Monday, June 18, 2012

On pleasure, happiness, and that thing called "better off"

Posted By on 06.18.12 at 01:19 PM

John Stuart Mill
  • John Stuart Mill
Mitt Romney is asking Americans if we're better off than we were four years ago. If enough Americans say no, I guess Romney will be the next president. Putting the question to myself, I realize I'm four years nearer the grave and Obama hasn't lifted a finger to keep me out of it. Oh, yeah, there's Obamacare, but nobody wrote guaranteed cures for all that ails you into the legislation. Yet I think I'm better off than I was four years ago. But don't ask me why.

Are you? I suppose the question's easy to answer if four years ago you had a good job and now you're sleeping under a viaduct. But for a lot of people, the question is roughly the equivalent of "Are you happier than you were four years ago?" And happiness cannot be measured and barely be pondered.

If you don't know that already, you will once you've read Deidre McCloskey's long essay, "Happyism," in the June 28 New Republic. McCloskey's subtitle is "The creepy new economics of pleasure," and her subject is the movement of psychologists and economists to equate happiness with pleasure and come up with tools for quantifying it.

McCloskey's a Chicagoan—she teaches economics at the University of Illinois at Chicago—and she defines her terms in ways Chicagoans can easily relate to. Pleasure and happiness are not the same thing, she insists. Pleasure, for her, is eating "a heaped pastrami on rye at Manny's Deli off Roosevelt Road in what was once the garment district of Chicago." Happiness is more complicated, though that pastrami sandwich can certainly be part of the picture.

Happiness "is the pleasure of kosher comfort food, down to the diminishing marginal utility of that last bite—but it is also expressing one's urban identity and Chicago-ism, even at the costs of the considerable inconvenience in getting to Manny's and braving the insults of the countermen. It is introducing your friend, a naive gentile, to the Jewish side of the City of the Big Shoulders, affirming thereby your philo-Semitism. It is participating in the American democracy of a 1950s cafeteria. It is facing, too, the cost of a little addition to the love handles."

In short, "Pleasure is a brain wave right now. Happiness is a good story of your life."

The question, "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" is really asking, "How's that story of your life coming?" On election day, people choose a narrative. Thomas Frank, in What's the Matter With Kansas? and since, keeps wondering why people vote against their own economic interests. But if in the narrative you're the hero of you've cast yourself as gallant defender of the nation against socialist tomfoolery—well, there's the reason.

Imagine a Londoner being asked during the 1940 Blitz whether he's better off than he'd been in 1936—asked with an eye to sending the Churchill government packing. Well, that Londoner wasn't living in sheer terror in 1936, was he? But weighed against the misery of being bombed day and night are the equal reality of one's mettle being tested and the satisfactions of common cause and national purpose. Pleasure is in much shorter supply than hardship, yet the story of that Londoner's life is epic.

McCloskey writes to ridicule the "new science of happiness" that asks people to rate themselves as "not too happy" or "pretty happy" or "very happy" on a 1-2-3 scale, takes the results seriously, and then invites psychology and economics to lead us to the greatest happiness for the greatest number. By this simpleminded scale, a "well-fed cat sitting in the sun" rates a 3, McCloskey observes; and I will add that a towering genius unable to finish his or her latest novel would have to rate considerably lower. The one bone I pick with McCloskey's article is that it overlooks society's vested interest in unhappiness. Happy people are pleasant to be around but they don't move civilization along particularly. If it weren't for discontent we'd all still be living in caves.

The hero of McCloskey's piece is John Stuart Mill, largely for putting his finger on what made his 19th-century predecessor, Jeremy Bentham, a lunatic. Bentham was the utilitarian philosopher McCloskey presents to us as the father of the economics of happiness. Bentham believed happiness could be measured, says McCloskey (channeling Mill), because he didn't have a clue about what, for most people, happiness actually consists of.

She writes, "Mill remarked of Bentham that he 'failed in deriving light from other minds.' He could distinguish poetry from prose only, he said, because 'prose is when all the lines except the last go on to the end. Poetry is when some of them fall short of it.' Bentham . . . dismissed Plato and Shakespeare and all the wisdom of literature as 'vague generalities.' 'He did not heed,' Mill continued, 'or rather the nature of his mind prevented it from occurring to him, that these generalities contained the whole unanalyzed experience of the human race.'”

Are we better off than we were four years ago? Mitt Romney would like to make that a simple question with a simple answer, and if he gets his way he'll probably be elected president. Where he could run into trouble is if his idea of "better off" doesn't feel anything like our own. The nation's hurting; but is he the kind of guy who appreciates going out of his way for a pastrami sandwich? What does he know about poetry beyond it being the one where the lines don't go all the way to the margins?

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