Fond though I am of arguing in favour of the ‘radical’ potential of the happiness perspective in ethical discourse, I’m not quite singing my heart out in support of the new Ministry of Happiness in United Arab Emirates. We should all be a little uneasy when authoritarian and conservative regimes adopt the rhetoric of happiness. As Woody Allen said, ‘The lion will lie down with the lamb, but the lamb won’t get much sleep’.

Edward Hicks Peaceable Kingdom 1834

On the one hand, serious and free-running conversations about happiness ought logically to lead to substantial questioning of beliefs, practices, and institutions that have hitherto been justified only on traditional grounds. Is the death penalty good for happiness? Is it good for happiness to inflict cruel and undignified punishments on people who dare to query the state religion?

On the other hand, we ought to be suspicious when the leaders of fundamentally nasty regimes pretend to be the guardians of a nation’s happiness. If you have a genuine interest in the happiness of people in UAE, for example, then rather than frothing with joy over their new Ministry, you might want to engage in conversations about whether the big guys in Emirates, if they really were serious about happiness, might have embarked by now on some plausible steps towards democracy, or started thinking about reforming some of the disgustingly unfair ‘Sharia’ laws that still plague the country.

If we’re going to support happiness policies around the world, let’s think this thing through seriously and develop some inspiring models of good practice. It’s hard to get excited about the happiness policies of a regime that still imprisons even the mildest of political dissenters, inhibits any semblance of freedom of speech, freedom of association, or freedom of religion, and which still imprisons people for kissing, flogs people for premarital sex, homosexuality, or drinking alcohol, and stones people to death for adultery.

Numerous happiness scholars, friends of the Emirates, seem to have thrown caution to the winds in deciding to offer wholehearted support and endorsement to their appointment of the world’s first Minister for Happiness. At a widely-reported and well attended conference on wellbeing at the London School of Economics in December, the UAE’s new Minister for Happiness delivered an enthusiastic presentation on her country’s ‘Happiness and Positivity’ policies.

This initiative, understandably described as ‘Orwellian’ by Human Rights Watch, involves research and training partnerships with several Western wellbeing and positive psychology centres. To judge from conversations and online searches, none of these seems to be ethically troubled by accepting funding from a morally repugnant regime that appears to believe (perhaps correctly) that it can use ‘happiness’ branding to deflect attention from its modern-day slavery, its shameless abuse of homosexuals, its total lack of personal freedom, its flagrant state-endorsed gender and racial inequalities, its use of the death penalty to prevent Muslims from apostasising, and its many other medieval approaches to social and criminal justice.

There are now several academic papers on happiness research in UAE, and so far as I can see none engages with many thorny questions of whether and how happiness research might be linked with enquiries into the many forms of social injustice that persist in that country. So at question time during the LSE conference, I took the opportunity to suggest to the Minister that it might be rather important to make explicit links between happiness and social justice, and that her happiness campaign ought not to betaken very seriously until there were clear signs of genuine social reform in her country.

The ever-cheerful minister simply ignored the question. Several people told me afterwards they were glad I’d raised the issue and that they’d have felt even more uncomfortable if no-one had said anything along those lines. Several others, however, said they felt I’d been unkind, and that we ought instead to commend UAE for taking happiness seriously.

There are commendable arguments in favour of using happiness as a rubric for surprisingly radical conversations about social transformation. If this is part of a clever long-term game intended to bring about dismantling of UAE’s horrendous forms of racism, sexism, and authoritarianism, I’m all for it and perhaps I was wrong to even raise the question so bluntly. For example, I did learn that after a lot of robust negotiation, the editors of the World Happiness Report finally managed to persuade the UAE authorities to include ‘noncitizens’ in the national surveys of happiness in UAE. This does seem like a step – if only a small one – to having these people recognized as human beings.

Nonetheless, I think if, like LSE, you’re going to accept a donation of £9m from UAE, you owe it to the public to show that you have some serious intention of engaging critically with them, and not applauding them naively when they seem to be using ‘happiness’ as a distraction from more pressing political issues.

So what do you think? If you do support UAE’s happiness initiative, what would you suggest they prioritise in their efforts to make their country more habitable and their people (yes, all of them) happier?

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