Happyism: The Creepy New Economics of Pleasure

Cover_ArtDeirdre N. McCloskey in TNR:

IN THE FIRST PANEL of a Peanuts strip—the preceding ones had been about Lucy scolding her little brother, Linus, for not being a good brother—Lucy asks what Linus is offering her: “What’s this?” “A dish of ice cream.” Then Linus explains: “I brought it to you in order that your stay here on Earth might be more pleasant.” She smiles genially, and uncharacteristically: “Well, thank you … You’re a good brother.” In the final panel, Linus walks away smiling: “Happiness is a compliment from your sister!”

That about sums it up. Pleasure is to be achieved by things like dishes of ice cream. Psychologists have shown rigorously that people are most pleasured exactly as you might have thought if you are a human being: when eating, say, a heaped pastrami on rye at Manny’s Deli off Roosevelt Road in what was once the garment district of Chicago. Happiness, by contrast, is more complicated, though it can also be pursued at Manny’s. It 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 naïve 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. And it is a compliment from your sister. Pleasure is a brain wave right now. Happiness is a good story of your life. The Greek word for happiness is “eudaimonia,” which means literally “having a good guiding angel,” like Clarence the angel in It’s a Wonderful Life. The schoolbook summary of the Greek idea in Aristotle says that such happiness is “the exercise of vital powers along lines of excellence in a life affording them scope.”

But nowadays there is a new science of happiness, and some of the psychologists and almost all the economists involved want you to think that happiness is just pleasure. Further, they propose to calculate your happiness, by asking you where you fall on a three-point scale, 1-2-3: “not too happy,” “pretty happy,” “very happy.” They then want to move to technical manipulations of the numbers, showing that you, too, can be “happy,” if you will but let the psychologists and the economists show you (and the government) how.