Monday, April 26, 2010

Would the politics of happiness be any better than what we have now?

While reading the first few chapters of Derek Bok’s recent book, ‘The politics of happiness’, I thought its main contribution would be to help to highlight findings of happiness research that are relevant to government policy. This book turned out, however, to be more of a treatise arguing that politics should focus on raising average happiness levels of the population. People interested in an explicit discussion of the policy-relevance of happiness research should look elsewhere, for example: Ed Diener et al, ‘Well-being for Public Policy’ (which I discussed here and here and in a review essay for ‘Policy’, Summer 2009-10).

The first five chapters of ‘The politics of happiness’ provide a lucid discussion of broad findings of happiness research, the reliability of this research, philosophical issues relating to its use by policy-makers, and implications of findings for economic growth and equality as policy objectives. There is little discussion of the findings of happiness research in the chapters that follow - relating to the threat of financial hardship, relieving suffering, marriages and families, education and the quality of government. The focus in the second half of the book seems to be more on the policy implications of adopting the objective of raising happiness in the U.S. than on the relevance of happiness research to consideration of particular policy issues.

The main tenets of the politics of happiness as set out by Derek Bok are as follows:
• Americans have not become much happier over the past 60 years despite the dominant place of economic growth on the domestic political agenda and the vast increases in GDP that have occurred.
• The idea of growth ‘has shifted from a means to desired ends to an end in itself, an end with no foreseeable end in sight’ (p.66).
• There is no way that policy-makers could stop the economy from growing ‘without creating problems that would outweigh any hoped for benefits’.
• Policy-makers should re-focus their priorities away from economic growth toward efforts to raise happiness levels - for example through ‘programs to strengthen marriage and family; encourage active forms of leisure; cushion the shock of unemployment; guarantee universal health care and a more secure retirement; improve child care and pre-school education; treat mental illness, sleep disorders and chronic pain more effectively; and focus education policy on a broader set of goals’ (p.208).
• Law-makers should make efforts to build greater confidence in the political process ‘through measures to reduce the influence of money and special interests’ and to curb a range of ‘efforts by politicians to place their own reelection above the general welfare’ (p. 209).

The main problem with this account of the politics of happiness, from my perspective, is that it would substitute a narrower view of well-being than that which is currently used in policy discussions. Derek Bok adopts Ed Diener’s definition that a person is said to be happy who ‘experiences life satisfaction and frequent joy, and only infrequently experiences unpleasant emotions such as sadness or anger’ (p. 9). I accept that is an appropriate definition of happiness – as the term is most commonly used. But self-reports of emotional states cannot reflect the impact on well-being of an expansion of opportunities that cannot be anticipated.

To be more specific, it is unrealistic to expect the benefits of economic growth in high income countries – benefits that are mainly an outcome of technological progress – to be measured by changes in average happiness or life satisfaction. For example, does anyone seriously expect that people living in 1950 could have felt unhappy or dissatisfied - or sad, or angry even - because they did own personal computers or any of the numerous other amenities of modern life that had not then been invented? The fact that we do not feel dissatisfied that we do not yet possess the products of future technological progress does not mean that such products will not enhance our future well-being and that of our descendents. What it means is that our emotional systems fortunately enable us to be satisfied with what life offers us if we can attain a standard of living that is within the bounds of what it is currently possible for humans to attain.

It seems to me that attempting to compare the well-being of succeeding generations of people using happiness survey data is like trying to compare the prowess of succeeding generations of sporting teams by asking the members of the each team to rate their own performance on a scale of 1 to 10. The ratings would be uninformative because each person could be expected to judge his own performance relative to that of his contemporaries rather than to compare his performance with that of counterparts in the other team.

In the case of well-being comparisons, it is relevant to ask survey respondents to compare their own standard of living with that of their parents. Survey responses to that question over the period since 1994 show that between 60 and 70 percent of Americans assess their standard of living to be better than that of their parents at a similar age.

As an outside observer of the U.S. I am surprised by claims that economic growth has had a dominant place on the political agenda and that growth has become an end in itself in that country. As far as I am aware there is not much government intervention in the U.S. economy that is actually directed toward increasing economic growth. Most of the political rhetoric about the benefits of growth seems designed to reduce government interventions that hinder economic growth rather than to raise the growth rate beyond the levels that would otherwise emerge from decentralized decisions of individuals and firms about saving, investment, research, innovation etc.

Apart from its questioning of the contribution of economic growth to well-being, the politics of happiness does not seem to me to provide a particularly innovative agenda for paternalistic politics. The question that is largely overlooked, of course, is whether well-meaning paternalism is more likely to help individuals to flourish or to hinder their flourishing by making them increasingly dependent on governments.

Finally, it is worth noting that just about all politics in democratic countries is about happiness – using the term now in the broader sense to cover all aspects of well-being. Irrespective of the motives of participants who are presenting their particular views an appropriate consideration of just about every public policy issue must involve an assessment of claims about the potential effects of proposed policy changes on various aspect of human well-being. It seems likely that some of the findings of happiness research will add useful information to such assessments and will result in better policy decisions.
Winton Bates

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