Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Politics of Happiness

The Declaration of Independence famously proclaims that we have an inalienable right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" (thankfully the people who wanted "property" instead of "pursuit of happiness" were voted down). In the last few years there has been a lot of research into what happiness really means.

The current New Yorker (March 22), contains a review by Elizabeth Kolbert of some new books about this research. Many of the findings are counterintuitive; for example she starts by describing a study that shows that winners of the lottery were no happier than paralyzed victims of car accidents. In addition, people are often wrong about what they think will bring them happiness.

Most of us think that becoming wealthy would make us very happy. While the research shows that rich people are happier than poor people on average across all countries, it also shows that as a country gets wealthier, the average level of happiness does not increase. In the United States over the last thirty years per-capita income has risen, the average house size has increased, and everyone now owns electronic gadgets that weren't even dreamed in 1980, yet there is no difference in the percentage of people who describe themselves as "happy."

International research also shows that the link between income and happiness is not clear-cut: "Take the case of Nigeria," Ms. Kolbert writes. "The country’s per-capita G.D.P. last year was about fourteen hundred dollars. Yet the proportion of Nigerians who rate themselves happy is as high as the proportion of Japanese, whose per-capita G.D.P. is almost twenty-five times as great."

One of the books Ms. Kolbert discusses is Derek Bok's “The Politics of Happiness: What Government Can Learn from the New Research on Well-Being.” The basic presumption of our federal government's economic policies seems to be that happiness is tied to material prosperity: everyone benefits as the Gross Domestic Product increases.

Mr. Bok, a former president of Harvard, argues, if “rising incomes have failed to make Americans happier over the last fifty years, what is the point of working such long hours and risking environmental disaster in order to keep on doubling and redoubling our GDP?” Ms. Kolbert then goes on to discuss some of Mr. Bok's policy ideas, some of which are odd: since increased material well-being doesn't make people happier we shouldn't worry about rising income inequality.

Other countries have started taking these ideas seriously:

Two years ago, the President of France, Nicolas Sarkozy, appointed a commission
to look into ways to improve the measurement of government performance. When the commission, headed by Amartya Sen and another Nobel Prize-winning economist, Joseph Stiglitz, issued its final report, last fall, it was critical of the current reliance on G.D.P., which, it argued, is a poor proxy for social progress: “For example, traffic jams may increase G.D.P. as a result of the increased use of gasoline, but obviously not the quality of life.” The group recommended that a wide variety of new statistical tools be developed, including ones that measure income distribution, natural-resource depletion, and Happiness.

I waited in vain for some mention of Eric Weiner's best-selling "The Geography of Bliss," a travelogue exploring why certain countries' people are happier on average than the rest of the world, or of the Kingdom of Bhutan, which invented the concept of Gross Domestic Happiness as an economic measure, since both of these fit in perfectly with the premise of her article, which is the policy implications of happiness research.

In April of 2008 I wrote about Weiner's book and Bhutan. The following is from "Gross Domestic Happiness":

How do we measure our national prosperity? One of the main measuring devices is something called the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the sum of all economic activity in the country. The concept of GDP was first developed in the early 1930’s, and it is understandable that in the depths of the Depression prosperity would have been defined in a purely materialistic way. But seventy-five years later is this a good measure of the health of our economy?

Now that most of us no longer struggle to feed our families, what is it that makes us feel prosperous? Is it a few more electronic gadgets, or is it leisure time to enjoy our families and explore our interests? When is the last time you lay on the ground and watched the clouds go by? What is the value of that? Does prosperity just mean more jobs and industry regardless of the environmental cost or does it also require clean air and water?

I think the problem with GDP as an economic measure is that it is devoid of all value except one: money. GDP measures how much you produce, but not what you produce, or how you produce it.

Eric Weiner, in "Geography of Bliss," writes that “GDP is simply the sum of all goods and services a nation produces over a given time. The sale of an assault rifle and the sale of an antibiotic both contribute equally to the national tally…It’s as if we tracked our caloric intake but cared not one whit what kind of calories we consumed…GDP does not take into account unpaid work, the so-called compassionate economy. An elderly person who lives in a nursing home is contributing to GDP, while one cared for by relatives at home is not. Indeed, he may even be guilty of reducing GDP if his caregivers are forced to take unpaid leave from work. You have to give economists credit. They have taken a vice—selfishness—and converted it into a virtue.”

Another example of the perversity of the GDP: imagine you have high-blood pressure and are taking medicine to lower it. But then you go to a new doctor who encourages you to change your diet and exercise so that you lose weight and no longer need the pills. You’re not only lowering your blood pressure, you’re lowering the nation’s GDP because you’re no longer buying pharmaceutical products—your good health is bad for an economy based solely on consumption.

Third-world countries have encountered major problems by using GDP as their standard of progress. For example, by exploiting their natural resources they
can appear prosperous, but once those resources are exhausted, the “prosperity” is revealed to be illusory. Haiti’s lumber export companies inflated the country’s GDP until the last of the trees were cut, leaving a denuded landscape and desperately poor people.

In 1972, aware of the problems afflicting other developing countries that focused only on economic growth, Bhutan’s newly crowned leader, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, decided to base his nation’s economy not on GDP but on GNH: gross national happiness. King Wangchuck was also concerned about the social conditions of wealthier countries, as summarized in a study conducted by the Centre for Bhutan Studies: “Empirical evidence strongly suggests that modern economic development has not increased subjective wellbeing in high-income countries, despite manifold increases of incomes over just a couple of decades. In many countries, people even experience a deterioration of their quality of life as competitive forces grow along with incomes. Stress at the work place, longer work weeks and less sleep, inequality-induced discrimination and poverty are just a few examples. Rising depression and suicide rates, high incidence of obesity and large-scale environmental destruction are also typical side effects of the pursuit of economic growth.” (Center for Bhutan

The four pillars of Gross Domestic Happiness are: equitable socio-economic development, environmental protection, cultural preservation, and good

I found Ms. Kolbert's conclusion dissatisfying. She concluded that happiness isn't everything and, besides, dissatisfaction is a good thing. (She writes, “'It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied' is John Stuart Mill’s famous formulation.")

The subtitle of her article is "What can policymakers learn from happiness research?" and it seems her conclusion is "nothing--policy makers shouldn't try to make their people happier."

But it seems to me the sole purpose of government policies should be to create the best lives possible for citizens, and if our current economic policies aren't improving people's sense of happiness maybe we should try something else. I personally think that a great source of unhappiness in this country is the level of anxiety caused by our fraying social safety-net. I think this explains the finding that rich people are happier--they have a financial cushion. Stuff doesn't buy happiness, but lack of anxiety about the ability to provide for basic human needs does.

Many of Mr. Wiener's happy countries were in Europe, with strong social programs of job protection, health care, and pensions. In this country a great majority of us live on the edge of financial ruin--you often hear people are just a few paychecks away from an empty checking acoount, a serious illness has bankrupted millions, etc. This anxiety is always eating away at us subconsciously.

As I concluded in "Gross Domestic Happiness":

Modern economics seems to be built on the premise that growth can continue
indefinitely. In fact, it seems to require constant expansion. This makes me
think of cancer and viruses, which grow until they destroy the host body and

We need a new economics, one that is based on sustainability and on human
values such as love, respect, compassion, and equality.

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