With governments struggling to deliver on existing commitments is it sensible to make them responsible for something as complex as personal happiness? Moreover, much of the happiness data is faulty and where it isn't it points to conservative measuresby Paul Ormerod / April 29, 2007 / Leave a comment
Over the past 40 years, GDP per head has risen sharply in western countries; but the average level of happiness reported by individuals has shown little or no increase. This apparent failure of economic growth to make people feel happier is one of the central claims in contemporary political debate.
From this premise, prominent happiness advocates, such as Richard Layard in his book Happiness: Lessons from a New Science, argue for big policy changes. One is that taxation should be made more progressive to reduce income inequality because, it is claimed, it is relative rather than absolute levels of income that affect happiness. Further, it is proposed that the nation’s happiness should be measured regularly, just as GDP is, and used to guide policymaking.
We take issue with the validity of much of the happiness research on which such recommendations are based. We do not argue that the wider objectives espoused by happiness advocates (who are mainly on the centre left of politics), such as reducing inequality, are in themselves invalid—rather that happiness research offers no basis for such propositions.
There are aspects of happiness research that have secure scientific foundations. These, however, imply policies that are usually thought of as traditional rather than liberal. In particular, there is strong evidence that marriage and the nuclear family are important determinants of individual happiness.
There is now a large amount of academic material on happiness (a term often used interchangeably with “life satisfaction” or “wellbeing”). The 1990s saw a big increase in research into the concept, with over 4,000 articles published by the year 2000. Since then, the stream has become a torrent.
Nor is the topic being neglected by the government. Its Sustainable Development Commission is promoting research on “how policies might change with an explicit wellbeing focus.” And a cross-government wellbeing indicators group is developing a set of wellbeing measures for informing policy (to be unveiled this summer).
The idea of focusing policy explicitly on happiness is clearly touching a chord. This stems from a reasonable assessment that welfare is derived from a great deal more than material goods: from the quality of one’s personal relationships, from feelings of common cause and shared experience with others, from enjoyment of nature and from good governance, among other things. However, it is one thing to value happiness; quite another to expect…