Pleasure is Political

The case for a politic of happiness

What would the world look like if we prioritized happiness in our politics?

Yes, I wrote a whole book about that question (specifically through a gender lens — i.e., what makes women happy, and how could our politics reflect that?). And as the 2020 Democratic primary scales up, it’s something I’m spending a lot of time thinking about: How can the candidates make the best case for their policies? How can we move past the frames of what we can / cannot afford, of what the American middle class needs, even of how to help people who struggling, and build out a broader overarching ideology of what government is for?

So I wrote about it.

A politics of happiness may sound frivolous, and it is if you think of “happiness” as simply feeling good (especially since “feeling good” is also not an experience we tend to associate with the federal government). But happiness as shorthand for a good life, which is how a great many philosophers and theorists from Aristotle to Abraham Maslow (of that famous hierarchy of needs) have conceived of it for centuries, is a different animal. Happiness isn’t just an immediate and viscerally gratifying experience, although experiencing indulgence is key to a happy life. Happiness is the ability to pursue meaning, knowledge and experience; to enjoy connection, inquiry and pleasure. It is, quite simply, the point. If we aren’t trying to live happy lives—moral, social, full lives—what are we all doing here?

A government’s primary function should be to keep its citizenry safe; but any government (and especially a government of an incredibly prosperous nation) should also see as its core purpose creating for its citizens the ability to lead healthy, meaningful lives. The luckiest few can do this (mostly) on their own. But for a healthy, happy society, we need organizing institutions, including government, making and carrying out policy with the explicit goal of a happy, healthy population.

The solutions must be collective and political. That means a push-back against pleasure-haters: the people who want their politics in your bedroom and in your uterus, who want to slash funding for literature and the arts and direct it to telling kids that sex is scary and bad, who think an honorable life is not one lived in the pursuit of knowledge and experience but one spent working yourself to the bone and hoping for something better in the afterlife.

But that part is easy. More challenging is a progressive happiness politic.

No Democratic president will be able to walk into the Oval Office on day one and accomplish the entirety of this agenda. And so the first step is a rhetorical one: Emphasize that the United States is one of the wealthiest countries in the world and we absolutely can provide more than the very basics for our people, and that a primary function of government—written into our founding documents—is enabling a citizenry that can thrive. Filtering any given policy through that lens is also clarifying. Does it help Americans to do better not just in terms of saving money but in living expansive and meaningful lives? Does it promote health, connection and knowledge?

At the top of the list, then, are the things that give us more time and help us to live better and longer: Universal health care. Paid parental leave and universal childcare so that no one has to choose between a family and a full life outside of the home (and let’s be real, it’s usually women who are expected to make that trade-off). A generous social safety net not just to catch the unluckiest few, but to allow the many to take leaps of faith. Workplace regulations that raise wages, require predictable hours, and crack down on worker exploitation.

A happiness politic would force us to ask: What do we want from our government? What do we want from our society? 

I hope you’ll read the whole thing — and of course send me your thoughts. How else can we prioritize happiness in our politics? What creative solutions have so far been left off the table? What do you see as the biggest barriers to more people being able to live lives that are full, connected, meaningful, and experience-driven?

I am (blessedly) off of Twitter for January, but if this piece resonates, I would also be so thrilled if you would share it.

xx Jill