It is interesting to follow the emerging new paradigm of behavioral economics and its work on happiness. Lots of arrogance (“the future of economics”) combined with feel-good theories like “average income does not correlate with the level of happiness in the society so it is not important”. The subsequent suggestion is that governments should care less about wealth.
I agree with all the research that happiness is relative; basically we tend to define our level of happiness by comparing our situation with the people around us. This explains why people in the richer countries do not feel happier than people in poor countries.
But this cannot mean that the level of wealth makes no difference. Just ask a Swiss citizen how indifferent he would be to the prospect of becoming an average citizen of Albania.
Most importantly, (and I haven’t seen this in any relevant research or paper) we all use internal happiness benchmarks from our past. That means that extreme happiness almost requires some unhappiness in the past to function as a memory benchmark. For example, coming from a very poor family and becoming rich means more happiness than coming from a rich family and remaining rich, independent of the people around us.
And that is a big argument that money actually CAN make u happier, as long as you manage to change your life.
But my biggest problem with all this new “happiness paradigm” is that I believe that happiness is overrated.
Who would you prefer to be? An unhappy Alexander the Great or a happy junkie (with guaranteed endorphins, the neurotransmitters that make us happy), Aldus Huxley style? Look at the most important people in the human history, our childhood heroes: Napoleon, Pericles, Socrates, Jesus, Julius Caesar, Martin Luther King, Galileo, Columbus, van Gogh etc. How many of these you think would score high on a current happiness test?
The truth is that happiness as defined in all these papers doesn’t mean that much. Ask all these people that choose to suffer and can go to jail for their ideas, are willing to sacrifice their lives for their families or countries. For them the feelings of purpose, sacrifice for a moral end, making history, devotion to people or ideas, are all more important than bliss.
Even from a historical-evolutionary perspective, we see that societies that were rather relaxed and happy didn’t produce much and eventually disappeared: China, the world’s powerful nation in the 15th century entered a peaceful decadence until the sudden wakeup of the 19th century (after a handful of Europeans beat it). Ancient Greece, with its constant and bloody wars excelled; nothing comparable happened in the happier post-Alexander Hellenistic era. Contrast the peaceful Europe in Middle Ages with the turbulent Europe after Renaissance.
Men are not made to be happy. They are meant to be restless, strive for happiness, struggle for improvement, setting higher standards, expand the boundaries.
In that context, happiness is far from the ultimate end of human life.
Personally, I prefer the feeling of achievement with its many unhappy sacrifice requirements.