In the wake of recent national and international turmoil, and most recently the Grenfell tower block fire in London, the masses are looking towards the government more than ever for a sense of solace. But, to what extent is the government under obligation to kindle the happiness of the individual, beyond ensuring their immediate safety? Whilst our current government is apparently failing to perform the latter, it is worth questioning the lengths that the sovereign body should go to in order to achieve societal happiness; if such a universal concept exists.
The success of a country is most commonly measured by GDP (gross-domestic product) or technological development. But why is there not more focus on the mental wellbeing of civilisation? Arguably, the government of a country does indeed hold a duty towards furthering the happiness of its’ citizens. Through shaping effective policies and creating a liberal political climate, the government has a central role in promoting the mental prosperity of the people, as well as their economic prosperity. Yet, in countries where the government maintains a high level of interference in society (through ideological, religious or other means), the happiness of the general public has noticeably declined. It may therefore be essential for the government to positively interfere in public life, but does this infringe on the autonomy of the individual?
From an existentialist perspective, the happiness of an individual is arguably confined within the scope of their own action. Whilst the government can alter the external environment through structures such as healthcare, environment, education, etc, the happiness of the individual is their own responsibility. Yet, if you want to go really existentialist, you could argue that happiness as an emotion is impossible to measure accurately, and is by nature unreliable, fleeting and subjective. As notable existentialist author Albert Camus muses: ‘What is happiness other than the simple harmony between man and the life he leads?’. Pushing this line of thought further, a nihilist perspective would claim that there is no intrinsic value in happiness as an emotion, as it would make little difference in the world if an individual is happy or otherwise. Thus, the individual holds sole responsibility for their own wellbeing, as fickle and unknowable as it is. One model of happiness outlines it as U-shaped, meaning that typically across the human life-span, children and the elderly rate their happiness as higher than that of their teenage and 20-50 year old counterparts. The unhappiest demographic, according to the Independent, is people in their 40’s. In the same study, the majority of the UK population ranked their happiness as 5/6 out of 7. This then suggests that happiness may be largely linked with life progression, age and circumstance, rather than the particular economic climate of a country.
Therefore, whilst the concept of happiness is frustratingly subjective and hard to pin down, it is an undeniably essential goal for any progressive society. But, whilst the government does retain a duty to stimulate the mental wellbeing of its population, it often doesn’t follow through on this potentially impossible task. Thus, happiness, whatever it is constituted by, stems ultimately from the disposition of the individual.
Mentioned today in HEADCANDY:
- Albert Camus; although the quote in this week’s article does not originate from any particular work, a good start for anyone interested in his work is ‘The Outsider’ (sometimes also translated as ‘The Stranger’) https://www.amazon.co.uk/Outsider-Penguin-Modern-Classics-ebook/dp/B00FYE7WIU/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1498256902&sr=8-2&keywords=albert+camus+the+outsider