16/06/2014 07:50 BST | Updated 15/08/2014 06:59 BST

The Dirty Secret of the Happiness Movement: A Focus on Raising Average Happiness May Be Costing Lives


(The King of Bhutan; image by Gelay Yamtsho.) Advocates of Gross National Happiness pride themselves on taking a moral high ground, but the rhetoric hides a darker side.

As a student of positive psychology, often known as the 'science of happiness', I was one of those drawn in by the appeal of a global movement that put the wellbeing of people first. For us, any critic of this movement seemed to be cold and indifferent to the wellbeing of others.

That view changed when I read a 2011 study looking at happiness and suicide across the USA. The study collates data from each American state, examining reported life satisfaction and suicide rates. What many might expect, myself included, is that those states with higher levels of life satisfaction would have fewer suicides. In fact, the reverse was true.

Of the ten states with the highest reported life satisfaction, four were in the top ten for suicides, and six were in the top fifteen. An analysis of the happiness of nations draws similar conclusions. Locations with greater average happiness do not have a protective effect against suicide, and may actually contribute to higher rates of suicide.

The happiness-suicide correlate can be most easily explained by what psychologists call 'social comparison theory'. Just as we may feel more poor if we have less money than our neighbours, when we're not happy and we're around others that are, we may feel even worse. We may also be more likely to blame ourselves for our suffering rather than attributing it to external factors.

The effect of social comparison also goes the other way. Those who are generally happy may find their sense of life satisfaction enhanced by the opportunity to compare themselves against a minority of people that are less happy. If we accept this point of view then what we find is the emergence of a kind of happiness capitalism (or 'hapitalism') in which the life satisfaction of some comes at the expense of the wellbeing of others.

I discussed some of these issues with the economist Sagar Shah, who at the time was a researcher for well-being policy at the New Economics Foundation. For him, a reversal of the happiness-suicide correlate depends on wellbeing policy being linked to mental health policy. He added, "I would probably even go as far as to say that the biggest practical policy implication of much of the well-being measurement research is that developed countries (at least) need to do much more to address mental health issues."

Governments don't seem to agree. Since my conversation with Sagar, the British government has continued to support happiness measurements whilst at the same time cutting mental health services.

These issues strike at the heart of ethical philosophy and revitalize an age-old debate. Should we be willing to sacrifice the minority for the sake of the wellbeing of majority? To date, in failing to place greater attention on the happiness-suicide correlate, the happiness movement has largely answered in the affirmative.

There are exceptions. Lord Layard, the founder of Action for Happiness, was instrumental to the rollout of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy on the NHS and recently called for the appointment of a Cabinet-level minister for mental health. Too often, though, the conversations around collective happiness are omitting the issue of suffering, apparently in denial of the link between the two. Even the World Health Organisation, in it's 2012 resolution to launch an International Day of Happiness, makes no reference to mental health or suffering. The involvement of Bhutan in launching the Day perhaps goes some way towards explaining this, and reveals precisely why it should be of concern to those wanting a better society for all.

Bhutan has been idolised by the happiness movement due to the former Bhutanese King's creation of 'Gross National Happiness' in the 1970's. A few years after the scheme was introduced, around 100,000 Bhutanese residents were expelled from the country due to their Nepalese origins. The struggles of these people, many of whom were forced to abandon homes and loved ones, continue decades later. In spite of this, the happiness rhetoric that has developed around Bhutan over the past decade has grown so loud that the country's latest prime minister, appointed in 2013, has felt the need to speak out against it in order to avoid a complete disconnect from reality. If the country that has most championed happiness economics is facing up to the issues, it's time others did the same.

It's easy to say what matters most is happiness. It's easy to say we should put people's happiness first. It's easy to say that something is good because it makes the majority of people happy. What's not so easy is to talk about whether the happiness of some may be coming at a human cost.