In Obliquity, John Kay writes that “happiness is not achieved through the pursuit of happiness”. It is instead, he says, a by-product, something we achieve by focusing on other things. Some new research corroborates his view.
Lois Duff and Artjoms Ivlevs show that there’s a significant and negative correlation between thinking about the meaning or purpose of life and happiness; people who spend more time thinking about the meaning of life tend to be less happy than people who don’t.
Of course, this correlation, in itself, does not establish that thinking about the meaning of life causes unhappiness. It might instead be that things that make us unhappy also cause us to question the purpose of life.
Two facts, however, suggest this is not what’s happening.
First, the authors control for the observable things that might make us unhappy: being unhealthy, middle-aged, unemployed, irreligious or divorced, among other things. The relationship between thinking about the meaning of life and unhappiness exists even allowing for these.
Secondly, they show that this relationship only exists in rich countries. In poor nations, the opposite is the case; people there tend to be happier, ceteris paribus, the more they think about the meaning of life.
So, here’s a theory. Thinking about the meaning of life serves opposite functions in rich and poor countries.
In poor countries, it acts as a comfort. People reckon: “sure, we’re poor. But when you think about the true purpose of life, money doesn’t much matter.”
In rich countries, however, it acts as an irritant. Having attained moderate wealth, we think “there must be more to life than this” and get depressed when we can’t figure out what it is or how to get it, or discover we‘re no happier when we‘ve got it. The only people who benefit are psychoanalysts and pharmaceutical suppliers.
The obvious message here is that we should shut up thinking about the meaning of life and just get on with living it.
But there might be another implication. Could it be that Cameron’s proposal to measure national well-being will in fact tend to reduce that well-being, insofar as it invites us to spend more time thinking about happiness?