richard Layard and Geoff Mulgan. These thinkers typically aim to identify kinds of pleasurable experiences which are associated with feelings of happiness that are more durable over a longer time frame. These they distinguish from other kinds which are associated with the infamous “hedonic treadmill” effect. For example, buying luxuries may result in more intense pleasurable experiences than experiences of, say, social interaction. Yet over time, it is the latter kinds of experience which reliably provide more pleasure, whereas the individual enamored of luxury goods needs a bigger and bigger hit of consumption to achieve the same effect.

O’Neill suggests, therefore, that the best comparison for the new happiness advocates is not Bentham, but the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus, who also attempted to distinguish genuine objects of desire from illusory ones. By enumerating the kinds of goods which allegedly contribute most to ‘authentic’ happiness, Layard et al are being Epicurean. It is their basic Epicureanism, O’Neill argues, that is the source of the happiness agenda’s limitations. If the problem is one of ‘illusory’ versus ‘true’ beliefs (the City trader falsely believes “I want a yacht”; the Big Society’s ideal citizen rightly believes “I want to volunteer”), then whether people are happier or not is fundamentally dependent on what individuals believe they want, or what their ‘values’ are.

Happiness, by this account, depends on people valuing the 'right' things in life. As Layard puts it, “people's values will be the main force that determines the outcome” of social change. The obvious policy conclusion is, then, that to make positive social change requires nothing less than massive psychological change: a cultural revolution. O’Neill describes this as the “ethicist’s fallacy”, the nostrum to which philosophers and politicians alike are prone, of prescribing a “shift in values” as the cure to any number of ills with complex causes. What is left out of consideration here are what O’Neill refers to as the “structural and systemic constraints on individual behaviour”.

Further, he suggests that Layard et al’s Epicurean definition of happiness as a feeling misses out something vital about subjective experience and its relation to quality of life. Measuring happiness, for Layard, means aggregating experiences of happiness. The sum and duration of experiences are important, but the chronological order of the experiences is not. But, O’Neill points out, the order of experiences is vitally important for how we judge the quality of lives, precisely because it changes the meaning of those experiences. One might desire a moment to go on forever, yet depending on what happens next (and what follows in the morning), one might change one’s assessment of that feeling quite radically.

So, we have two objections here: one to the happiness agenda’s disregard for “structural and systemic constraints”, and the other to its disregard for the meaning of experience. To address these two issues, a better starting point than “happiness” would be to reconsider the significance of insecurity and uncertainty in human lives, and in the human condition as such. If we start from here, then the kind of story we tell about how policy can and should aim to improve peoples’ lives will change. If we tell a story about uncertainty rather than happiness, we will no longer be talking about individuals as consumers of momentary experiences – and nor will we be reduced to wistfully wishing for a bloodless and endlessly postponed revaluation of values. 

Generally speaking, how we act in the present is always modulated by what we expect of the future, and by our beliefs about what kinds of knowledge are reliable guides to what will happen. This concern with the future reaches into the most intimate corners of everyday life, and encompasses the broadest international concerns. Reading a horoscope, taking a genetic test to discover one’s susceptibility to heart disease, writing a report on national pension provision, or forecasting the extent of climate change – all rely on different kinds of knowledge to tame and domesticate an uncertain future, and to increase our resilience to nasty surprises. Uncertainty is, if you like, an element in which we live, just as fish live in water. Social structures, norms, practices and so on bear within them a record of collective experiences of how humans have dealt with uncertainty.

To enlarge on these general observations, a good starting point is the work of the sociologist Peter Marris, a colleague early in his career of Young, Willmott and Townsend at the Institute of Community Studies, which later became The Young Foundation under Geoff Mulgan’s leadership. Marris’ work offers a series of sustained reflections on how individuals draw on this cultural record in learning to deal with uncertainty. His investigations of the strategies people use to make sense of an intrinsically uncertain future in different contexts – bereavement, slum clearance, unemployment and so on – showed how the success or failure of these strategies depends on wider social relationships and the inequalities of power which underlie them. Moreover, whether they succeed or fail has consequences for these relationships – and can either reinforce or undermine power inequalities. Distilled in his book The Politics of Uncertainty (1995) is a succinct and penetrating social-psychological account of how peoples’ capacity to cope with uncertainty depends on two things.

First, individuals strive to maintain an identity that remains stable in the face of uncertainty, one that can allow them to make sense of continual change. Such an identity is dependent on relationships with others – influenced by psychologists like John Bowlby, D. W. Winnicott and Daniel Stern, Marris sees the most defining of these relationships as grounded in emotional attachments.

