Happiness is a concept that has sparked conversation and debate right from the dawn of time, yet it somehow manages to elude many of us. For instance, there is no simple answer to the question: ‘What is happiness?’ Instead, we have many loose ideas of what happiness is, and how exactly we can be happy. But while the concept might be elusive, the feeling is immediately recognisable. People know when they are happy, and this sort of knowledge could form a basis for assessing human welfare.
Like happiness, the concept of the 'good life' has been interpreted in many ways. At times, it is used interchangeably with happiness. However, is a good life a happy one, or, is a happy life the good life? What implications would this have for using happiness as a measure of welfare?
The Richer, the Better. Or Not
For many of us, our ideas about happiness have been shaped by the media and cultural habits, rather than through self-reflection or examination. In our post-industrialist world where human consumption is at an all-time high, the idea of the good life might seem quite obvious. We usually consider wealthy and successful people to be living good lives, and this has some philosophical basis. Even Aristotle who gives the simplest explanation about what the good life is agrees that it consists of pleasure and wealth, among other things.
So while we might have good lives as a result of all our material financial possessions, can it be said that we are happy? It might not be the case. It has been shown that our happiness increases as our income increases, but only to a certain point. In essence, once our basic needs have been met, there are no guarantees that we will be any happier by accumulating more stuff. Having money isn't everything is, not having it might be.
If living the good life is not the same as having a happy life, how then might we attain happiness? The answer to this may ultimately depend on the individual. Fortunately, we have some historical perspective. Over time, many ideas have come forth about how we can attain happiness. Some of these ideas do not guarantee that ‘perfect’ happiness will be found in this life, while others require us to note that change is the only constant and so we can expect some unhappiness.
Reasonably, one will consider whether the deep controversies around happiness disqualify it as a reasonable measure of human well-being.
The Happiness Conundrum
To live a good life, and even pursue happiness, certain conditions need to be met; these conditions are our basic needs. This author classifies them as various “goods (food, water, air), capacities (liberty, autonomy, the capacity to think), and options (social forms and institutions)” which must be met for us to pursue happiness. In short, having these will not make you happy, but not having them could make you unhappy.
If we assume that the good life is one where the aforementioned conditions are met, then we can conclude that the happy life is not necessarily a good one. This is because many people who live in situations where many of these conditions are not met have reported being happy. This presents one of the challenges of measuring human welfare using happiness; people you would expect to be miserable tend not to be. Consider Nigerians and our social institutions. Think of public schools, public hospitals, or government agencies that are supposed to provide various services. One can guarantee gross inefficiencies in the provision of those services, however, are Nigerians unhappy about these inefficiencies? Perhaps there are some who are dissatisfied, but unhappiness might be stretching it too far.
Similarly, the happiness approach cannot accurately account for differing values and beliefs. To put this in perspective, imagine two Nigerian women. One values independence and freedom, while the other values community, family and so on. If both married, whether they liked it or not, and then had to rate their overall life satisfaction, it's possible that the first lady would rate her's lower than the second. They both have good lives, and this one important situation that they both share has made one person happy and the other miserable thanks to a difference in values. The happiness approach does not do justice to peculiarities like this. Perhaps because it is difficult to assign numerical values to qualitative concepts such as happiness. One cannot accurately capture the varying degrees of happiness individuals might be predisposed to.
Work in Progress
There are many other issues that critics of the happiness approach have highlighted, however, it is important to note that it is still an evolving measure and the challenges it faces do not render it invalid. The approach remains relevant to determining wellbeing and might perhaps serve us better if complemented with other approaches. Economists who advocate for the happiness approach suggest using it alongside other approaches like GDP. Both approaches provide different insights, none of which should be rated more important than the other, especially if we are looking to make inferences regarding welfare.