The 20th March is the UN International Day of Happiness, recognizing, it says, 'the relevance of happiness and well-being as universal goals and aspirations in the lives of human beings around the world and the importance of their recognition in public policy objectives'. If you visit the UN's observance day website, happy images include Ban Ki Moon dancing 'gangnam style' with puffy South Korean popster Psy, though paradoxically its text also recommends marking the occasion 'in an appropriate manner, including through education and public awareness-raising activities.' If this doesn't sound particularly joyful, the UK organisation Action for happiness suggests a range of everyday activities to increase your happiness and those around you. If hugging strangers on the street sounds more dangerous than life-enhancing, then other ideas, including mindfulness meditation and keeping gratitude journals, are in keeping with older, eastern and western philosophical notions of how to live a good life.
What's new is the shift in the claims made about the efficacy of these methods, with many contemporary scholars hailing happiness as a 'new science' on the basis of developments in measuring happiness that can be applied not just to individuals but to whole countries. The latest World Happiness Report, taking measures of self-reported life satisfaction and mood data from 156 countries, has proclaimed Denmark as the happiest country in the world, with fellow Scandinavian countries following close behind. (The UK is in 22nd place). Forget the bleakness and bad weather of popular scandi-noir TV shows, the research suggests. Denmark's secret? Social equality, socialising across social classes, generous childcare policies, realistic personal expectations and a cozy spirit of togetherness the Danes call 'hygge' (the closest translation might be the Irish 'craic'). Although the scientific validity of these measures has been questioned, particularly in terms of cross-country comparisons, the findings are supported by claims brought to the public's attention in 2008 with the publication of The Spirit Level, that the most unequal countries perform worst across a range of wellbeing indicators including trust, mental health, drug addiction, obesity and literacy.
This is the happiness paradox in action: after basic needs have been met, increased wealth has not produced greater happiness in rich countries, the gains made in life expectancy and income cancelled out by the personal and social stresses of a competitive, materialistic society. If happiness and wellbeing provides an alternative measure of social progress to economic growth then surely we should be encouraged by the enthusiasm of politicians, with David Cameron's commissioning of an ONS-led UK happiness index the latest in a series of government-backed initiatives in France, Canada and the original happiness pioneers, the tiny nation of Bhutan. But some are suspicious. Government-backed happiness is the dystopian vision of Huxley's Brave New World, where everybody feels good and nobody is free. And if the number of people relying on food banks to survive has tripled over the last year, why are we wasting our time on happiness when there are more pressing concerns? As the philosopher Julian Baggini has noted, "If you look at the countries that do best in surveys of wellbeing, they haven't got there by having these indices. They've got there by agreeing what priorities should be".
Such concerns are understandable in the context of recent ONS data suggesting the UK has become happier from 2012 to 2013; instead of an antidote, happiness measures could be used to legitimise austerity economics and increasing inequality.
The British economist Richard Layard declares that 'happiness must be the business of government'. Yet his policy recommendations, including spending to alleviate unemployment and poverty, sound almost socialist. Could it be that the happiness agenda could be a way of sneaking the politically taboo concepts of social justice and greater income equality in through the back door? Should you eliminate poverty because it makes people (including the rich) unhappy, or because it is the right thing to do? The answer might be to create the wider social and economic conditions conducive to individual fulfilment and not micro-manage the personal paths. But paradoxically, happiness is serious. Scroll along from the dancing UN secretary general on the UN website and you get a caption celebrating ten years of peace in Liberia. No disrespect to Psy, but that's the kind of happiness many more would get behind.
David Tross is running a series of workshops on happiness and wellbeing as part of Birkbeck, University of London's Pop-up University in Willesden Green, which is running until the end of May 2014.