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Lesson of Economic Crisis: Don’t Worry, Be Happy?

While Rome burned, Nero fiddled. With modern-day Europe in financial turmoil, why is French President Nicolas Sarkozy humming the lyrics of Bobby McFerrin's '80s hit?

by
David Solway

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May 27, 2010 - 12:03 am
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With typical Gallic insouciance, French President Nicolas Sarkozy recently suggested that we have been using the wrong index to assess national progress, proposing that social and economic advances should no longer be measured by production indicators and growth statistics but by the degree and quantity of happiness enjoyed in the body politic. The financial model, he argued, generates risk and uncertainty and obliges us “to imagine other models” of social progress.

Sarkozy commissioned a report by two celebrated economists, Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen, which urged that people chart the relative proportions of negative and positive feelings in their lives and, by shifting our perspective “from measuring economic production to measuring people’s well-being,” take steps to assure a favorable balance of emotional trade. According to these luminaries, a redistribution of income coupled with a diminished work week implies “an increase in one’s standard of living” and thus augments the quantum of available happiness.

Sarkozy’s happiness gambit and his economists’ vaunted report are clearly marred by two serious omissions in their neglect of undoubted authorities on the subject of happiness. I am referring, of course, to Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen, whose popular 1944 song, “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate The Positive,” was persuasively crooned by Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters, and Bobby McFerrin, whose 1988 hit, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” inspired by a favorite aphorism of the 20th century Indian mystic Meher Baba, struck a resonant chord around the world.

The Mercer/Arlen team informs us that we’ve “got to accentuate the positive/Eliminate the negative/Latch on to the affirmative,” otherwise “pandemonium/Liable to walk upon the scene.” Positive thinking does the trick. McFerrin, for his part, opines that “in every life we have some trouble,” but “when you worry you make it double.” The solution is evident: just don’t worry and the needle will immediately swing to the higher numbers on the smiley dial.

It couldn’t be simpler. The happiness bonzos have it down pat. Merely plaster the fridge door with emoticons and everything will be hunky dory. Why couldn’t Sarkozy, Stiglitz, and Sen think of this gloriously efficient answer to the problem of human despondency and resentment? Or consult the myriad self-help books associated with the trendy Positive Psychology movement that tell us how to achieve happiness formulaically, like Martin Seligman’s Authentic Happiness with its ludicrous “happiness formula” (H = S + C + V, or Happiness = genetic Set Point + experiential Conditions + Voluntary activities) or Tal Ben-Shahar’s Happier with its six happiness tips? One recalls the Gene Wilder film, The World’s Greatest Lover, in which the hero performs the sex act according to the numbered instructions in his cherished manual. More to the point is the sad admission of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s protagonist in his dystopian novel We, who laments that even in a supposedly perfect state, “we have not yet found an absolute, precise solution to the problem of happiness.”

Whether he knows it or not, Sarkozy is reviving the hoary Benthamite calculus, proposing a modern version of nineteenth century utilitarianism as encapsulated in the formula: society should strive for “the greatest happiness of the greatest number.” Utilitarianism comes in various flavors. As the principle of utility (a term Bentham derives from David Hume), it advises that we act in ways that will produce the greatest amount of possible pleasure or happiness in the world at large. Eventually the principle came to refer to acts that engender the most possible “good” in the world, thus assuming a strongly ethical rather than a faintly hedonistic character. Subject to the influence of the contemporary English philosopher G.E. Moore among others, this movement flourished under the rubric of “ideal utilitarianism,” the emphasis resting on virtue in lieu of gratification. In its American form, as developed by Ralph Barton Perry, William James, and John Dewey, the utility principle is construed in terms of “interest” rather than pleasure or virtue, that is, the focus falls on particular, practical acts judged to bring about the maximum good in the “interest” of society as a functioning structure.

In its Sarkozian transcription, however, the principle has experienced a radical and absurd metamorphosis, a symptom of the utopian prepossession of the modern mind, referring not primarily to the abolition of suffering and privation, or to the provision of a living wage for honest work, or the teaching of virtue, but to a pleasant and carefree existence with access to all the amenities, as provided by the all-beneficent state. Such a program is only the expression of what Soeren Kern calls “bread and circuses in the form of ‘cradle-to-grave’ social welfare entitlements,” predicated upon a shrinking and pampered labor force —happiness on a silver trowel, so to speak.

How different is this from just popping a few recreational, mood-mediating or happiness enhancing drugs on a daily basis? Psycho-stimulants like cocaine, the amphetamines, opium, Prozac, cannabis, mescaline, and other doors-of-perception substances would have us all swooning in a trance of re-encephalized bliss. Or would they? Their survival value would be no higher than the doctrines of the nanny state reducing its citizens to a level of appetitive dependence on an external benefactor. There may be a place for fairy godparents, but it is not in the real world.

Perhaps “the pursuit of happiness” was a more plausible enterprise back in 1776, though plainly Thomas Jefferson entertained a less pretentious conception of happiness than that of the French president — or, come to think of it, than the asininities of the NEF (New Economics Foundation) Happy Planet Index which places Egypt more than 100 points higher than the U.S. on the “supporting well-being” scale. Such a metric is no less deceptive than preposterous. In the reveries of our facile paradisiacs, we are ultimately meant, it appears, to be heroes of happiness and scions of state-sponsored indolence. Eventually, if we play it right, we will all see ourselves married to beatitude, and life will finally resolve into a perpetual sabbatical of harmony, ease, recreation, and, obviously, ecological propriety, conveniently managed by the state. Is this not, at bottom, the European project, the release into the body politic of a collective dosage of legislative serotonin?

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