The unfounded hostility to happiness on Radio 4’s The Moral Maze

Adam Seldon
6 min readJun 24, 2021
Photo by KAL VISUALS on Unsplash

Usually in Radio 4’s The Moral Maze, a flagship programme discussing the big questions and the big issues of the day, there is disagreement among the panellists and ‘expert witnesses’. Usually the host, Michael Buerk, embodies the traditional role of neutrality from the chair. But for its recent episode on the topic of happiness, there was almost uniform hostility to the concept. The tone was set when, in introducing the topic, Buerk queried “how obsessed we’ve become about something we can barely describe and certainly can’t measure”. By the end of the programme, panellist Giles Fraser was assured enough to describe happiness as “useless”, having earlier in the programme claimed that no philosophers cared to contemplate happiness (Aristotle spoke of happiness as a form of flourishing and argued that happiness is unique in that we choose it for itself and not for any other reason).

One of the great values in discussing the issue of happiness is that it opens up the question of what matters and what we value. Ask the typical parent what they want for their children, or what a person wants for themselves, and ‘happiness’ will be among the commonest responses. But we can easily forget about it when lulled into the autopilot of our daily lives. Rather than there being a dive into a moral maze of inquisitiveness, there was a lack of curiosity (other than Ella Whelan, who though sceptical, was more open to the positives). Buerk found it hilarious that Finland came top of the UN World Happiness Survey given it has four hours of daily sunlight at points of the year. Rather than dismiss this finding, perhaps it’s worth asking why it came out on top? Finland is known for its strong social capital — the strength of relationships and networks within communities, and the bonds of trust within society. Given that on the individual level, having strong relationships is the most consistent feature among those who judge themselves to be happy, is there something of interest that individuals and societies could learn from? The economist Richard Easterlin in 1974 came up with what became known as the ‘Easterlin Paradox’: despite a growth in wealth in the USA over many decades, there had not been a growth in happiness. This finding questions a deeply ingrained assumption within modern societies that the accumulation of more things leads to the good life and greater societal wellbeing. According to surveys, pre-modern societies like the Innuit and the Masai tribes are happier than rich countries. These findings and perspectives warrant consideration instead of than dismissal, for they beg the question of what we prioritise as a society and as an individual.

For the moral maze panel though, such questions should not be asked in part because the lack of agreed definition for happiness and its ambiguity renders it meaningless. Happiness can be understood as pleasure, as in the viewpoint of Jeremy Bentham, or it can be virtuous flourishing as per Aristotle. But this spectrum of understanding typically applies to many concepts in society we hold dear. Isiah Berlin drew a crucial distinction between positive liberty (freedom to achieve potential) and negative liberty (freedom from interference and constraint). Similarly, equality is a key principle of most societies. But equality of outcome and equality of opportunity are widely different. These different understandings of liberty and equality have large consequences for public policy and societal arrangements, but that does not make them unworthy of discussion or their pursuit in some form, worthless. This logic applies to the pursuit of happiness too.

The panellists queried whether happiness can be captured at all. Though they have problems, surveys asking people about their happiness have large levels of reliability. They should complement GDP, which is the key metric for judging the success of a society and economy and is often used as a proxy for welfare. Yet any event which increases the volume of goods and services increase GDP, even if it decreases the quality of life. Robert Kennedy highlighted in the 1960s how it measures violence, environmental degradation, and says nothing about “what makes life worth living”. A broader assessment about the state of society can generate more considered decisions and challenge ingrained cultural assumptions, such as the persistent allure of social status and wealth. There is clearly a correlation between happiness and income but beyond $75,000 a year, much research (which has been disputed), suggests there are no further gains in happiness or having a life of purpose. In schools, we still funnel students down a route to qualifications, in part to obtain a well-paid job and a university place. University league tables take into account graduate salaries. Yet what about correlations between jobs and life satisfaction? It would certainly be doing an educational duty to let students know that florists are considerably happier than lawyers.

One of the interviewees, self-described “Grumpy happiness critic” Ashley Frawley highlighted that an issue with happiness is how social progress, such as women’s rights, has not led to boosts in happiness. Yet people have high levels of adaptation to their circumstances, and the impact of conditions often wears off. Generations of women may well have been grateful for a rise in political and economic opportunities, but this did not leave a mark on happiness. But the justifications for societal gains are not just made for instrumental purposes but for the intrinsic need for equality between men and women needing to be better realised. Panellists raised concerns about how prioritising happiness can detract from objective conditions that should be ameliorated like unemployment or poverty. If a beggar claims to be content, then perhaps society should do nothing about homelessness? However, there are certain things that people do not adapt to and causes persistently unhappiness. Unemployment is prime among them. People do not adapt to it: no other result in happiness research is so evidenced. Unemployment leads to a lack of stability and purpose in life. Frawley said that advocates of happiness claim that “If only we could teach people to be happy” then that would solve all societal problems. This straw man characterisation should not detract from the more credible perspective that considerations of happiness can reinforce the case for supporting those most in need.

There is no doubt that the cynical entrepreneurs that some of the panellists and witnesses criticised, from big tech to snake oil wellness merchants who write books or give talks claiming to know how to make you happy, should be met with scepticism. But just because people manipulate something for personal gain or distort it to such an extent it raises questions over the validity of its usage, does not necessarily make the concept redundant. There is something rather jarring about footballers preaching on the need for “equality” when their pay-packet is at hundreds of thousands of pounds per week. Those who believe to be advocating something most authentically should not cede the ground but make the case for the best realisation of a concept and highlight those doing the most powerful work. Academics from the LSE and Oxford have, through control trials involving 175,000 people from 19 countries, shown that going on a course run by the Action for Happiness organisation, leads to a marked rise in life satisfaction. Such outcomes show the power of discussing and thinking about happiness, and warrant engagement with, rather than criticising happiness on the basis of false prophets.

Some of the reactions and comments of the panellists and witnesses when discussing the issue exposed a current challenge for happiness. It can generate derision and mocking. It’s wishy-washy and unserious. Buerk made a jibe at a witness defending happiness, saying how lovely possessing four expensive cars would be. People can resent being told by others what can lead to happiness. Frawley joked that rather than lining the pockets of happiness gurus, you should be free to follow your own desires and have your cake and eat it. As if selling books on the topic of happiness is somehow inauthentic and more malign compared to companies exploiting our sweet tooth to make big bucks at the expense of our weight (63% of the UK population is obese).

“The more you chase it the more it eludes you”, was a comment by one panellist on the facile pursuit of happiness. Some panellists and witnesses like Frawley claimed seeking happiness is a luxury for the well healed elite. But where does the greater concern for those in need lie? Just let happiness come to you if you’re lucky enough to possess it? Or look to consider what societal conditions are optimal for happiness, and empower people to make informed choices about their life and their happiness. Which approach is more likely to generate people feeling that they’re most able make the most of the one shot at life they’ve got? It is a shame this view was not given an ounce of credibility on The Moral Maze.