Book review: Happiness at Work (Rao) & The Happiness Equation (Powdthavee)

The 'science' of happiness is useful to remind economists that people don't always act rationally.

by Mark Vernon
Last Updated: 25 Oct 2010

Happiness at Work: Be resilient, motivated, and successful - no matter what
Srikumar S Rao
McGraw-Hill £16.99

The Happiness Equation: The surprising economics of our most valuable asset
Nick Powdthavee
Icon Books £14.99

Happiness at Work offers 35 brisk reflections on what matters in life. It covers themes from coping with fear to cultivating friends and repeatedly returns to a central piece of advice: notice what's happening to you and, by noticing, become less attached.

It's a broadly Buddhist agenda, part of the phenomenon in which eastern religious ideas are incorporated into western secular contexts such as the workplace, with the aim of raising spiritual questions amid the humdrum concerns of our otherwise consumer-shaped lives. It's spiritual release without religious dogma.

Perhaps it's an approach that can offer businesspeople some comfort as they wait in the departure lounge for their delayed flight. If you took the advice seriously and began to constantly observe yourself - as if on an internalised Candid Camera - would that not nurture a profound self-obsession?

Our problem is that we live in a narcissistic age - the problem with narcissism, of course, not being that we love ourselves but that we can't love ourselves and so become caught up in repeated cycles of trying to do so. To my mind, the kind of exercises that Rao recommends might well exacerbate the problem.

His book also amply demonstrates the risks run by writers of self-help books. For example, Rao promises that with his method: 'Your relationships will improve. Your career will take off. Toxic people will leave your life.' To read this gospel of gain, you also have to negotiate uncomfortable phrases such as 'botherations'. And you have to be prepared to swallow substantial contradictions too. Consider this: following the promise to improve your career, Rao asks you to contemplate nothing less than the annihilation of the planet, as if the sun had gone supernova. Your daily concerns won't matter much then, which seems to imply that your career doesn't much matter either. Why, then, even want it to 'take off'?

The Happiness Equation is more serious and draws on the so-called 'science of happiness', which has reported a growing number of insights to do with human felicity: saying thank-you increases wellbeing; earning more money does not necessarily make you more happy; relationships are worth a small fortune (a good marriage, roughly ú200,000 a year, according to Powdthavee).

I can't help but feel that the new science is of most value to economists, and books like this one are really documents in which economists convince themselves that human beings are not wholly rational creatures after all.

In fact, happiness researchers might save themselves time by turning to the philosophical tradition on the subject. Powdthavee does this in part, citing Jeremy Bentham, the British philosopher who championed utilitarianism. Bentham went so far as to develop a 'felicific calculus'. It has been heavily criticised: how can you compare the pleasure of eating an apple to that of eating a pear, let alone the pleasure of good friendship to that of eating a bar of good chocolate? And Powdthavee is aware of the problems, though he believes modern psychology overcomes them.

What he's apparently not aware of is the deeper critique developed by Bentham's pupil and godson, John Stuart Mill. Mill was raised a good utilitarian and had a massive mental breakdown as a result. That led him to question the pursuit of happiness and he concluded: 'Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so.' He'd realised that happiness is the byproduct of a life and can't be pursued head-on.

Mill's approach could be summed up as 'forget happiness' and return to traditional questions about the good life - what's just, what's compassionate, what's good. So, here's a prediction. In about a decade or so, there will be a new fashion among economists: there'll be a splurge of books with titles like The Happiness Error.

- Mark Vernon is the author of Wellbeing (Acumen), in which he pursues Mill's line of thought. See www.markvernon.com

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