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Is Figuring Out What Makes You Happy the Government’s Job?

by Iain Murray
January 09, 2014

What is happiness? Aristotle, one of the first to examine that question, concluded that “happiness depends on ourselves.” He was right about this, although he then went on to devote much of the Nicomachean Ethics to what he thought everyone should do about it.

The trouble is that much of the analytical research on happiness that is going on around the world suffers from the same problem of subjectivity. Unfortunately, public officials around the world are building on this subjective research to craft supposedly objective public programs.

The central question in making happiness the focus of government decision making is: How do you measure it? Proponents of happiness research have developed metrics and indices which they say are firmly grounded in the scientific method. When you lift the stone, though, all sorts of unpleasantness is revealed. These measures are essentially subjective.


Designed to Show Progress Doesn’t Matter

The first measure in assessing happiness is obtained by asking people how happy they are. Yet the questions that are commonly asked in such surveys are vague and unscientific, such as: “Taken altogether, how would you say that things are these days?”; “Do you think of yourself as very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?”; and “Have you felt you are playing a useful part in things?”

The answers to these questions cannot be empirically tested or verified. They are subject to all sorts of vagaries up to and including what mood the person being questioned is in.

Moreover, in an attempt to quantify the findings, the responses are normally coded on a scale from one to 10 or even from one to three. An obvious problem presents itself: What happens to respondents who say they are “very happy,” thus receiving the top mark on the scale, but then their situation improves?

The indices, quite simply, have a built-in bias against measuring improvements in people’s conditions. A person at the top of the scale who feels worse when asked a question for a second time will drive his ranking down, but one who feels happier will have no effect.


Inconsistent and Subjective Measures

Yet these dubious measures aren’t the only ones included in happiness indices. Other measures judged by the researchers to affect quality of life go into the mix, yet the selection of those measures is subjective by itself.

For instance, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Better Life Index contains two measures of the effects of crime: the homicide rate and the assault rate. Measuring the assault rate depends on accurate reporting of such crimes (which may be inadequate in countries with ineffective or corrupt police forces), and is therefore problematic in itself.

Also, the category is obviously incomplete as there is no measure of property crime. Someone who has his or her meager belongings stolen regularly is unlikely to be happy, even when subjected to no other crimes.


Doesn’t Freedom Count?

Even if these measures were meaningful, it is difficult to see how they can helpfully inform public policy.

Presumably, they could be used to promote some activities and restrict or prohibit others on the basis of whether they seem to increase or decrease happiness. But this runs slap bang into what Nobel Prize winning economist Friederich Hayek called “the knowledge problem.” Individuals know how to augment their own happiness better than any public officials acting on their behalf.

Finally, these indices, which normally show that the Western world has not become happier since the 1940s, plainly miss something. Not only are we healthier and wealthier and more educated, but our society has changed fundamentally for the better in a lot of ways.

American society has improved leaps and bounds in terms of extending rights and freedoms to previously disenfranchised citizens. None of this is reflected in the measures that happiness researchers like to cite.

Perhaps we should instead learn from an empirical experiment with happiness as a policy guide—the tiny mountain Kingdom of Bhutan. As sustainability guru Jeffrey Sachs like to point out, “Forty years ago, Bhutan’s fourth king, young and newly installed, made a remarkable choice: Bhutan should pursue ‘gross national happiness’ rather than gross national product.”

Yet this is the same king who presided over what was essentially a medieval theocracy until his abdication in 2008. In the first peaceful transition of power under the new democracy there, a government was elected that declares itself “happiness skeptical.”

The new Prime Minister Tshering Togbay, facing crippling debt levels, recently said: “If the government of the day were to spend a disproportionate amount of time talking about GNH rather than delivering basic services, then it is a distraction.”

Looks like we can learn something from Bhutan, after all.


Mr. Murray is director of the Center for Economic Freedom at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. A version of this article was first published by Fox News. For a more detailed look at the problems with happiness research, see Murray and Blake Taylor’s study “What Is the Happiness Lobby? Growing Body of Questionable Research Lends Support to Paternalistic Policies,” published by the Competitive Enterprise Institute.


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