For me societal happiness is a logical goal for any society we try to create. The question should be how do we achieve a society where everyone is happy? This question has been raised throughout the ages. It is not a new concept. It was talked about during the utilitarian movement in Great Britain in the early 19th century. It’s been talked about in various Buddhist texts as the ultimate goal for all individuals. It’s been talked about by philosophers throughout the ages. I’m not going to go into too much more detail about the history of humanity’s search for global happiness. What I wanted to talk about was consumer happiness versus societal happiness.
When I say consumer happiness I am revering to the current age of consumerism and businesses constant message consume this to be happy. Here’s a TV, you are happy right? Here’s a dishwasher, you can save time, you’re happy right? Here’s a new phone, you’re happy right? etc. There is so much imagery of happiness around us that it creates somewhat of a negative condition in which there is an expectation that you should be happy and that the alternative to happiness is wrong. This consumer happiness is not Utopian happiness, it is not utilitarian happiness, it is not reaching nirvana happiness. In fact it is the opposite to all of those. Yes, we are living in a plastic punk Dystopia.
You may wonder, why do I say it is the opposite. Rather than going into materialism versus minimalism and the achievement of happiness from within rather than external forces I’m going to jump straight into Utilitarianism’s goal of global societal happiness. Utilitarianism asked the question what is the purpose (utility) of the thing. Does it create happiness? On the surface that may seem like it is in line with consumer based happiness. Does a TV create happiness? However the question wasn’t directed at individual objects not the achievement of happiness by the individual. It was aimed at the achievement of global happiness. Of societal happiness in which the entire group is happy. The question was directed at systems and policy. At the governmental level. Does this law create happiness? Does this bill generate happiness? Is the purpose of this system to ensure happiness? Does this utility contribute to our happiness? If the answer came back as no the view was then to dismantle or remove the offending utility.
Why do I say then that consumer happiness is against the idea of utilitarian happiness? While we can argue the creation of consumer products creates happiness it doesn’t ensure it. In many cases it can actually contribute to greater unhappiness. Material based happiness is a shift of the burden. It goes something like this:
I’m unhappy, I’ll buy a TV, when I watch TV I’m happy, why was I unhappy? I don’t know, Probably because I didn’t have a TV. Thus the cause of unhappiness is shrouded, the burden of maintaining your happiness is shifted and your actual ability to create your own happiness has been diminished.
That is not the utilitarian idea of global happiness. To them the question was why are people unhappy in the first place. What can be done on a societal/governmental/community based level that will unsure the initial thing that caused the unhappiness isn’t there whatever that may be. Back to the TV example, it could be that the unhappiness was generate by stress and that a stress relieving activity was required, thus watching TV would have been a good solution. But the question comes up, what is causing the stress? Why is the stress there in the first place? How can we create a society in which the stress that required you to buy a TV in the first place is not there?
While we are talking about the creation and maintenance of happiness on a societal level, I would like to point out the mistake that governments often make when it comes to happiness. Societal happiness is not populism. Populism is a shallow form of happiness at best. At worst it is sadistic happiness. Take anti-abortion laws, presumably governments put these in place because it will make x number of people happy. This group is sufficiently large enough to mean that making them happy allows those in power to maintain power. The trouble with the happiness they are creating here is that it is sadistic happiness. It is the happiness of one group to the detriment of another group. IE that one group that is happy is happy because another group suffers. The happiness created from such a policy is shallow and won’t last. Those who fought for it don’t actually gain any happiness from the existence of the policy. Most likely they will move onto the next moral fight. The policy fails the basic questions of utilitarianism. Was the purpose of the policy to create societal happiness? Perhaps on some kind of moral superiority level but on an actual societal level its purpose is not to create happiness nor to maintain happiness. What’s more it is a policy that would be seen as a great crime by the movement as it creates unhappiness.
Giving the people what they want is different to making society happy. A globally happy society is a far reaching goal that requires meticulous planning and a complete avoidance of superficial happiness. It requires the seeking of a deeper happiness on a communal level not the individual.