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Can happiness be distributed less unequally?

The replies to Natalie’s recent question, What were you doing a year ago… contain many a phrase like “I just couldn’t stop grinning” and “Ah, the happy Friday and Saturday”.

Reading them reminded me of a Christmas card I got from friends six months ago. Usually it contains a printed newsletter of what they and their children have been up to during the year. For the first time since we left university, there was no newsletter – just a short hand-written note saying that Brexit and Trump had so depressed them that they had decided to “cultiver nos jardin.”

Elections – and politics generally – seem to cause great inequality of happiness. As the result of each election or vote is announced, some are very elated and others are very depressed. If equality of happiness is the goal, should we diminish the importance of politics? After all, it surely can hardly be that they enjoy our misery – or we theirs – since such a view of human nature would seem to rule out the kind of grand government plan that risks the perverse incentives of its methods in order to advance its worthy goals. 🙂

At a time when standard arguments against socialism are not being quite as effective as we could wish here in the UK, I wonder how this one might fare?

20 comments to Can happiness be distributed less unequally?

  • Marmaduke Jinks

    Well I suppose you describe a balance here, a sort of ying and yang. Your friends were so depressed that they failed to write their usual round-robin and instead consoled themselves with horticulture; and I imagine you were delighted since they’d consoled themselves with horticulture and thereby failed to send you the usual bleedin’ round-robin.

  • Mr Ecks

    The argument against socialism is that it has murdered 150 million people and ruined the lives of 100s of millions more.

    That it produces poverty, famine and misery wherever it gets the chance to and that its adherents are some of the vilest lying, deceitful scum the human race has ever produced.

  • Mr Ed

    There must be equality in happiness, so you will be assessed (free of charge, it’s the NHS) and given mind-altering drugs* until you reach equilibrium.

    *suitable for vegans, halal and kosher compliant, naturally.

  • Watchman

    Mr Ecks,

    To be fair some socialists only produce more poverty and increased misery. They don’t always manage famine or carnage, probably due to the fact you missed out their key characteristic – incompetence (their other characteristics tend to be desparate attempts to cover up this failing). If you are so incompetent at politics and economics that you somehow believe socialism works, then your ability to do damage is liable to be frustrated by that incompetence.

    Of course, if their ability to cause harm is not limited by some circumstances (perhaps having seized power against an equally incompetent government) then your average socialist will cause a hell of a lot of damage.

  • PeterT

    I find myself more annoyed than amused at the complete unawareness of these people that others may not share their view (despite the results!)

    Schadenfreude – its great and somewhere in Germany as Trump might say.

  • Charlie Suet

    I can’t say I’m as jubilant over Brexit as some here, but the insistence amongst many Remainers that remaining in the EU is politically neutral does irritate me.

    Perhaps the truth is that there’s no feasible relationship with the EU for Britain that will really please everyone. But some acknowledgment of the shortcomings of their preferred policy from the FT-classes would be welcome.

  • Paul Marks

    I do not think I have been elated at the result of an election since 1980 – I was really pleased when Ronald Reagan won (the first time), just as I had been when Mrs Thatcher won in 1979. Since then I have rather dreaded the results of elections – knowing that even if the side I support wins I will be, to a great extent, let down.

    As for happiness – yes the “distribution” of income and wealth is supposed to be about making the poor happy, by “taking from the rich and giving to the poor”.

    It appears that Social Justice “philosophers” fancy themselves Robin Hood types – if they actually met criminals (as I have), they might reconsider their opinions.

  • Paul Marks

    As for socialism – Mr Ecks has nailed it (naught for me to add).

    The referendum on British independence – yes, in spite of my cynical depressed self I was pleased by the result.

    The enemies of this country may still find some way to cheat us of our independence (via the “Single Market” which is the-same-thing-as-the-E.U. it still means their laws are the laws inside this country) – but it was a good day.

  • It’s not that hard to get equality of happiness — just make everybody miserable.

