Hollowing Out Humanity: Neo-Liberalism, Individualism and the Possibility of Happiness

A Paper by Dr Ian Forbes, FRSA, FAcSS, Institute for Science and Society, University of Nottingham, UK, submitted for the Rhodes Forum Scientific Marathon - 2015

Far from enhancing social and private life, the unleashing and promoting of individualism has serious implications for the possibility of experiencing happiness. Just as new perspectives about the nature of human happiness have emerged, providing robust and data-based accounts of the pre-conditions for happiness, so the possibilities for taking advantage of this knowledge are becoming severely constrained. What can be observed is a progressive hollowing out of the most vital human constructions. 

Individualism originally derived its strength from the proposition that there was such a thing as ‘an individual’, possessed of moral worth. While intuitively appealing at the level of human ego, this has been mutated into a simplistic account of a person as no more than a rationally calculating individual. This impoverished version of a socially-situated being has been elevated to an ideological prop for the implementation of neo-liberal approaches to politics and economics.



For the last forty years in particular, with the rise of neo-liberalism, individualism has been manifested as individualisation in practice, and this phenomenon has been now explored in a variety of ways. Critical perspectives dealing with degradation of the social fabric and the atomization of society have focused on the impact on social and private life, on cultural solidarity, on social isolation, on employment, on welfare and social rights, and on citizenship, to name just a few. It is these very factors which have a direct impact on the possibility of happiness.
 
The case for Happiness

For a utilitarian like Jeremy Bentham, individualism is the route to personal happiness, as the minimisation of pain and the maximisation of pleasure. Contemporary social scientists, particularly those specialising in the sub-discipline of positive psychology, plus a few economists-cum-sociologists (Layard, 2011), are challenging, with data, the simplistic utilitarian approach to happiness, and are proposing significant changes to public policy.

For example, Bhutan has its Gross Happiness Index, to complement GDP measurement, while the UK government’s Happiness Audit aimed to take account of ‘general well-being’. What can be done, they want to know, to increase happiness in society? Happiness, in other words, vies for attention as a public good, and may be purchased.

What is happiness? The concept turns out to be very slippery in the hands of many writers, and raises the question of whether it is a substantive concept at all. Where does it come from? Currently, there are two main explanatory contenders: Hedonism and Eudaimonism.

The hedonist argues that happiness comes from maximising pleasure (the only intrinsic human good) and reducing pain. The psychological addendum is that all actions are in fact directed towards the pursuit of pleasure in some form or another. The proper role of the state, therefore, is to create the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people, through the expedient manipulation of pleasure and pain.

Eudaimonism takes a much more high-minded view of humans, claiming that we need to look at Life Satisfaction. On this account, real happiness comes through the actualization of human potential, by fulfilling or realising one’s true nature. Here a focus on happiness becomes a discussion about human potential, or meaning, or purpose, about the life lived.

Both of these contrasting views of the route to happiness are embedded in culture, beliefs and practices, and were the subject of high quality thinking long before the recent academic upsurge in interest in the topic. For the social scientist, the most useful question to ask is: What counts as evidence?

The History of Happiness

Classical sources provide an abundance of views on happiness. Socrates believed that happiness was attainable, but only for people with self-knowledge, by living a life that’s right for your soul. Know thyself, in other words. Epicurus, by contrast, proposed that pleasure is the beginning and the goal of a happy life. He was no believer in the benefits of wealth and material possessions, however, rating friends, freedom and thought as the true sources of pleasure. Aristotle was first to make the claim that the aim of life is to be happy. Rather more sternly, however, he said that achieving it was a matter of being on a virtuous path, exhibiting self-respect, effort and moderation.

Leaping forward to post-Enlightenment thought brings us face to face with Schopenhauer’s observation that, since life has no intrinsic meaning at all, we would be wise not to seek or expect happiness, so as to avoid disappointment. Nietzsche takes this sobering thought as a worthy challenge, by contrast, and calls for a life-affirming embrace of the here and now, even if it includes suffering, as the only possible way to happiness.

The Dalai Lama, in The Art of Happiness, says that the very purpose of life is the pursuit of happiness – by going into ourselves, and systematically training of our hearts and minds. Buddhism, in other words, is Socrates plus internal discipline.

If there is any progression in these approaches to happiness, it is in relation to the quality of the psychological claims about what humans are like, and what they do. Increasingly, happiness is seen as an internal human phenomenon, bringing into play conceptions of the mind and what it gets up to. This is where the slipperiness about happiness becomes most evident in contemporary academic accounts. We might call this the psychologising of happiness. The conversation starts with happiness, but soon switches to something else. Diener et al (1999), Kahneman (2003) and Veenhoven (2013) provide various psychological definitions of Happiness, such as:

1.    The overall enjoyment of one’s life as-a-whole
2.    A multi-dimensional entity consisting of emotional and cognitive parts
3.    Both positive feelings and positive activities, including those activities with no feeling component at all

Remarkably, we go from happiness as feelings, to happiness as a thing, then finally to a hybrid of things which includes non-feeling elements. This presages another shift. Contemporary psychologists – unlike their philosophical forerunners – don’t like using the happiness word at all. They prefer to regard happiness as the same as well-being, and often lift this further up into the academic stratosphere by insisting that happiness is all about subjective well-being.

The New Data on Happiness

Martin Seligman, the founder of Positive Psychology and author of two best sellers, Authentic Happiness and Flourish, is at the forefront of this shift. He, among others in the last twenty years, has come up with new data, including apparently objective findings about well-being.

On the major issue of the nature/nurture split, the findings are in line with most studies – namely that genetic disposition accounts for about 50% of each person’s general happiness level, and that each of us has a happiness ‘set point’. Life circumstances and demographics affect about 10-15% - which is not much when you consider this covers employment, marital status, gender, class, where you live and so on. Intentional activities – like pursuing a goal - account for the rest, 35-40% of the variation in our happiness.

However, there is also the recognition that there are normative dimensions which defy such measurement, which cover important life and happiness issues such as:

•    Is the good life being lived?
•    Is the person flourishing?
•    Is well-being present?

The major finding here is that materialism is a busted flush. Once any person, anywhere, is above the poverty line, extra income and material benefits produces vastly diminished happiness returns. Money in particular does not appear to be a reliable way to achieve happiness, or well-being, for that matter. Even wealth has a low positive correlation. Not only that, those who over-value wealth and material goods threaten the likelihood of their own happiness. As Robert E Lane observes, once out of poverty, happiness tends to lie in the quality of friendships and of family life, and the ability to contribute to society.

Even so, all governments claim the virtues of economic growth, and many still choose consumption over companionship. Why? As humans, we are just not very good judges at knowing how, even in our private lives, to increase, let alone maximise our own happiness.

This is one of the key points of overlap between developments in our understanding of individualism and happiness. Looking back fifty years reveals that, notwithstanding massive increases in purchasing power, and significant improvements in our health and longevity, people are no happier than before. Are they unhappier? Could they be happier?

How Individualism affects Happiness

It seems that we have plenty of data, but are unable to use it. This inability to benefit from what we can know is partly cultural: we live within societies dominated by economistic ideologies and an acquisitive ethos, a view amply supported by Oliver James’s book Affluenza. Jean Baudrillard adds another perspective, by arguing that society is also dominated by the object and spectacle. Think X-Factor and celebrity culture, which stress individualism, encourage comparison and value fame highly, even though these are markers for unhappiness. In Bowling Alone, Putnam documented the decline of activities involving others, highlighting a social trend going in completely the opposite direction of what we would expect if people knew how to be happy or heeded these findings about happiness.

There are also harder social, economic and political forces at work, which are expressed in the development of individualism manifested as individualisation. Touraine (2009) notes that as individualism becomes widespread, social norms disappear, ‘replaced by economic mechanisms and pursuit of profit’. What norms are lost? For Robert Castel (2009), these include respect, safety, guaranteed benefits, and stable relations, the things we need to experience happiness. Bauman (2002, 2008) claims that individualisation involves a denial of forms of sociality, and Beck and Beck-Gernsheim (2002, 2007) agree that there is ‘a privatisation of responsibility, disguised as freedom’, even as the opportunities to express such a freedom are systematically attenuated.

Kolot (2014) has summaried how societies have been individualised on a global scale. Individualisation has taken place not just at the level of personality, but also at the societal level. There are more opportunities for individualised lifestyles, up to a point, but there is a keen loss of the protections and benefits of collective approaches to sustainable economic and social development, eroding cultural solidarity and atomising people.

Why does this matter? In his analysis of the development of market societies in Europe in the past few decades, Burgi (2014) identifies marketisation as a key driver of the ideology of neo-liberal individualism and the practical individualisation of people as consumers, workers and even citizens. Burgi describes this as a hegemonic project, characterised by ‘the authoritarian and brutally swift deconstruction of social rights, hence of substantive citizenship’ (2014, 302). These findings find support in the work of Elliot and Lemert, in The New Individualism: The Emotional Costs of Globalisation (2006), which highlights the disorientating effects of what they call the new individualism, and conclude that ‘today’s worlds are not only risky but deadly’.

The ‘Hollowing Out’ Phenomenon

We started, in the 1980s, with a political process of ‘hollowing out of the state’ – a deliberate process by which state responsibilities are transferred either to other levels of governance (supranational or local) or to the private and voluntary sectors, often in the process undercutting direct democratic accountability (Rhodes 1994). Next was a ‘hollowing of the nations’. As Ulf Hannerz (1993) has put it, the notion of a national society has declined as a source of identity and imagined community: ‘the nation may have become more hollow than it was’.

This has been accompanied by the increasing marketization across society, into areas once regarded as belonging in the public realm. The well-documented cases of the reduction or removal of citizenship and democratic rights, significant changes to labour markets which have decreased workers’ rights and led to the spread of zero-hour contracts, the reduction of welfare benefits and the lowering of taxes on the wealthy and large and powerful companies, and the lack of control over the financial sector, have together combined to the ‘hollowing out of civil society’.

