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The RSA has been carefully following the upsurge in political interest in happiness. David Willets and Paul Ormerod debated Happiness, Economics and Public Policy last year. Richard Layard is a regular visitor.

Psychologists looking at happiness consistently pin the blame on consumer culture. Too much choice is bad for us, according to Psychology Today. For Tim Kasser (who also spoke here recently), materialism is the problem. It’s not clear that this metric explains national and regional differences in happiness levels, though. Or sudden shifts in national mood.

It remains an open question whether we can legislate for happiness. Eric G. Wilson’s Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy is a tidy polemic, although the Economist review wasn’t too favourable. Maybe the philosopher Peter Singer has it right: we can’t outlaw unhappiness, but we can prevent depression.

None of this is new, of course. Of contemporary thinkers, only Daniel Gilbert has really taken on board J. S. Mill’s autobiographical paradox: "Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so." Darrin McMahon’s Happiness: A History is a useful corrective to the present-mindedness of this debate.


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