You might think it's the individual's pursuit of happiness that is the driving force behind our societies' dynamics, the progress as well as the regress. At least I thought that for a long time. And then, some years back, during a talk by Stuart Kauffman, it occurred to me this doesn't make sense and, worse, it's actually not true.
It doesn't make sense because from an evolutionary perspective the driving force is survival. It just happens to be beneficial for your survival if you're happy about actions that eventually produce healthy offspring. But if you think about happiness as some biochemical reaction it's not an end unto itself: For keeping your body supplied with energy it's actually irrelevant if you like eating. The reward circuit that triggers dopamine release is just a handy neurological tool to memorize the dos and don'ts. And you don't have to look far to figure that people don't make decisions to optimize happiness in the first place. There are, just to pick one example, many studies showing vicinity to nature (forest, parks, beach etc) improves not only people's self-declared happiness but also their health and life-expectancy. Yet, most people live in cities and spend their time indoors. Why?
In the wealthier nations on the planet, word has it that money doesn't make happy and even politicians and economists have come around to seeing that the GDP is far from measuring well-being. British Prime Minister David Cameron has set out to measure the Brits mood by means of a national happiness index, the French too have created a Commission to assess happiness, and residents of Somerville have recently been asked to fill out a questionnaire about their life satisfaction. We will certainly see more efforts into this direction. But this left me wondering. What quantity it that the Brits, the French, the Americans aim to optimize here? And do we really want that?
I'm not an economist, but I know so much as that the question how to optimize collective happiness is not new to economists. If you want to determine the "national well-being" you inevitably have to sum, or aggregate in other ways, different people's happiness. Yours and mine and that of my babies. And do they all count the same? How does your happiness compare to mine? How many ways are there to aggregate, and which one is the right? How do you, objectively, measure it? Can you at all?
People have tried, and are trying, seriously, to determine the amount of happiness as a neurological reaction, a red on an fMRI or a peak in a hormone level with the aim to eventually determine a 'true' value of stuff essentially. Yet 100 years ago most economists abandoned an inter-individually comparable happiness in favor of a measure of preferences that cannot and, interestingly, doesn't have to be compared between you and me. They call it the utility function.
The utility function works well on an individual level, but leaves an ambiguity among different possible optima as to which is the collectively preferable one. The aggregation would necessitate a 'social welfare function' which is basically the weight for everybodies' happiness in order to sum it up and it is ambiguous - call it the measurement problem of economy. Lacking a rationale for one particular choice, for the hard-core neo-conservative it's a capital DONT. And, from a theoretical basis, a justified one. But all these attempts to measure happiness then bring us back to this century-old question: What do we want? And what's the rationale for it?
To illustrate the problem, consider you are redistributing money from the rich to the poor. You do it on the premise that taking $10 away from a billionaire will decrease his happiness less than it will raise the happiness of a starving child in Africa. But how do you know if you can't compare their happiness? And if you would indeed measure their brain activity should the ability to produce high dopamine levels, that is to some extent genetic and age dependent, affect your decision?
In all this discussion, nobody ever questions that it is actually happiness that we want. But beware the self-evident assumptions for I am here to disagree. So I argue what we are really pursuing both individually and collectively is not happiness, it is the maximization of possibilities. Money doesn't make happy. It opens possibilities. You don't move to the city because it makes you happy, but because it opens doors, increases the number of available mates, and enriches your nightlife. The relevant point is that the number of possibilities is not weighted. It's just a number. You can add it and you can compare it. So here's the rationale for giving the tenner to the starving child. The billionaires' options are hardly affected. Yet the money has a large impact on the child's health and education. It opens a large number of future possibilities, more than it closes for the billionaire.
You can find a writeup of my thoughts on the Social Science Research Network (that's the humanists' arXiv):