Laurie Penny says we need more utopian thinking. For me, this raises a fascinating paradox.
To see it, put yourself in the shoes of a worker in the 1840s - say a Chartist - who is transported to today. You'll see that workers have most of the political rights you agitated for; that real wages are almost ten times as high as you had; that working hours are shorter and more pleasant; housing is far better, with running water and electricity; people are living longer*; that we have a large welfare state; better education; and more opportunities. You would probably think of this as a Utopia.
And yet I suspect you'd be surprised that working people aren't as happy as you might have hoped. In particular, one feature of Utopia is missing**. In Utopias, be they either the sybaritic land of Cockaigne or More's more austere Utopia, people are satisfied with what they have, so much so that in More's Utopia money and exchange are unnecessary because "there is such plenty of everything". It is obvious that we have not reached this point.
Our time-traveller from the 1840s might well, I suspect, be surprised that the improvement in real living conditions has far exceeded the improvement in subjective well-being. Why?
One reason is that higher incomes raise well-being only at lowish levels. Aldo Rustichini and Eugenio Proto point out that, beyond a GDP per head of around $20,000, there's no link between incomes and happiness - and the UK reached this point 40 years ago, or perhaps earlier.
But my point here isn't just about income. It's not just incomes that have risen in recent decades, but real freedoms, especially for women. As Laurie says:
The kind of independence many women my age can enjoy would have been almost unimaginable half a century ago.
However, as Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers have pointed out, these increases in freedom have coincided with declines (pdf) in female happiness. What we have here is a sort of mega-Easterlin paradox; big objective moves towards Utopia haven't translated into equivalent gains in happiness.
This could be because happiness is inherently bounded; the human condition is one in which people adapt to both good and bad fortune, as expressed by Hank Williams: "we're still a-living, so everything's OK."
But there might be something else, pointed out by Katherine Guthrie and Jan Sokolowsky. This is that as our options or real freedoms increase, so do opportunity costs. The upshot is that we don't enjoy ourselves so much because we are aware of what we could be doing instead. The man who's resting on his yacht regrets being away from the golf course; the woman with the well-paid job regrets not spending time with her children.
This might suggest that Utopias can't make us happy. For most of us - though not More!*** - any Utopia must mean more freedom. But with freedom comes regret.
You might reply to this that Utopias are worth contemplating - and striving for - for other reasons. Even if they don't make us happy, they give us freedom and justice, which are intrinsic goods themselves. Whilst I sympathize with this reply, it runs into a problem pointed out by Marc Fleurbaey - that most people do seek to maximize happiness.
Perhaps, though, there is another solution to the Utopia paradox. If we could live much longer lives, the regret that accompanies real freedom would diminish simply because we'd have enough time to do whatever we want. Perhaps, therefore, the only wellbeing-enhancing Utopias are ones in which our lifespans are greatly prolonged. Even this, however, might (pdf) have its drawbacks.
* The death rate for men in their early 40s is now 1.7 per 1000 compared to 15 in the early 1840s.
** A.L. Morton's The English Utopia is a great read on this.
*** In More's Utopia there are "no wine-taverns, no ale-houses, no brothels, no opportunities for seduction." I'd rather take my chances in the real world.