For 20 years from the completion of my undergraduate social anthropology degree in 1983, I spent most of my time applying anthropological principles and insights to the global fight against poverty. Like many anthropologists of my generation (though we were still a tiny minority), I felt it was no longer acceptable to use ‘cultural relativism’ as an excuse for failing to contribute to social progress. It wasn’t good enough just to celebrate cultural diversity as if this would on its own make the world a nicer and more interesting place. The ugly truth was that in most cultures there was pervasive injustice and suffering. Cultural traditions that were ‘rich’ in terms of interest and complexity were also often downright nasty and stupid if you judged them in terms of how well people lived. It was our moral duty to fight cultural harms.
So I chose to focus mainly on programmes and policies intended to remove poverty through grassroots empowerment. And I collaborated with thousands of organizations which were eager to pursue those challenges with help from anthropologists – tiny village committees in South Asia, Indonesia, Africa, and Latin America; international NGOs; government departments; and major international organizations like the UK department for International Development, the World Bank, and the UN Food and Agricultural Organization.
I always found that work inspiring, but ultimately rather restrictive. The key problem was the implicit ‘lenses’ that shaped people’s motivations and organizational objectives. One lens that dominated was the ‘remedial lens’ or ‘deficit lens’ which insisted that the purposes of ‘development’ must be things like poverty reduction and the achievement of human rights. No-one seemed to identify goals for things that ultimately mattered, like conviviality, love, or happiness. I admit that the remedial lens gave me a strong sense of moral mission. But I began to feel uneasy about always focusing on things that were wrong with people’s lives, rather than on things that went right. Specifically, my PhD research living with rainforest people in the Nilgiri mountains of southern India showed me how people can be ultra-poor and suffer horribly, and yet still have social capabilities and fascinating cultural traditions worth cherishing.
Insofar as international development planners avoided deficit-oriented remedial approaches, they tended to use a ‘productivity lens’ which was restrictive in different ways. This lens directed our attentions and energies towards measurable changes like economic growth and food production, and so we ended up measuring ‘social’ programmes by counting things like tubewell and toilet installations, and the numbers of children entering school. At a global level, the remedial and productivity lenses combined to form the Millennium Development Goals, which articulated visions for progress that were inspirational for people who needed to see practical targets. But the MDGs still didn’t articulate an aspirational vision for a benign sociable world of happiness – and the same is true even of the much more ambitious and diverse current set of UN Sustainable Development Goals.
So what do I believe might be the benefit of radically rethinking the ambitions of development, using a ‘happiness lens’? First of all, by using a happiness lens you plan in positive, deliberately aspirational ways. You invite people to consider a world or a way of life that is really wonderful, not just slightly less awful or better equipped with goods and services. Secondly, you give more respect to human dignity by carefully considering how people themselves feel and think about any changes that are happening or being proposed. You use appreciative empathy as a core planning principle. Thirdly, you respect people’s lives as wholes. You don’t just go for piecemeal improvements. You try to ensure that any improvement makes sense as part of the overall coherence of people’s lives. For the sake of simplicity and brevity, I refer to these three happiness lens principles as positivity, empathy, and integration. But there are endless different ways of elaborating on the implications of taking happiness seriously.