Happiness is not a destination; it is a choice we make. To find happiness with the life you have, and to achieve the goals important to you, you must confront the limitations of the system. “Happiness is the feeling that power increases – that resistance is being overcome”, says Nietzsche, and moral concepts are merely façades of the power elite, while happiness is a kind of control one has over their surroundings. In the 19th century Jeremy Bentham recognized the exploitive character of the capitalist relationship. Bentham is primarily known today for his moral philosophy, especially his principle of utilitarianism, which evaluates actions based upon their consequences. The relevant consequences, in particular, are the overall happiness created for everyone affected by the action. For Bentham happiness was a daily experience. He believed the goal of public policy was increasing the contentment and happiness of the greatest number of individuals possible in a society.
Where Rousseau (1712-1778) claimed social equality was possible, Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) believed social equality was not possible. At the turn of the 19th century, Bentham introduced the principle of utility – reflected in the statement “every action should be judged right or wrong according to how far it tends to promote or damage the happiness of the community.” Bentham believed that human behavior was motivated by the desire to obtain pleasure and avoid pain. Utilitarianism taught that through the infliction and threat of pain people would be provided with motives to abstain from decisions associated with socially harmful behavior. Bentham claimed that it was possible to decide by scientific means what was morally justifiable by applying the principles of utility. He advocated that actions were right if they tended to produce ‘the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people.’ In his day, the ‘people’ were individuals who could vote – workers at that time did not have the vote.
Jeremy Bentham’s moral philosophy reflects his psychological view that the primary motivators in human beings are pleasure and pain. Bentham is not referring to just to the usefulness of things or actions, but to the extent to which these things or actions promote the general happiness. Specifically then, what is morally obligatory is that which produces the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people, happiness being determined by reference to the presence of pleasure and the absence of pain. Bentham says that the principle of utility is something that can be ascertained and confirmed by simple observation, and that, if pleasure is good, then it is good irrespective of whose pleasure it is. Bentham suggests that individuals would generally seek the general happiness because the interests of others are inextricably bound up with their own. For Bentham, moral philosophy or ethics can be simply described as “the art of directing men’s action to the production of the greatest quantity of happiness, on the part of whose interest is in view.”
In parallel during the 19th century, laissez-faire ideology claimed it could deliver the greatest happiness for the greatest number. Free trade stimulated economic growth. Economic growth created more jobs. More jobs meant more opportunities for people to consume, which in turn meant new market opportunities for producers and traders. A virtuous circle was thereby created and ‘the greatest number’ duly benefited. In Britain the evidence of JP Kay, Edwin Chadwick and the other Victorian social commentators also demonstrated the fragility of this supposedly virtuous circle. Without state intervention, they argued, it was clear that the whole Victorian economic miracle might be undermined. The solution adopted was central government intervention to mitigate the most damaging effects of unrestrained industrial capitalism. The Factory Act of 1883 was meant to stop the mistreatment of children: Employment of very young children in textile factories was forbidden, and that of adolescents restricted. Employers had to provide at least two hours’ education a day for child employees.
Bentham claims that “liberty is the absence of restraint” and so, to the extent that one is not hindered by others one has liberty and is “free.” Given that pleasure and pain are fundamental to – indeed provide – the standard of value for Bentham, liberty is good (because it is ‘pleasant’) and the restriction of liberty is an evil (because it is painful). Law, which is by its very nature, is a restriction of liberty and painful to those whose freedom is restricted. He recognized that law is necessary for social order and good laws are clearly essential to good government. He saw the positive role to be played by law and government, particularly in achieving community well-being. Bentham rejected “natural rights” claiming ‘real rights’ are fundamentally legal rights, that exist in law. However, Bentham recognized that there are some services that are essential to the happiness of an individual and that cannot be left to others to fulfill as they see fit, and so these individuals must be compelled to fulfill them.
Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism argues that the purpose of life is the pursuit of happiness, and that the purpose of government is to aid that pursuit. Laissez-faire capitalism, she argues, is the only system that truly protects individual rights. Capitalism, Rand claims, is not today’s system, with its mixture of freedom and government controls, but a social system in which the government is exclusively devoted to the protection of individual rights, including property rights – one in which there exists absolutely no government intervention in the economy. The power elite today promote laissez-faire that pushes individualism to the extreme, turning selfishness into a virtue, as Ayn Rand has done. It is a closed ontology since it does not admit the other, the stranger, into the circle of those towards whom we have a duty of responsibility and care. It thus completes capitalism as a zero-sum game of “winners and losers”.
Altruism is an ethical doctrine that holds that individuals have a moral obligation to help, serve or benefit others, if necessary, at the sacrifice of self-interest. The core of Rand’s philosophy, Objectivism is that unfettered self-interest is good and altruism is destructive – is the ultimate expression of human nature, the guiding principle by which one ought to live one’s life. A German study found that altruism not only correlates with happiness, but causes it. And should we be surprised? If you want to help yourself, help someone else. Turns out it’s true. And there is research to back it up. There is something inherently elevating about creating value for others. Not only does your own self-esteem get a collateral boost, but your sense of purpose – your perceived value of your own life – does, as well. Of course, Bentham and Rand had serious differences, altruism being the main one. Rand categorically rejects it, Bentham embraces it. Similarly, while Bentham believes people act selfishly, Rand advises that people should act selfishly in order to enhance social wellbeing.
Bentham criticized those in power for pursuing their own narrow, socially destructive goals, instead of pursuing happiness for all. His solution was to establish democratic rule by the whole society, rather than by a select class. For Bentham, the legitimate functions of government are social reform and the establishment of the conditions most conductive to promoting the greatest happiness, for the greatest number of people. In the case of happiness, we know that a person’s inborn temperament is important to their happiness. But there are also behaviors and choices people make that can influence their well-being. On the negative side, people can make themselves unhappy by becoming addicted to drugs, unnecessarily worrying all the time, or making other bad choices. On the positive side, people can be positive and supportive with others, have important long-term goals that lead to a meaningful life.1
Mental illnesses produce some of the most challenging health problems faced by society, accounting for vast numbers of hospitalizations, disabilities resulting in billions in lost productivity, and sharply elevated risks for suicide. Scientists have long known that these potentially devastating conditions arise from combinations of genes and environmental factors. Scientists define “environment” in the realm of mental illness broadly; suggest it encompasses everything that isn’t an inherited gene. A study by Gerdtham et al. (1997) found good health to have a significant positive effect on happiness. As health is a strong determinant of happiness then there is every reason for enhancement of health to be a policy priority of the state. Today the causal interaction between happiness and health is well documented. People who are happy enjoy a better health while unhappiness depletes the state of health reducing the immune resistance and developing psychosomatic disease that may lead to depression and suicide.
Some argue that people must make themselves happy because governments cannot do it and it is not the government’s responsibility. However, there actually are things the government can do to influence happiness. There is not one simple key to happiness. It comes from several directions. Greater attention to measures of happiness, can also uncover under-resourced or under-recognized areas for action. Indeed, the UK’s Commission on Wellbeing and Policy (2014) found that mental health is the most important driver of wellbeing, more important than physical illness, income, employment, or family status. Peoples’ happiness, their emotional wellbeing and mental health, affect their ability to meet their full potential: to stay in school, hold a decent job, and contribute to family and community life. The reverse is also true: wellbeing is often the result of expanding opportunities for people to go to school, work a decent job, and be active in their communities.2
1 Sherif Arafa. (5 April 2019) Why Governments Should Care More About Happiness https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/why_governments_should_care_more_about_happiness
2 Natalia Linou and Jon Hall. (18 March 2016) The Pursuit of Happiness: paying greater attention to Mental Health http://hdr.undp.org/en/content/pursuit-happiness-paying-greater-attention-mental-health