Happiness by Design and blessings by gift

11/01/2015  •  1034 words

Happiness, happiness, the greatest gift that I posses
I thank the Lord I’ve been blessed
With more than my share of happiness

Ken Dodd’s famous song was released 51 years ago, so in one sense it’s not very contemporary. Think of happiness nowadays and you’re likely to start humming that insanely catchy Pharrell tune. In another sense, though, it’s completely at home in today’s world.

A wise old man told me one time
That happiness is nothing but a frame of mind.
I hope when you go to measuring my success
That you don’t count my money; count my happiness

Happiness by Design by Paul Dolan

I’m writing about happiness because Paul Dolan’s freshly published book on the topic caught my eye in Waterstone’s the other day.

To give an indication of where Dolan is coming from, his book belongs on a shelf alongside Thaler & Sunstein’s Nudge, Taleb’s The Black Swan and Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. In fact, Dolan has worked with Daniel Kahneman and cites him as his intellectual hero. In return, Kahneman’s endorsement features on both the front and back covers and he supplies a foreword.

Dolan contributes something new to this field of behavioural science. He is not content simply to explain how people make decisions (like Kahneman) or to apply those principles to social policy in order to influence public decision-making (like Thaler & Sunstein). He goes further, making a claim about what the ultimate goal and purpose of people’s decision-making ought to be. (Spoiler alert: it’s happiness.)

This is more than understanding life as we experience it. This is a moral, spiritual, philosophical claim about the very meaning of life.

In a revealing passage about Dolan’s desire to read more novels (page 81), he argues that the satisfying a preference for what he reads isn’t important unless it adds to his happiness. He then extends that principle for the whole of life:

I make no grand claims about the significance of anything – a job, a spouse, a house, The Mayor of Casterbridge – beyond its effect on happiness. Everything except happiness requires some justification or other: it is just obvious that happiness matters.

Two things need highlighting at this point. Firstly, that the words “it is just obvious” should set the alarm bells ringing. Secondly, that Dolan’s conclusion here is actually that only happiness matters. That’s why he continues as follows:

Now, other considerations, such as achievement or authenticity, are clearly important. But they are only important because of their instrumental value; that is, they matter only insofar as they produce more happiness… We need to judge each behaviour on its specific consequences for happiness and not on the basis of whether or not it accords to a generally good rule.

In other words, beneath any other motivations for our actions should be the pursuit of happiness. There is no right or wrong; simply happy and unhappy. This is made more concrete in the paragraph that follows:

Once we accept that the experience of happiness (for yourself and others) is the final arbiter of the rightness of what you do, we can move away from making moral judgments based on ill-conceived ideas about what is right and wrong. We can instead use factual assessments of the consequences for pleasure and purpose to judge the goodness of what we and others do (including policy makers) and to guide our views about how society ought to be organized.

No wonder that Dolan’s discussions about altruism (pages 176-188) are couched in the language of reciprocity of one kind or another, either like-for-like or in the recognition of our generosity. The more public that recognition, the better.

In a world with no right or wrong, there must be some motive rooted in our happiness if we are to give of our time or money. We cannot give because we have more than we need; we cannot give because we are grateful for what we have been given; we cannot give out of compassion. Instead, we give because it makes us feel good in one way or another.

Over the couple of days I was reading Happiness by Design, I was doing some work on the Sermon on the Mount – and particularly the Beatitudes. The Sermon on the Mount is the most famous chunk of Jesus’ teaching. It is something of a manifesto for those who call themselves Jesus’ disciples. And it begins with eight ‘blessings’ that turn the wisdom of the world upside-down.

Blessed are the poor in spirit,
  for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
  for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
  for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
  for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
  for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
  for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
  for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
  for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

A couple of the English Bible translations take ‘blessed’ here to be ‘happy’ because the translators think it will help us to understand what Jesus is saying. The word is best as ‘blessed,’ though, because Jesus didn’t go up a mountain to teach us how to be happy. He taught us how to be blessed – how to receive God’s blessings and enjoy them. As the old catechism has it:

What is the chief end of man?
Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him for ever.

Our enjoyment is of God and in God. We seek not happiness but contentment. We look not for pleasure but for blessing. And through it, God’s blessings to us and to others multiply.

Paul Dolan has written an engaging book that is well-researched and makes a substantial contribution to our understanding of how we respond to pleasure and purpose. But his elevation of happiness to the place of morals and ethics is a disastrous move. Don’t be happy. Be blessed.