Social tensions over access to what is considered a good and happy life are particularly acute in unequal societies. In her essay ‘Fences: A Brexit Diary’, Zadie Smith (2016) observes that this tension came into the open during the Brexit referendum. It was symbolized in London by the proliferation of fences and barriers around schools, places of worship and other buildings. These mirrored the social boundaries built around people of different regions, classes and ethnicities. In her perambulations around the city, Smith notes the gaping economic inequalities incarnated in the vintage cocktail menu at the Savoy Hotel where drinkers can sip the £5,000 cocktail called the Saverac. ‘There has been a kind of money madness in London’, Smith tells us, ‘but it's hard to find any sign of a beautiful, harmonious or even happy life (what kind of happy person needs to be ordering a £5,000 cocktail?)’. The obsession with money that Smith describes is deeply entwined with a notion that happiness is about greed, acquisition and consumption.
If the twin ideological pillars of Western societies, liberal economics and universal egoism, have any purchase on what people are, what motivates them and what yields contentment then savouring the world's most expensive mixed drink ought to be a joyous moment. Relaxing in luxurious surroundings and tasting a cocktail that costs almost double the average household grocery bill for a year (Work Gateways, 2016) ought to be the pinnacle of happiness. Yet as Smith intimates there is something absurd and empty about it.
Liberal Happiness Emerges […] and Lives on
References to happiness as an ingredient in Western theories of society appeared in the nineteenth century. Happiness coincides with the first real attempt in European history to meaningfully elevate the individual and integrate human psychology into an economic model of society. The ‘objective science’ of society formulated by the Utilitarians was founded on a psychological theory of human nature assuming universal egoism. According to Bentham, Smith, Mill and Malthus, people are governed by self- interest and make calculations about what to do based on maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain. Jeremy Bentham's famous ‘felicific calculus’ was the most mechanical articulation of this dictum.