Date: 24/11/09
Speaker: Dr Mark Vernon
Title: Happiness: The Failure of a New Science

The new sciences of happiness are generating lots of advice on how to keep smiling. The results are even being explored by policy wonks. So why does so much of it – work less, say thanks, keep fit – sound so trite? If it were that easy, wouldn’t we all be happy by now? The reason is that a central and tricky question is being glossed over: just what is happiness? Moreover, how you try to promote happiness depends entirely on what you take happiness to be – and there’s a wealth of choice in that. The sadness is that this has all been considered before, though there seems to be widespread ignorance of the fact. It was Jeremy Bentham who set up the greatest happiness principle and in the very next generation, his godson and prodigy, John Stuart Mill, who ditched it. What Bentham hadn’t grasped is that if you go for happiness head on, you won’t find it. Happiness is a byproduct of life, not an organising principle. From this follows a devastating critique of the so-called measures of happiness: they rest on assessing the pleasure people experience, but of course life is far more than an increase of pleasure. A rich life of necessity will also include pain, perhaps very great pain. It’s also clear that there are no objective measures of happiness, but only correlations: brain scans rest first on what people say, to which the scan is linked, and what people say depends greatly on what you ask them in the first place. This is why other economists interested in wellbeing say the measures of happiness used today are far too immature to be used in policy decisions. The new science of happiness is actually doing us a profound disservice. Therein lies its failure.

Mark Vernon is a writer and journalist, recent books including The Philosophy of Friendship (Palgrave Macmillan), After Atheism (Palgrave Macmillan) and Wellbeing (Acumen). He writes for the Guardian and the TLS amongst others, is on the faculty at The School of Life and is an honorary research fellow at Birkbeck College, London. He has degrees in physics and theology and a PhD in philosophy, and used to be a priest in the Church of England. He is a keen blogger with a website at

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