Book Review: The Pursuit of Happiness

January 01, 2004

Book Review: The Pursuit of Happiness

A punch to the Left and a jab to the Right. That’s Clive Hamilton’s method in his blunt and fascinating book, Growth Fetish. Dr Hamilton, Director of The Australia Institute, promotes an alternative political philosophy—‘eudemonism’—which champions the pursuit of individual and collective ‘wellbeing’ as a true measure of successful society. The next phase after global capitalism will involve ‘downshifting’, where people opt out of excessive consumerism for a better balance of relationships, work and ‘meaningful’ living. Hamilton writes:

The new politics of happiness will transform power structures, our attitudes to the natural world and the way we think about our lives and our relationships. Such a politics would rob the market of its most powerful weapon, people’s willingness to transform themselves into consumers.1

Is this new millennium optimism or a genuine political strategy? The book supposes the latter, since it is based on empirical research into contentment, statistical evidence that economic growth is not a sufficient measure of policy success, and reports of the social and ecological limits of growth fetishism.

Strangely, Hamilton doesn’t mention Daniel Kahnemann, the Nobel-winning economist whose work focuses on happiness. Lecturing on ‘Hedonic Psychology: a science of wellbeing” at the University of New South Wales a few months back, Kahnemann explained that his research had discovered that ‘satisfaction with life’ and material wellbeing do not correlate. Not at all. Hamilton is making the same point but in neo-Aristotelian terms: happiness is found in human fulfilment and self-realisation.

It’s an old point, at least as old as Jesus’ parable about how hard it is for the wealthy to grasp the true nature of the world as God made it. But it seems to be based on a staggeringly positive assessment of human wisdom—will we really want what is best for us, or will we prefer self-harming greed over downshifting? We seem to fall short of pursuing our own good, let alone adhering to any divine notion of how we ought to live.

But can we still say Hamilton is taking a step in the right direction for understanding human happiness?


1 Clive Hamilton, Growth Fetish, Allen & Unwin, 2003, p.xvi-xvii.

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