Chuck Colson locates the perennial problem of human unhappiness with the inability to perceive where happiness truly comes from. There’s the economic argument that while “increased prosperity can’t make you happy, it can, ironically, contribute to unhappiness,” an argument which Colson says, “doesn’t tell us anything about what makes people happy in the first place. Thus, it can’t tell us why increased prosperity doesn’t translate into increased happiness.”
As I’ve noted before, the economic argument is helpful for locating a source of our unhappiness: our fallen, selfish nature. Colson is addressing the ontological question of where happiness comes from. The economic argument is addressing the epistemological question of where humans think happiness comes from. The two answers are related and complementary.
And Colson is ultimately right. As long as humans look only to material concerns for the questions of happiness, we’re doomed to miss the mark. A new monograph from the IEA, Happiness, Economics and Public Policy, underscores this, concluding that “measured happiness does not appear to be related to public spending, violent crime, property crime, sexual equality, disability, life expectancy or unemployment.”
“The stark fact is that, as Helen Johns and Paul Ormerod demonstrate, the difficulties in measuring society’s happiness are insurmountable, and policymakers should not claim that they can control and increase happiness through public policy decisions.”
For more on happiness (subjective well-being) research, check out the World Database of Happiness (HT: the evangelical outpost).