“How happy are you?”
It is a simple, straightforward question, but when it comes at a statistical survey on the street, how do you answer? I’m mildly happy? Splendidly happy? It depends? Other questions at surveys are rather easy to answer: how tall are you, where were you born, who will you vote for in the upcoming election. But happiness is remarkably tricky. It not only defies quantification, it almost defies definition.
The curious thing, though, is that there is an emerging science confident that happiness is statistically measurable. We hear that Sweden is happier than Russia, or that “happiness has not risen since the ’50s in the U.S. or Britain.” Or we hear studies like that of economist Bruno Frey, which measured that people in the bottom 10% of the income spectrum are 1.94 happy on a three-point scale, while whose the top 10% are 2.36 happy. Part of us cringes when we hear these measurements, yet they sound so precise, so scientific, and, since we all want to be happy, we think: well, why not go with them? People who earn more are probably happier than those who earn less, so I guess the study, and the worldview it implies, is more or less accurate.
The trouble is, however, when such utilitarian notions of happiness come to guide our lives. A recent cover article for The New Republic, called Happyism: The creepy new economics of pleasure, calls into question these quantitative approaches to human happiness. Deirdre N. McCloskey argues not only that the experience of happiness is subjective and defies numerical scales, but points out the curious presuppositions behind apparently well-meaning theories. “But nowadays there is a new science of happiness,” McCloskey writes, “and some of the psychologists and almost all the economists involved want you to think that happiness is just pleasure.”
Our current consumerist and materialist conceptions of happiness have been brewing for a few centuries now, though. Political philosophy descending from Thomas Hobbes and John Locke came to increasingly equate happiness with pleasure. Yet the momentous step was taken with Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarian ethics -“It is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong” – which came not only to reduce happiness to pleasure, but also to define what is right or wrong according to the happiness it generates to society. And this utilitarian definition, according to McCloskey, still dominates current economic thinking. “[B]y the late twentieth century, a Benthamite economics had become the secular religion of liberal societies. There is no God, and Jeremy Bentham is his prophet.”
In a sense, our contemporary affluence and physical comfort tempts me to stop digging further, and to revel in the pleasures we have now. I have the money to not only have a good lunch in a few minutes, but also buy a chocolate bar later, have a hot shower when I get home and rent a movie in the evening. I feel tempted to continue to be an uncritical, moderately happy person, like the characters of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, perpetually happy on soma drug use.
Yet, together with this temptation, I have a sense I’m missing out too. Happiness-as-pleasure is a concrete, but also an stifled, impoverished, self-centered, meager understanding of happiness. I may get all the pleasure I want, but I wonder if that is my purpose in life-or whether I’ll be happy in the end after all. I wonder whether our collective blind spot fails to see a marvelous reality, a vision of human flushing that makes us not self-absorbed but generous, caring, self-giving, and, surprisingly, also very, very happy.
And I have a sense that this alternative we find in Jesus, and in his paradoxical invitation for us to let go of life, give, and serve, and thus find true life.
 Deirdre N. McCloskey, “Happyism: The creepy new economics of pleasure”, The New Republic, June 8th, 2012. Article available at: http://www.tnr.com/article/politics/magazine/103952/happyism-deirdre-mccloskey-economics-happiness
 Jeremy Bentham, quoted in Darrin M. McMahon, Happiness: A History (New York: Grove Press, 2006), 212.