Enormous increases in gross domestic product per head have translated into very small increases in reported happiness
Every schoolboy knows - or perhaps I should say every person who was at school in the 1950s knows - that a century earlier, economics was baptised "the dismal science".
As with so many good phrases - the "cash nexus" is another - its author was Thomas Carlyle.
Oddly enough, what he thought was dismal was not so much that it led to gloomy conclusions, as that it started from a presumption of human equality, and particularly racial equality. Markets were bad, but a world where benevolent masters disciplined grateful serfs or Jamaican slaves was good.
Economists have usually treated the phrase as a simple complaint about the gloom induced by a study of economics and have retorted that their subject isn't dismal at all. And yet, economists have not been a particularly lugubrious lot; Keynes's capacity for enjoyment may have been greater than that of most of us, but J. K. Galbraith plainly gets a great deal of pleasure from his mordant chronicling of human folly, and the winners of the Nobel Prize for Economics are usually pictured smiling at the camera.
What seems to have gone wrong is that economists have become the hired helpers of governments that are bent on making us all work long hours for no good reason.
That can't be blamed on Carlyle, although his "gospel of work" can't have helped matters, and it can't be blamed on his arch-enemy, John Stuart Mill, because Mill argued for a "gospel of leisure". But there appears to be a fightback. Richard Layard, in particular, has lately been arguing that economists ought to turn their minds to the question of what sort of economy might produce happiness rather than status anxiety, overwork and mountains of waste.
The argument is simple. Indeed it goes back to the first time the poets sat down to reflect on the lost innocence of humanity's Golden Age. Once, we led simple lives, happy to have whatever nature provided, and then we misguidedly wanted more, and we were led astray by the urge to keep up with the Joneses - or the Ionians.
But more is never enough, because the two original sins of the economist, or perhaps the original sins of the human brain, are positional goods and habituation. The disaster of pure positional goods is familiar: if everyone wants to own the most expensive car on the block, all bar the (momentary) winner in the ostentation race lose out.
The justification for the race is said to be that it fosters innovation, rather in the way that the justification for the research assessment exercise is said to be that it fosters productivity in research. Everyone is looking over her or his shoulder and trying to guess whose work will be rated highest - not, you understand, interesting, novel, surprising, risk-taking and imaginative - but highest-rated. But if what is produced does not, in fact, add to human happiness, having a lot more of it seems a bit pointless. And that disquieting thought is increased by the fact of habituation.
Most of us like improvements in what we eat, drink, drive, live in or whatever. The first moments of gratification are intense and very pleasurable. Then the effect dies away. To do without whatever it is would be more or less intolerable - we are asymmetric creatures and dislike losses much more than we value gains - but in terms of how happy we are, there is nothing to choose between our condition before and our condition after. There is, by now, rather a lot of evidence to show that enormous increases in gross domestic product per head have translated into very small increases in reported happiness.
And there is a lot of work on the chemistry of the brain that suggests that, like most other primates, we suffer more from status deprivation than it is usually worth risking - although there are competition junkies whose fix comes from gambling their present status for the next big prize. Politicians are no doubt disproportionately drawn from that group.
What has this got to do with higher education? Indirectly, a lot.
It suggests that league tables are bad news, because they induce all the anxieties that all kinds of positional goods induce; it also suggests that our obsession with flexible labour markets may do more damage in producing stress and uncertainty than it does good in reducing unemployment, so that turning higher education into a route into work by way of emphasising the need to keep on "re-tooling" may also be a mistake.
It may even suggest that students sitting around doing nothing are sometimes doing exactly what they should be doing - working out what will make them happy over the next 60 years.
Alan Ryan is warden of New College, Oxford.