  • Laird

    A few responses to the question posed:

    1) Certainly a diminution in the importance of politics is a goal much to be desired. (I’m reminded of the Ayn Rand quote Niall posted recently in another thread: “When I came here from Soviet Russia, I was interested in politics for only one reason – to reach the day when I would not have to be interested in politics.“) Unfortunately, I can’t see it ever happening, if only because people such as your friends earnestly desire nothing more than to interfere (or have their proxies in government interfere) in every aspect of the lives of everyone else and steal our property for their own delusional social schemes. Until you can persuade them and their ilk to mind their f***ing business, an interest in politics is a necessary survival skill.

    2) Why should happiness be equally distributed? Happiness is an internal matter; people manufacture their own. And if they’re too lazy or incompetent to do so (or, as in some cases, enjoy being miserable) it’s of no concern to me.

    3) Given the mindset of the people noted in #1 above, it is my earnest desire that such people be rendered unhappy to the maximum extent possible, for as long as possible. This isn’t mere schadenfreude (although there is certainly an element of that), but simple self-defense. And not just against Christmas newsletters.

  • Laird (June 27, 2017 at 5:20 pm), I could not agree more with your point (2) that there is no reason whatever why happiness should be equally distributed – and excellent reason why some people’s happiness with the state of British and US politics should not – until they know more – be increased. 🙂

    If we can slide the post’s question – or any better un-anticipated “out of left field” challenge to equality that someone can think of – under the mental barriers the propagandists erect round the minds of the propagandised, then your point (1) may be helped. And if that makes the propagandists feel very unhappy indeed, that’s one inequality I can really live with – as per your point (3). 🙂

    Marmaduke Jinks (June 27, 2017 at 11:40 am): “… I imagine you were delighted .. they’d … failed to send you the usual bleedin’ round-robin.”

    Well um 🙂 I um 🙂 🙂 wasn’t going to stress that aspect, but since you mention it 🙂 🙂 🙂 – let’s just say it failed to do anything to rectify the appalling inequality of happiness. 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

    [I should in fairness note that, when at Oxford, the husband was a useful lefty to know as he absolutely could be debated with, having a Stalinist granny whom he knew was wrongheaded both factually and morally, and just enough of a distant connection to Israel to know how unfair some parts of the left could be. He didn’t always hear what you said but that was not because he refused to let you say it.]

  • Julie near Chicago

    Laird, I know you’ll be shocked, shocked to learn that I disagree with you on something, but there it is…. 🙁

    The manmade rules that we’re required to follow in running our lives, and the degree to which we’re left free to do so according to our own preferences, have profound effects on our psychological, not to mention our actual physical well-being. And those rules, and whatever social conditions or attitudes or expectations or behaviors are encouraged or discouraged by them, also greatly affect us.

    Since that’s the case, I agree (for once) with Mr. Heinlein and many others. Since the conditions of a person’s life depend so heavily on his political and social situation, it behooves us all to Pay Attention.

    (It may be that we coasted far too much in the ’50s, whence the “slum of a decade” that was the ‘ 60s, and ff.)

    Also, the idea that “people manufacture their own happiness” has some truth to it, but their ability to do so is affected by their political and other external circumstances. Surely that’s clear.


    Whence I muse thus:

    Nirvana. If you find your circumstances literally intolerable and yourself unable to do much of anything to ameliorate them, then resign yourself to expecting nothing, and turn off your ability to feel emotions and even to think much. The only way to survive is not to care, in the most profound sense.

    Nirvana has nothing to do with either paradise or bliss. It’s a hoped-for psychological state in which nothing matters to you; you’ve insulated yourself from being affected (psychologically, emotionally) by any external circumstances at all.

    Nirvana is the state of “blank-out.”

    Or so I have read.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Now this, from Richard Epstein:

    “Happiness, Inequality, and Envy.” EconTalk, with Russ Roberts. ~56 min., audio. Listen online, or download.


  • Julie near Chicago

    To answer your question, Niall, obviously we should each take care to vote for the Good Guy exactly half the time and the Bad Guy the other half. In this way, and assuming every voter follows the rule, the overall average happiness resulting from election outcomes should be either 50% or 0%, depending on whether you are an optimist or a pessimist.

  • Laird

    Julie, I assume that the Heinlein remark to which you are referring was along the lines of “politics is only slightly less important than oxygen” (from memory; probably not an exact quote), right? If so, I agree.

