Thursday, April 24, 2008

What is the best book about pursuit of happiness and good government?

Charles Murray’s book, “In Pursuit of Happiness and Good Government”, was first published by Simon and Schuster in 1988.

I think this is the best book I have read about the public policy implications of pursuit of happiness. Even though the book was written prior to the explosion of happiness research that has occurred over the last decade or so, it seems to me to have a contemporary feel about it. It could not be improved greatly by reference to more recent research.

The strength of Murray’s approach derives to a large extent from its coherence. In the first half of his book he establishes a working definition of happiness, identifies enabling conditions and then considers the thresholds required to meet each enabling condition. In the second half of the book he considers how we can know whether policies are enabling us to make progress toward the best of all possible worlds.

Murray’s working definition of happiness is “lasting and justified satisfaction with one’s life as a whole” (p 22). He argues (convincingly in my view) that justification is necessary – it is not enough to feel good. Self awareness and self judgement are indispensable to humans, so we can’t really be happy unless we have plausible reasons for being satisfied with our lives. This definition differs from the avowed happiness measured in social surveys, but it is not clear whether the distinction is important in practice. (See here for some relevant discussion.)

Murray derives enabling conditions for happiness from Maslow’s needs hierarchy and considers threshold requirements for material resources, safety, self esteem and self actualization.

  • Material resources. The threshold requirement is near subsistence. Policies that increase material resources beyond subsistence are not likely to enhance the ability of people to pursue happiness if other enabling conditions are not met.
  • Safety. The threshold requirement is not just a matter of being sufficiently protected against threats. It also involves the lawfulness of communities – the need for criminals to be predictably held accountable for their crimes and for communities to be able to enforce their standards of public civility.
  • Self-esteem. Murray argues that self-respect is the core human need in question – it is possible for hoodlums to score highly on self-esteem questionnaires. Self-respect is defined as measuring up to internalized standards of what it means to be a full-fledged member of the community – it is closely related to acceptance of personal responsibility for the consequences of one’s actions.
  • Self-actualization. Human enjoyment is intimately linked to the exercise of competence in the face of challenge. By contrast the purpose of most social policies is to take the challenge out of things – to reduce a difficulties, lower barriers and insure against risks.

In discussing enabling conditions and thresholds for human happiness Murray was more interested in presenting a coherent way of thinking about happiness than in presenting a theory that could be tested empirically. Nevertheless, the way of thinking that he has presented is not, in principle, immune from empirical tests – and it would be good to see such testing take place.

I will discuss the second half of this book in my next post.

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