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the pursuit of happiness in a non-welfare state

Our search for happiness

In the attempt to better understand one of the most controversial concepts characterizing present times, this article aims at analyzing the paradox of the inclusion of a right to the pursuit of happiness in what can be almost unanimously defined a non-welfare state. It is undeniable that the concept of happiness presents many different meanings, that can further vary depending on the culture and history of each country. However, by considering the portion of happiness that can be attributed to decisions taken at the state level, it is possible to determine to what extent the presence of welfare policies can affect US citizens’ happiness level.

“As far as its name goes, most people virtually agree [about what the good is], since both the many and the cultivated call it happiness, and suppose that living well and doing well are the same as being happy . . . But they disagree about what happiness is, and the many do not give the same answer as the wise.” (Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, 350 BC)

What is happiness?

The definition of happiness has always been an issue of primary importance for human beings; as such, its underlying debate was central in Ancient Greek Culture, and the wisest came to agree on the impossibility to confer a unique definition of happiness.

In describing happiness as “the satisfaction of all our inclinations”, Kant acknowledges that individuals do not dispose of the capability to understand with certainty what will make them happy. Slavoj Zizek associates the origin of satisfaction with the values underlying capitalism, which should bring contentment through consumption. However, he highlights that people are bound to be dissatisfied, as they are unaware of what they want, and victims of the dynamics of capitalism, unable to peacefully enjoy their recent conquest, as they would be already panting for the next one. Therefore, the only certainty we can dispose of and the starting point of any study must be the acknowledgment of the principle of “happiness polyphony”, i.e. the recognition of its plurality and multiple meanings as rightly pointed out by Aristotle.

While the importance of happiness in general terms is undisputed, recent trends have brought many states to consider it under an institutional perspective and to consider its inclusion among the goals to be achieved through public policy. What we are interested in is that one of the first countries to include happiness as a public goal in an institutional document has been the United States. Forerunner of this phenomenon, indeed, it explicitly cited the right to the pursuit of happiness among the unalienable rights in the Declaration of Independence. This decision itself presents an enigmatic nature, as it is not clear yet to what extent a country can affect the happiness of its citizens, nor whether there is a particular regime within a democracy that favors it.

Happiness and the welfare state

It is undeniable that a significant portion of individuals’ happiness does not depend on decisions taken at the public level; however, it could still be argued that there are some forms of state that favor and enhance happiness levels, and that provide people with an ideal basis to cultivate and increase their well-being. The welfare state has been traditionally characterized by a key role played by the government in the protection and promotion of the economic and social well-being of its citizens. By being based on principles like equality of opportunity, equitable distribution of wealth, and public responsibility for those unable to avail themselves of the minimal provisions of a good life, it can be reasonably assumed that a more developed welfare state positively affects people’s well-being. This intuitive conclusion is further strengthened by the findings of some of the most influential researchers in this area, as they have proved the existence of a positive relationship between happiness level and the presence of welfare policies.

What has led us to study this topic and to highlight its ambiguity is the widely shared vision whereby the US represents a reluctant welfare state; consequently, it seems paradoxical that the first country to include happiness among citizens’ rights does not adopt one of the few instruments at public level to enhance the achievement of such right. It is important to highlight that we do not want to criticize the decision to spend relatively less money on welfare policies compared to other developed countries, as the present situation could be due to the later development of this system concerning European countries. We want readers’ attention, instead, to focus on what we decide to call the paradox of happiness and on the different decisions taken by the US to allow its citizens the pursuit of happiness.

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