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Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Politics of Happiness: What Government Can Learn from New Research on Well-Being

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. . . .”

Jefferson’s beautiful and powerful words from the Declaration of Independence set out a fundamental premise for the founding of the new nation. Governments are organized to secure the rights of men to pursue happiness, not to provide them with happiness.

Derek Bok speaks to this point in the opening chapter of The Politics of Happiness, but strays beyond Jefferson’s fence lines when he asks what government can learn from new happiness research that might be adapted to national policy actions. To suggest that government learns, as indicated by the book’s subtitle, is to assign a misplaced concreteness to the institution itself. People learn. And people participate in government. But governments seemingly never learn.

For those who have not become engaged in happiness research, Bok provides a well-organized survey. But disappointment awaits those who expect to find evidence of the emergence of a coherent field, characterized by clearly stated theories that evince refutable hypotheses and generalized findings. Instead one finds an array of ad hoc studies that, typical of fledgling fields of study, may offer insights. For example Bok puzzles over the finding that white women were happier than white men for many years, based on happiness surveys, but that their level of happiness has fallen relatively in recent years, even while career opportunities have improved. In contrast, black women have kept pace with black men in their level of happiness and unlike white women have not become unhappier. But the author offers no discussion of multivariable modeling with control variables that might help clear the air a bit.

Another difficulty relates to whether happiness scales are cardinal as opposed to ordinal rankings and can thus be compared across experiments. For example the effects of divorce or separation are found to generate on average an eight-point drop in happiness, on a scale of 100. Loss of a job generates a drop of six points, and belief in God, for Americans at least, lifts the level of happiness by 3.5 points. While all this is somewhat interesting, it isn’t likely, in a methodological sense, that one would expect a person who has lost his job and his wife but has found God to have a net loss of 10.5 units of happiness.

Bok is aware of some of these difficulties and discusses them in terms of Jeremy Bentham’s felicific happiness. He is cautious in recommending that government attempt to assess the happiness weight of pending legislation such as the complex health care package. However, he is not bashful in urging government to build new “happiness protection,” for example, by covering the cost of long-term home nursing care for everyone. While noting that such policies are costly, Bok indicates that cost shouldn’t stand in the way of doing them. He never discusses government deficits nor debt, and how dealing with those burdens may reduce the happiness of future generations.

The book offers numerous suggestions to government leaders for policy actions that might make us all happier—instead of letting us find happiness on our own terms. The areas explored include reducing inequality, blunting the threat of financial hardship and other suffering, engaging in efforts to strengthen marriages and the family, and supporting education. Bok’s abiding faith in government’s ability to make life better is contradicted by the surveys he discusses. With that apparent paradox in mind, he recommends improvement in government’s public relations efforts. He is convinced that over the decades, the federal government has improved overall well-being, yet somehow the same people who respond to happiness surveys in useful and apparently accurate ways miss the boat when responding to surveys about the efficacy of government.

The author ends with the claim that “researchers have succeeded in doing what Bentham could not accomplish: to devise a way of measuring how happy people are and how much pleasure or pain they derive from the ordinary events and conditions of their lives.” I am left with just the opposite conclusion, that happiness scientists have many miles to travel before reaching Bentham’s hoped-for destination.

In spite of Bok’s overly optimistic conclusion, I find his book to be useful and one I would recommend to others who wish to tangle intellectually with the happiness literature. At least Bok’s belief in government’s ability to do good things is balanced with competing points of view that take the opposing position.

  • Bruce Yandle is dean emeritus of Clemson University's College of Business & Behavioral Science and alumni distinguished professor of economics emeritus at Clemson. He is a distinguished adjunct professor of economics at the Mercatus Center, a faculty member with George Mason University's Capitol Hill Campus, and a senior fellow emeritus with the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC).