‘Happiness is the ultimate goal because it is self-evidently good. If we are asked why happiness matters we can give no further external reason. It just obviously does matter.’ Richard Layard, an economist and advocate of ‘positive psychology’, made this pronouncement in his book Happiness: Lessons from a New Science (2005). It epitomises an influential current of contemporary thinking. For Layard and others like him, it is obvious that the purpose of government is to promote a state of collective wellbeing. What this condition consists of is taken to be unproblematic; a feeling of pleasure or satisfaction in life is plainly what all human beings want. The only question is how to achieve it, and here positive psychology – a putative science that not only identifies what makes people happy but also allows their happiness to be measured – can show the way. Equipped with this science, governments can secure happiness in society in a way they never could in the past.
It is an astonishingly crude and simple-minded way of thinking, and for that very reason increasingly popular.