Second, a crucial component of a stable identity is the individual’s belief that she or he is able to control or at least influence his or her own future. This, like identity, is not a purely individual achievement. Marris’s many rich accounts of how widows, uprooted African entrepreneurs, planners, industrial labourers, religious believers and so on live with an uncertain future and insecure present detail how human lives are stories which are woven from the warp of autonomy and the weft of dependence. Individuals can only act on the basis of reliable expectations about the future. These depend on social norms and structures which can render predictable their behaviour and that of others. Yet their adaption to these structures depends on forming a wide range of emotional attachments – to, amongst other things, other humans (beginning with one’s caregivers), to places, to institutions, and to ideals. Their sense of what they can do is, as much as their sense of who are they are, shaped both by social structure and their individual biographies, in which emotional attachments provide themes, recurring motifs and breakpoints.

The importance of identity and agency is underlined, for Marris, by the way in which individuals can adapt to situations utterly beyond their control by adopting fatalistic beliefs, or even whole belief systems. By renouncing any hope of influencing one’s future, one is able to make a final gesture of control, and secure a minimal share of certainty in the face of insecurity. Such a “shift in values” might even make one feel “happier” as a result. But considered as part of the life story of the individual, this episode has been issued in by social upheavals which have shattered supposedly reliable expectations about the future, and is, Marris suggests, a sign of an increase in vulnerability to future shocks rather than of increased resilience. This raises profound questions about projects such as Action for Happiness in the UK, with their emphasis on individual feelings and objects of value. 

Marris gives an example of such a social upheaval, in the shape of the decision of General Motors to consider relocating from a US city as part of the great upheaval in the motor industry ushered in by the crises of the 1970s. In need of the jobs brought by the company, the city authorities tried a number of strategies to persuade it to remain. They offered a range of incentives that even included relocating a working-class community. Nonetheless, the company left.

Caught in a tsunami of insecurity, autoworkers and their families struggled with economic vulnerability, loss of purpose and self-worth brought by unemployment, as well as guilt at their perceived failure to look after the families, prevent the company from leaving, and so on. Those evicted from their homes – and those displaced by the city – lost their communities in the process. And uniting workers with citizens otherwise unaffected by the relocation was a sudden shattering of trust in a range of institutions, including the company, historically thought inseparable from the city, along with the municipal authorities. The psychological effect of this kind of disruption, for Marris, shares its general character with bereavement. Bereavement and grief, born of the loss of an attachment to a loved one, entail a massive reorganisation of one’s sense of who one is. As Martha Nussbaum describes it, “successful” grieving is, to no small degree, a recovery of one’s self, a revaluation of what fundamentally matters. At the same time, it is one which labours over and eventually settles accounts with the unerasable fact of loss.

For Marris, to do justice to an experience like that an autoworker, forced to move with family into low-quality rented accommodation while seeking casual employment in a lower-wage job, requires using a vocabulary that includes ideas of bereavement and grief. The “shift of values” that might accompany such an experience would, as in more conventional bereavements, be an attempt to make one’s place in the world again. Yet what complicates matters here is the loss of, potentially, large clusters of attachments, including an individual’s home, her community and her ideals – and with them, her place within any wider social context. It is an experience, as Seth Moglen puts it, of “social loss”. Not only are a large number of people caught up in an event like this, what is lost is a range of structures which have allowed them, collectively, to live with an intrinsically uncertain future. To get at the individual and social significance of any story about how those who have suffered are able to flourish again requires more than aggregating reports or measurements of happiness, in the manner of the new happiness advocates such as Layard. And how the story goes will likely depend on quite other values, beyond Epicurean beliefs about what one ‘truly’ desires – such as whether a community can deal with loss by leading a struggle for social justice, and how its fight turns out.

Ultimately, the happiness agenda imagines progress as something which can only happen to idealised consumers, who – because they are without any biography except a data curve – lack any living link to history. Putting the experience of uncertainty and insecurity at the heart of an understanding of the quality of lives reawakens us to the importance both of biography and of history. Theorists of capitalism, from Marx onward, have shown how the production of uncertainty and insecurity by the economically and politically powerful shapes the conditions of our lives – and produces unequally-distributed wealth in the process.

We now find ourselves dealing with the fallout of two decades when the production of systemic uncertainty was thought to be the best way both of guaranteeing economic prosperity and of extending the “security” of home ownership to the poor. In this age of insecurity, what is required of politics are new visions of resilience built on social justice. Progress, in such a vision, would be about how to build into social structures expectations of reciprocity and mutual commitment, leading away from forms of life based on precarity and the competitive production of uncertainty. To merely prescribe a “shift in values” as the goal of public policy means retreating to the position of Marris’ fatalist, who mourns without end: melancholically renouncing faith in shaping the future, along with the possibility of being anything other than a consumer.

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