This hollowing out is a direct result of and achieved through the unchallenged ideology of individualism, and the practical rolling out of individualisation in relation to the state, nation and society. This matters greatly for those exploring the consequences. Under threat is social solidarity, without which we see the rise and rise of ‘dangerous forces that feed on generalised anxiety’ (Burgi, 2014, p 303). For Tursk-Kawa and Wojtasik (2013), this development is a threat to European integration, with clear roots in atomisation, anomie and social alienation.

UKIP, Golden Dawn and Marine Le Pen’s Front Nationale, to name just a few, flourish where economic and political insecurities are generated by the removal of stability, dignity and livelihoods. Europe, Burgi concludes, may be heading toward ‘a protracted period of danger-laden chronic and acute anomie’.

Hollowing Out Happiness

The final hollowing out is of human happiness itself. Just as we are gaining a more detailed and solid understanding of the nature and prerequisites of human happiness, so the economic, social and inter-relation pre-conditions for happiness are being systematically thwarted.

World-wide happiness surveys show that how society is organised, and arranges its opportunities for happiness-promoting activities, do matter. Denmark, Iceland, and Switzerland, consistently come out at or near the top of the lists where life satisfaction is measured. The UK, where I live, is in the middle of the OECD Better Life Index, while at the bottom are Greece, Hungary and Portugal. Zimbabwe, reliably at the bottom of all-country lists, has recently been joined by Ukraine and Moldova, with scores of less than 4/10.

Happiness is a complex phenomenon, which takes into account our opportunities to live meaningfully, to make altruistic contributions, so our well-being can be improved by a focus on the areas that encourage well-being – more arts and public parks, an education for life rather than force-feeding vocation skills, more possibilities to contribute to the community.

•    Can happiness be chosen?
•    Is this within our power?
•    Is it universally available?
•    Is it worth the effort?

The short answer is yes to all of these questions. There are things that we can do to affect our experience of happiness, both in the short and long terms. Happiness is both a capacity and a potential – a possible human choice that we must make for ourselves. We may not be able to make it for other individuals, but some pro-happiness choices do impact upon others. When we give of ourselves in a relationship – with partners, children, parents, siblings, friends, neighbours – we experience more happiness, and others experience it too.

Authentic happiness requires positive emotions, engagement and meaning. The positive emotions element speaks for itself, while engagement refers to the sense of flow that we get when we are completely absorbed in an activity. Meaning comes from belonging to and serving something bigger than yourself.

Jonathan Haidt, in the Happiness Hypothesis, synthesises wisdom about happiness. He, too, is Aristotelian in his belief that a life well-lived is a happy one, rather than the other way around. Yet he accepts that, as individuals, we do act in our own private interests. He doesn’t have a problem with that, because he sees evidence of another evolutionary capacity, which is to be a part of the hive, to contribute to the whole. What is more, humans carry and deploy some core value or vision.

Selfishness is a powerful force, he says, particularly in the decisions of individuals, but whenever groups of individuals come together to make a sustained effort to change the world, you can bet they are pursuing a vision of virtue, justice, or sacredness. (Haidt, 242)

Happiness is for grown-ups, not individualists:

 …wise people are able to balance their own needs, the needs of others, and the needs of people or things beyond the immediate interaction…and are able to balance three responses to situations… changing the self to fit the environment, … changing the environment…. and choosing to move to a new environment. (Haidt, 152)

Other data is equally compelling. Correlation studies show that a sample of people tested as happy tend to do better, for themselves and others, in quite a few salient areas, including relationships, work, self-control, health, coping and immune system functioning. Given that the prevailing policy approach gets us, as humans, so badly wrong, it seems sensible to pay attention to the new data and make fundamental changes in social and economic policy.

The underlying message of the new happiness data is that real people do not and never have fitted the standard model of the rational economic agent, upon which so much policy is based. We make inconsistent choices, fail to learn from experience, and base our satisfaction on how it compares with the satisfaction of others.

This should be a massive blow to neo-liberal and individualist ideology, and its associated approach to economic growth. It turns out that these policies lead to unhappy societies, places where happiness is experienced less often and less deeply. The flip side of the neo-liberal approach to growth is the current austerity policy, following massive market and governance failures. The deconstruction of labour rights and access to welfare provision effectively impoverishes individuals on a grand scale and then transfers responsibility for their circumstances to them, as individuals. 

Zagmani (2006: 24) sums it up starkly: ‘as long as we remain within the realm of traditional economics, it is practically impossible to talk about happiness in a proper and meaningful way’.

Individualism, and its counterpart, individualisation, however, steadily strip away the possibility of making and carrying out choices. Structural changes have created powerful obstacles, while the powerful hold of individualism as an ideology means that it has become harder to protest, and more difficult to articulate the ambition for states, nations and societies which offer rich and varied forms of living.

In robbing people of personal efficacy and the chance of living meaningfully, happiness is hollowed out, and so is humanity.