Saturday, November 16, 2013

Critical readings on happiness

See the latest open-access edition of Health, Culture and Society.

This is the abstract to my own contribution:

Happiness, Sadness and Government

G. Duncan


Policy-making that re-presents – as objects of concern and by means of statistics – the suffering or depression and the happiness of populations indicates an evolving form of governance that examines and reshapes subjectivity itself. Never before have states of subjectivity been acted upon, through surveys, statistical and policy analysis, and scientific disciplines, to the extent seen today.
This article:
  • Documents changing epistemic co-ordinates, especially in psychology and economics, that first occluded happiness in the interests of objectivity, but, in recent decades, marked out a renewed ‘science’ of happiness.
  • Examines changes in the discursive formulation of depression, as a counterpart to happiness.
  • Argues that, seen in terms of bio-power, contemporary concerns for happiness and depression are consistent – rather than incompatible – with one another.
How can so many claim to be happy when so many, we are told, are depressed, anxious or suffering emotional pain? There is no underlying contradiction here, for two reasons: Happiness and depression are manifestations of the same political discourse (or aspects of a political subjectivity) characterized by dis-inhibition, consumer self-indulgence and performance anxiety. And, just as we needed madness in order to understand ‘sanity,’ or the prison in order to view ourselves as ‘free,’ so we rely upon concerns about depression in order to understand and act upon ourselves as subjects capable of unlimited happiness.

Sunday, June 09, 2013

Politics, Paradoxes and Pragmatics of Happiness

This is the abstract of the final pre-publication version of an article forthcoming in Culture, Theory and Critique.

 European leaders and the popular media have shown a new-found interest in happiness as a socio-political value and goal. A growing body of research attempts to identify the conditions under which humans experience the highest levels of happiness, life-satisfaction or subjective well-being. This essay examines what makes a contemporary science and politics of happiness possible by taking a critical look at such efforts to define, measure and promote happiness, while seeking out a range of diverging, often paradoxical, cultural discourses of happiness. The essay covers the following themes: Happiness is attainable; happiness is lost; happiness is obligatory; happiness is impossible; and, happiness is inauthentic. The essay critically examines political uses of the word happiness, disrupting received opinions about this contested term.

Sunday, January 15, 2012


The way in which pain has come to be seen predominantly as a medical concern, in our understanding of both what pain is and what to do about it, has reached the status of an almost unquestioned assumption. So, even when a social scientist or cultural theorist writes about pain, their analysis will almost always revolve around medical definitions, theories and practices. The social or cultural theorist may be attempting to ‘reclaim’ this territory from the ‘hegemony’ of medical-scientific discourse, or she/he may (even simultaneously) be seeking to convince the reader that, by accepting wider social and cultural meanings or effects of pain, medical practice could somehow be enhanced and its objectives met holistically and hence more effectively.

To understand the shift, we need to rehearse what is meant by ‘discursive practice’.

Despite what many secondary authors actually write, Foucault’s ‘archaeology’ is not primarily aimed at elucidating the contested meanings of what was said and done in the political heat of the times. What he meant by ‘discourse’ was not ‘a mere intersection of things and words… [but rather] practices that systematically form the objects of which they speak’ (Foucault, Archaeology of knowledge, 2002: 53-54).

Rather than watch the game as a critic, Foucault chose to ask on what grounds the crowd and the contestants and their critics could get together, adopt their roles, and unquestioningly know what was going on.

What has formed the ‘pain’ of which one today speaks such that it cannot be separated from the figure of the physician in the space of the clinic?

Before answering that, it may be best to illustrate that it need not be so. Just read the Book of Genesis or the Iliad and notice that what is inflicted on and suffered by the subject of pain is much at the whim of God, or the gods, and its meaning is moral, not clinico-pathological (as, after all, the latter form of perception was not to arise for centuries to come anyway). Sure, Hippocrates was interested in pain too, as a symptom that could help the physician to diagnose. But the morally meaningful nature of pain in the classic texts of our civilization is foremost, and it is not connected at all with the physician. God punishes Adam with the pain of hard toil, and Eve with the pain of labour as a punishment. (Keep in mind that pain and punish derive from the Latin poena, meaning penalty.) Similarly, the Greek and Trojan heroes die gruesomely, but surprisingly painlessly. It is only the nasty suitors (whom Odysseus slaughters once he gets home) who die ignominiously and painfully. Pain matters morally, not medically.

If you read Nietzshe’s Genealogy of Morals or Foucault’s Disipline and Punish you can also find discussion of the moral force that pain has wielded in societies. The infliction of pain is perhaps the most direct way of imprinting a memory of the moral code of the sovereign or of the priesthood. Pain gives terrible effect to power.

But today we imprison rather than torture (admitting exceptions!), and so pain retreats backstage in the drama of public morality, and the great industry of medicine takes up its cause, but in quite a different direction. For medicine, the affect of pain is presented beside a promise of painlessness; whereas morality and punishment used the realizable threat of pain as its affective principle.

