Friday, July 14, 2006

A 'happiness' Test that Really Tests

“Of course, there is nothing new in the idea that money does not buy happiness. Many religions instruct us that attachment to material possessions makes us unhappy. The Beatles reminded us that money can’t buy us love. Even Adam Smith, who told us that it is not from the butcher’s benevolence that we get our dinner, but from his regard for his self-interest, described the imagined pleasures of wealth as "a deception" (though one that "rouses and keeps in continual motion the industry of mankind").”

From ‘Happiness, money and giving it away’ by Peter Singer, Professor of Bioethics, Princeton University in New Straits Times, Malaysia, 14 July.

It seems to me that judging a state of happiness by questionnaires about how ‘happy’ people feel is likely to be misleading. Answers may be conditioned by how discontented they are with their current state compared to some future state they imagine theybcould be in.

Try different questions:

a) ‘Would you prefer to have your living standards reduced to the equivalent of your
parents at your current age?’

b) Would you prefer to have your living standards reduced to the equivalent of your great-parents at your current age?

c) Would you prefer to have your living standards reduced to the equivalent of your great-grand-parents’ grand-parents at your current age?

I have only met with one positive response to these questions . It was from a man whose parents were highly successful business people and the company under his charge was less successful, and he reckoned that his net-worth, compared to theirs, was about a quarter.

Smith was a frugal person, living on a life pension of £300 per year, upon which he retired aged 43 in 1766, and which trebled to £900 a year with a ‘part-time’ job (though he worked practically full-time) as a Scottish Commissioner of Customs in 1778 to a few weeks before he died in 1790.

His household contained his mother (to 1784), his cousin, Jane (to 1788) and his heir, David Douglas (son of another cousin, Colonel Robert Douglas). He entertained fellow philosophers, advocates, writers and literary visitors, regularly until the week he died, and also gave most of his income away to indigent relatives.

As a philosopher he regarded his role to ‘do nothing, but observe everything’ and it is not surprising that he considered ambition to succeed in business ventures and ‘society’ as an illusion.
But he also understood that such illusionary motivations helped society to progress and to create opportunities for the common labourers and their families to move towards opulence, which ‘common humanity’ wished for them. Living in hovels, shoeless and wearing rags did not for happiness make, except for a deluded minority of strong-willed stoics, of which I am sure there were precious few in a Scottish winter (and, I suspect, not many more, near naked on the shores of the Mediterranean).


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