I was in an American-style steak house here in Barbados a few weeks ago, trying to write but being distracted instead by the TVs  in every corner of the room beaming out different cable channels: sport to the left of me, news to the right, an action movie front and centre. One programme particularly caught my eye: a piece on happiness, by CNN.

The news hook was the publication of a World Happiness Report, in which countries were ranked by the happiness of their citizens. The puzzle for CNN was why the United States, despite its wealth, came in only 11th in the survey, with a happiness score similar to that of Costa Rica, and why, throughout decades of rising wealth in the U.S., happiness levels had remained remarkably stagnant.

Yet instead of engaging with these issues, CNN invited on a happiness expert, and put up these three keys to achieving happiness:

That’s it, folks. Human happiness, in three easy steps! Don’t worry, America, your misery has nothing to do with rising inequality, job insecurity, lack of health coverage, racial oppression, vanishing pensions, broken family structures, longer working hours, or the gaping holes in the social safety net. It’s not because your economic system puts you on a treadmill in which permanent dissatisfaction is the only logical outcome, because if you were ever truly satisfied you might stop consuming. No, don’t worry, America. All you need is a good night’s sleep, a dose of fakery, and to “enjoy now”.

The “takeaway” culture

Of course, I know the reasons why CNN opted for gross simplification over serious engagement. I used to be a journalist myself, and I’m aware of the pressure of deadlines, the limited time and limited space. I also know that in news, particularly in TV news, there’s a lot of pressure to provide viewers with a clear, actionable “takeaway”. In other words, don’t just leave people bewildered by bad news. Give them something easy they can do right now to improve things. You’ll hear the same advice if you read any tips on blogging or writing for magazines. Always provide a takeaway.

It’s a nice idea, and sometimes it works. If you’re writing about something simple, it’s great to give readers a takeaway. Frustrated by filling out your tax return? Here are three things you can do to simplify the process.  Fine.

But I’d argue that some subjects demand a different approach. Some subjects are simply more complicated than spring rolls and egg fried rice, and they can’t just be packaged up neatly into a styrofoam box for you to take away and consume at your convenience. To me, human happiness is such a subject. It resists being made into a takeaway. It needs more careful treatment.

I should point out that I have no quarrel with CNN’s guest, Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project. I haven’t read her book, so it would be unfair to judge it, and I know her arguments were probably greatly simplified. I’ve read quite a few self-help and personal development books in my life, and got a lot from them. There are definitely some things that you can do to make yourself happier and improve your life.

But there are also some things that need to be looked at on a larger scale, on a societal level, and that’s the main problem I had with the CNN segment. It tries to provide individual solutions for social problems. This is something I notice all the time, particularly in the U.S. but also elsewhere: an individualistic approach taking precedence over the social.

The fear of big ideas

My personal theory is that the failure of so many of the grand social-engineering experiments of the 20th century has made us inherently distrustful of anything too big. We’ve retreated into our shells, concerning ourselves only with self-improvement, not wanting to get involved with anything that smacks of ideology. This is why the world is heading for catastrophic climate change, and all we’re doing in response is religiously sorting our garbage into different-coloured boxes.

It’s understandable, of course. We’ve grown up in the shadow of the 20th century and the millions who died at the hands of ideology-crazed regimes. Yet big ideas are just what we now need if we want to deal successfully with a highly complex, “globalised” world. Individualism won’t cut it any more. We’re all interconnected now. We need big ideas again, grand social schemes, trans-national agreements to safeguard the environment, to secure basic standards of living for everyone, to share resources more fairly, to make us happier. But we’re like the proverbial generals who are always fighting the last war. The tragedy of the 20th century was that big ideas killed millions of people; the tragedy of the 21st may be that the lack of big ideas kills millions of people.

Some possibilities

The World Happiness Report, if you read it, has plenty of suggestions for policy changes. The authors suggest moving away from the emphasis on GDP as a measure of social success, and towards a broader set of goals incorporating happiness, health, family relationships, community and governance, quality of work, etc.

While basic living standards are essential for happiness, after the baseline has been met happiness varies more with quality of human relationships than income. Other policy goals should include high employment and high-quality work; a strong community with high levels of trust and respect, which government can influence through inclusive participatory policies; improved physical and mental health; support of family life; and a decent education for all.

To me, this is long overdue. GDP is a measure of output, an adding up of all economic activity, all exchange of goods and services. But not all exchange is good or useful. If I crash my car on the motorway and sustain life-threatening injuries, it’s good for the economy – my purchase of a new car, hospital services, crutches, etc., all adds to GDP. But does it make anyone happy? There are plenty of other things that add to GDP but don’t make anyone happy: think of the arms industry, which accounts for an estimated $1.7 trillion of spending every year. Is that a good thing? And besides, aren’t we already producing and consuming too much? According to the UK government:

If everyone in the world lived like people in the UK, it would take about three planets’ worth of resources to support us.

Don’t we need to start defining success a little differently?

My point in this post is that sometimes a topic is too big to be given the takeaway treatment. Sometimes we just need to think, and read widely, and come to our own conclusions, and take action on a broader level than that of our own home. If we want to be happy, maybe we first need to make ourselves a little uncomfortable, by confronting some unpleasant truths about the world we live in, the power structures that dominate it, and our place in those structures.

What’s your take on all this? Am I wildly off-target in my criticisms? Am I hypocritical for criticising CNN, and then trying to solve the world’s problems in a blog post? What makes you happy? Do you think we need to think big thoughts again, or is individualism OK? How should we measure the success of our societies? Share your reaction, whatever it is: it would make me happy, at least for a while 😉

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Charlie
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While it’s not completely this way across the board, it seems that it’s often the countries that are more laid back and have a simpler way of life (in terms of laws, pace, less blame-culture, less cameras etc) that are happier and it makes perfect sense. That the news gave the advice it did was yes, I’d agree, to gloss over whilst providing something good, and they would have had to provide something good because in our western-western world we’re supposedly so well off on all levels. I think community and family is very important, and we’ve lost that in… Read more »

Emma
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Emma

It HAD to be an American program. I don’t agree with you on the fear of big ideas, although it’s another way to put Voltaire’s conclusion to Candide. “Cultivons notre jardin”. Let’s forget big ideas and take care of our back yard. I just think that’s typically American to think that you’re responsible for your misery. It’s the country of the self-made man. They have the mystique of the successful person who managed well thanks to hard work. Poor people are poor because they don’t work hard enough, it’s their fault! Or God has abandoned you, you’re not the chosen… Read more »

Charles Anasco
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Charles Anasco

Hey Andrew, I’ve been enjoying the blog but I haven’t felt compelled to reply in a while this post however is just too good to pass up. I largely agree with what you have to say. I’ve been hearing a lot of ideas about “faking it till you make it” I am really sick of that idea. I don’t think that fakery is a good foundation for anything and certainly not ones emotional state. Monday at work we spent over an hour in a presentation where they talked about internalizing an “idea of happiness” to overcome any negativity and how… Read more »

litlove
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I completely agree with you. I was discussing with my husband just the other day the horror we both feel that nothing has changed, ideologically or indeed any other way, since the great banking crisis. We are still obsessed with constant growth in societies that have nowhere to grow to any more. And we can only think of falling back on the old way of running economies, even though those old ways have proven to be failures. I quite agree that it’s at the level of big ideas that we are failing ourselves now. If we improved our sense of… Read more »