The fact that today authors from any discipline outside of medicine, when writing of pain, seem to be tethered to the medical terminology and practice is suggestive of a transformation at the level of discursive practice. This is not to be dissociated, of course, from the wider complex of productive industries that address pain while using medical objectives and systems. I am referring in particular, of course, to the pharmaceutical industry that seeks (sometimes fraudulently) to extend the ‘promise of painlessness’ via analgesics and antidepressants.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

The happiness tour

Below is the abstract of a talk to be given on 30 June 2011. I can forward a pdf of the paper to anyone interested in it.

Title: Is happiness-maximization the new imperative for public policy?

Paper delivered to
Universität Regensburg


European leaders and agencies (including the OECD) are seeking to develop measures of social well-being and progress that go ‘beyond GDP’. Social research on subjective well-being (happiness and life-satisfaction) has supported this shift in political thinking. But, beyond the normative requirement to provide relevant public services, can the maximization of happiness become an obligation of governments, and can law and public policy be designed on such grounds? Happiness as a socio-political goal has yet to address problems associated with utilitarianism and to establish its place in relation to other values such as freedom or justice. While it is undoubtedly true that GDP fails to give us all the information we need about the state of a society, it is argued that governments ought not to be in the business of happiness.

Es ist zunehmend anerkannt, dass das Bruttosozialprodukt als Maßstab kollektiver Wohlfahrt nicht ausreicht. Sozialwissenschaftliche Studien zu individueller Zufriedenheit und Glück fördern diesen Perspektivenwechsel. Aber taugt “Glück” (happiness) als Maßstab staatlichen Handelns? Und können rechtliche und politische Steuerung an diesem Ziel ausgerichtet werden? Der Vortrag wird diese Fragen aus staatstheoretischem Blickwinkel kritisch beleuchten und letztlich verneinen.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Another paper on happiness

Should Happiness-Maximization be the Goal of Government?: A public lecture for the NZ Society for Legal and Social Philosophy

Time: 6.00pm, Tuesday 29th March, 2011.

Venue: Small Lecture Theatre, Ground Floor, Bldg 803, Law School, Eden Crescent, Auckland.


Recent social surveys of happiness (subjective well-being) have given a new stimulus to utilitarian political theory by providing a statistically reliable measure of the ‘happiness’ of individuals that can then be correlated with other variables. One general finding is that greater happiness does not correlate strongly with increased wealth, beyond modest levels, and this has led to calls for governments to shift priorities away from economic growth and towards other social values. This paper notes how the conclusions of this research help to address some of the traditional objections to utilitarianism. But whether happiness research findings can be used to set happiness-maximization goals for public policy needs careful examination. The translation from research to policy is not always straightforward. Some empirical and ethical objections to this ‘new utilitarianism’ are raised. Additionally, questions regarding the proper role of government are considered.See More

The full paper will be available from me, or from the NZSLSP website.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Should happiness-maximization be a goal of government?

This question has recently become a popular one in the UK, France etc. My answer to this question is 'no'. Find out why...

Below is the abstract for a paper I'm to give at the NZ Political Studies Conference in December. I can send a pdf of the paper to anyone interested. Just leave a comment with your email address, or email me directly.

Abstract: JS Mill saw the principle of utility also as a principle of justice, with implications for the actions undertaken collectively by societies. Mill’s case for the principle of utility is illogical, but nevertheless, a ‘new utilitarianism’ has arisen recently in the wake of research findings of economists and other social scientists, and this revised utilitarianism – ‘Bentham armed with data’ – seeks to draw implications for governmental actions. The so-called ‘Easterlin paradox’ finds that post-War economic growth was not accompanied by rising subjective well-being, or happiness, as found in surveys of affluent nations. The conclusion that is often drawn from this ‘paradox’ is that public policy reforms should take up the cause of happiness where markets appear to have failed. The case for happiness as a goal of government, in spite of its superficial appeal, however, is fraught with contradictions and is not made out.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

GNH = Gross National Happiness?

When I mention to people that I write about happiness, they often get starry-eyed and mention Bhutan's policy of Gross National Happiness. Well, the Kingdom of Bhutan, in 1991, rescinded citizenship from, and then expelled, its Nepalese-Hindi minority – about 100,000 people – who went on (unhappily) to languish in refugee camps. Bhutan refused to negotiate with UNHCR about their repatriation. Can the forced expulsion of an unwanted minority be justified by the happiness of the majority? And, don't we call that 'ethnic cleansing', rather than the path to happiness? Wasn't Hitler famous for rescinding citizenship from certain minorities and then disposing of them?

Does GNH stand for Gross National Happiness, or Gross National Hypocrisy?

Part of Bhutan's evaluation of the happiness of citizens is based on how frequently they follow Bhuddhist guidelines about daily prayer (which is not very often, if my reading of the results proved to be correct). Why should compliance with one official religion's practices be a part of a nation's supposed happiness?

I admire Buddhism as a philosophy, but maybe someone can comment.

See also my article: Duncan, G. (2010). Should happiness-maximization be the goal of government? Journal of Happiness Studies, 11(2): 163–178.

And this link is interesting too.