The NYT has served us again with a terrific front-page story, Sunday May 1, “How Happy Are You?” In a Boston suburb, this is a census question.
We aired a BreakPoint commentary on something similar in Britain, and we made light of it. I don’t want to make light of it right now. This has all the makings of a movement where government officials will begin to think of themselves as responsible for the happiness of the public. (Leave aside for a moment how they define the pursuit of happiness, which is grossly misunderstood.)
In the town of Somerville, Massachusetts, which I know well, officials are sending out a new census question asking people on a scale of 1 to 10, “How happy do you feel right now?” (The perfect question for the age of subjectivism. It’s all about how I feel about things, not about reality.) Now some people will think that’s really quite a harmless question. But if the government gets into the business of monitoring how happy people are, and then begins to think it’s their responsibility to keep them happy, the game is over. We may already be at the point of soft despotism that de Tocqueville predicted.
Here’s the problem in a nutshell—80 percent of the American people today say the country is on the wrong track. They are totally disenchanted with the political system. They feel alienated from it; they’re angry. So now government has to come along and say, “We know you’re unhappy. What can we do to make you happy?” It’s not the government’s business, and even if the government gets this data, and even if it tells us something that private polls just can’t tell us, what’s the government going to do about it?
And as for happiness. . . . As I write in my book The Good Life, the kind of happiness the American founders were referring to was the classical Greek conception of happiness—eudaimona—of a life well lived, a life of virtue, a life rooted in truth. This classical understanding of happiness, which is also the Christian view, is in direct conflict with the way people think about happiness today.