I cannot possibly do justice to Professor Deirdre McCloskey’s essay “Happyism,” which is why you should read it for yourself:
“Happyism” (first published in 2012) is subtitled “The creepy new economics of pleasure” and it reflects Professor McCloskey’s iconoclastic approach to conventional wisdom; which is what you would expect from someone who has described herself as a "literary, quantitative, postmodern, free-market, progressive Episcopalian, Midwestern woman from Boston who was once a man. Not 'conservative'! I'm a Christian libertarian." 1 In addition to debunking “happiness studies” and the simplistic utilitarian calculus upon which they’re based, “Happyism” also takes on misguided claims about the good old days, critics of consumerism, and the misuse of statistics, among other things.
Having begged off the task of summarizing “Happyism” (have I mentioned that you should read the essay for yourself?), I’ll settle for providing some samples of Professor McCloskey’s prose, highlighting her wit as well as her arguments. For instance, she effortlessly disposes of utilitarianism’s famous “greatest happiness for the greatest number”: "If it would please 99 people to feed on the hundredth, then [utilitarianism] says, get out the cooking pot." And the entire enterprise of “happiness-seeking” is dismissed thus:
“‘Happiness’ viewed as a self-reported mood is surely not the purpose of a fully human life, because, if you were given, in some brave new world, a drug like Aldous Huxley’s imagined “soma,” you would report a happiness of 3.0 to the researcher every time. Dopamine, an aptly named2 neurotransmitter in the brain, makes one “happy.” Get more of it, right? Something is deeply awry.”
Pining for the good old days? Professor McCloskey cautions you against them:
If seen through history rather than through Hellenistic pastoralism or German Romanticism, the gemeinschaft of olden times looks not so nice. The murder rate in villages in thirteenth-century England was higher than the worst police districts now. Medieval English peasants were in fact mobile geographically, “fragmenting” their lives. The imagined extended family of “traditional” life never existed in England. The Russian mir was not egalitarian, and its ancientness was a figment of the German Romantic imagination. The once-idealized Vietnamese peasants of the ’60s did not live in tranquil, closed corporate communities. The sweet American family of “I Remember Mama” or “Father Knows Best” must have occurred from time to time. But most were more like Long Day’s Journey Into Night or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. As the feminist economist Nancy Folbre remarks, “We cannot base our critique of impersonal market-based society on some romantic version of a past society as one big happy family. In that family, Big Daddy was usually in control.”
One of the proponents of happiness studies, the eminent British economist Richard Layard, is fond of noting that “happiness has not risen since the ’50s in the U.S. or Britain or (over a shorter period) in western Germany.” Such an allegation casts doubt on the relevance of the “happiness” so measured. No one who lived in the United States or Britain in the ’50s (I leave judgments on West Germany in the ’70s to others) could possibly believe that the age of Catcher in the Rye or The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner was more fulfilling than recent times.
So much for nostalgia. And to those of us who decry consumerism and the empty pursuit of material goods, Professor McCloskey has this to say:
“Consumerism,” such as the extra-caloric value of a meal of rabbit meat shared over the campfire by beloved fellow Bushmen in German East Africa in 1900 or of beer and chips shared over a dollar-limit poker table with beloved colleagues in Hyde Park in 1980, characterizes all human cultures. Sneers at “consumerism,” or the hedonics now used to back the sneers, are scientifically and politically unjustified…Pastoral critics of innovation in the line of Henry David Thoreau [claim] that modern growth has spawned a “materialistic and individualistic culture.” Common though the claim is, there is little evidence for it, even in the life of Thoreau. The historian Lisa Jardine finds in the paintings and other exotic goods admired in Europe from 1400–1600 a “bravura consumerism,” which she regards as an admirable expression of the spirit of the Renaissance and of “the fierce pride in mercantilism [by which she seems to mean “merchant-ness,” not its more usual meaning of protectionist economic policies] and the acquisitiveness which fueled its enterprises, ... a celebration of the urge to own, the curiosity to possess the treasures of other cultures.” Such urges are not always bad, and they are not confined to Europe in the industrial era.
“Industrialization,” writes the historian Peter Stearns without, it appears, troubling to examine the evidence, “has brought a steady increase in materialism. ... Consumerism, always associated with industrialization as cause and effect, focuses personal goals on the acquisition of goods, from Main Street to Moscow.” Yet industrialization has given us the scope to cultivate ourselves…A well-fed cat sitting in the sun is “happy” in the pot-of-pleasure sense of happiness studies [but] what the modern world offers to men and women and children as against cats and other machines for pleasure is not merely such “happiness,” but a uniquely enlarged scope to realize themselves. True, one can turn away from Bildung [self-development] and read celebrity mags all day. Yet billions are enabled to do more. And they can also have, in proper moderation, more cat-like, materialistic, economist-pleasing “happiness” if they wish.
Professor McCloskey is equally skeptical of subjective reports of “happiness states” and of the supposedly objective and “scientific” conclusions based on them:
We humans can only know what we claim to see and what we can say about it. What we can know is neither objective nor subjective, but (to coin a word) “conjective.” It is what we know together in our talk, such as our talk about our happiness. Con-jective: together thrown. No science can be about the purely objective or the purely subjective, which are both unattainable.
And she concludes with what I happen to think is wisdom:
We do not need more hedonomics or utilonomics or freakonomics. We need humanomics, which may be not an -omics at all, and a liberal society supported by it, the one that has given us the scope to flourish if we are so inclined.
“Humanomics,” indeed: I hereby nominate Professor Deirdre McCloskey to be the first Chair in that new and very much needed department.
1 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deirdre McCloskey I have mentioned Ms. McCloskey’s story in the past; she was born, and lived a substantial part of her life, as a man named Donald McCloskey, marrying and fathering two children. Not being a celebrity or former world-class athlete like Caitlyn Jenner, Deirdre McCloskey has not, to my knowledge, triggered public outrage about her gender change or been accused of representing modernity’s gnostic presumptions; instead, she’s been allowed to teach, publish, and live her life, which is as it should be.
2 "Dopamine" is for dopes!