    But as to specifically what it is you are disagreeing with me about, I wan’t entirely able to figure it out. The fact that happiness is self-generated? Your objection being that externalities can affect our psychological well-being? True enough, but you can still overcome them and be happy if you choose to. It’s all a choice.

    I take it that you’ve never read Candide?

  • Julie near Chicago


    To be serious, I understood your points to be, first, that we shouldn’t have to bother our little heads about politics, and re-reading that part, I think I read you wrong. And your second point to be that whether or not to be happy, i.e. to be in a state of happiness, is under our conscious control, and we can “will” ourselves into that state.
    So let’s give this second point some thought.

    In a strict, technical, physical sense you can argue that “happiness is self-generated” always and everywhere, regardless of circumstances; but the fact is that we do respond to external events and conditions, they do affect us biochemically, and in the strict technical physical sense, the thing that we experience and call “happiness” is the result of our internal biochemical state.

    In the face of a given circumstance, any person may or may not be able to “generate happiness.” I found it impossible to generate happiness as my husband was dying. I would find it impossible to generate happiness while my heart was being torn out of my living body by the Mayans (I think it was).

    You say it again, above: “You can overcome [physical circumstances] and be happy if you choose to.” That’s glib and facile and, you should pardon my saying so, silly. There are circumstances where the best one can hope for is to be able to turn off: Nirvana.

    Nature does not give us a choice of living or dying in certain external circumstances (and note that life or death depends in the end on our internal circumstances). Nature does not give us the choice of happiness or unhappiness in the face of certain external circumstances, given our particular internal circumstances or state-of-being at the moment.

    Of course over a length of time — a greatly varying length of time — our external circumstances and/or our internal state may change so that a choice of whether to try for or to give up on happiness is again a genuine alternative.

    Also, happiness isn’t an overall on-off condition. You can simultaneously be happy in some respects, and unhappy in others.

    If external circumstances aren’t entirely and immediately excruciating, but merely horrible though endurable, a person might be able to find something to focus on that makes him feel better; maybe even something that makes him experience a bit of actual happiness, for awhile. Does that qualify as meeting your criteria for “happiness, self-generated”? It does mine, up to a point.


    Yes, your Heinlein reference is exactly what I was thinking of. :>))

  • Laird

    Julie, I don’t really disagree with any of that. Certainly circumstances can make one unhappy at specific points in time. But overall, over the span of one’s life or even significant portions of it, happiness is almost entirely an internal matter; it is a choice. And far too many people choose poorly.

  • Lee Moore

    I suppose happiness must be a bit like income – for it to blossom, a certain degree of inequality is necessary. Certainly, when Arsenal lose, Arsenal supporters are made unhappy. But pretty much everyone else in the country is made happy.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Laird, thanks for the reply.

    I think we could have an interesting discussion about this, because there’s a lot to it.

    There are many factors that come into confluence to effect a person’s psychic state, whether over a short term or a longer one. Some of them are external to the person except at points where they impinge upon him; others are the physical processes going on within him which the person may or may not sense in some way. Of the internal factors, some of them are “purely” physical in that they don’t have a great effect on his motivations, his emotions, his thinking, his psyche, or even on his ability to act; but others have great influence on the state of his biophysical system, both at the instant and, as a result, later on in time.

    At least, that’s how I see it.

    Anyhow, this is probably not the place for a good, juicy, detailed discussion. I do agree that happiness occurs only within a person, but not that all the factors most strongly influencing his state of happiness or unhappiness are internal.

    Meanwhile, my own internal state could justly be called “reasonably happy,” and I certainly hope yours is too. 🙂

  • Julie near Chicago

    Laird, I think I see what’s been bothering me. “Choice” and “to choose” seem to me to imply conscious intentionality; but I myself don’t use them that way when I’m thinking about the underlying fact that a human person is an entire system, the physical part and whatever mental, emotional, volitional, etc., states result from that.

    But it seems to me that a lot of the time, a person “chooses” in that strict, technical sense, without any particular conscious intentionality. Sometimes, with only the vaguest awareness that alternatives were available and that he made a choice at all.

    So, if this still interests you, what do you think of that? And did you mean “choose” to indicate conscious intentionality, or did I “read” something you didn’t say or mean?