Paul Ormerod is splitting hairs over methodology. People want to be happy, and politicians should try to helpby Richard Layard / June 30, 2007 / Leave a comment
Published in June 2007 issue of Prospect Magazine
I welcome Paul Ormerod’s contribution to the happiness debate (Prospect, April 2007) but I disagree with most of what he says. He argues that government should not concern itself with happiness, since this would only lead to excessive government and ill-informed intervention. But what should the government be seeking to promote, if not happiness? When goals like liberty, equality and prosperity conflict, by what criterion should we chart our course other than the happiness of our citizens? Ormerod offers no alternative. He just wants the government to keep out of happiness and avoid the dangers of information failure, even if in the meantime we are becoming no happier. This makes no sense. It is like looking for the keys under the lamppost because it is easier to look there. Instead, we should be looking for what we want, wherever it is to be found. It is of course not easy to measure happiness exactly, nor for that matter freedom or many of the things we care about. But if they matter, we should try—and, as we know more, we should increasingly use this information to influence policy. In fact, we have increasingly good measures of happiness. The psychological and neurological measures converge well, increasing our confidence in what people say about their feelings. If we can then explain what they feel, we have vital information to inform policy. But here we hit upon Ormerod’s main objection, which is based on a simple misunderstanding. He believes that the “happiness advocates” reason as follows: a) happiness has not risen for 40 years, and b) income, plus spending on education, health and leisure have risen. Therefore c) income, education, health and leisure do not affect happiness. Of course we do not say that. Instead, we study closely the effect of all known factors on happiness. We do find positive effects of higher income (small but significant), better health and greater leisure. But we also show the major negative effects from having bad relationships (in families, workplaces and communities). Over time, while income, health and leisure have increased, the quality of these relationships has deteriorated, and it is this which has stopped our happiness from rising. These are not matters of speculation. They are well-researched findings. Happiness research is now a big field of study. The main knowledge comes from micro-studies of individuals, rather than from macro-studies of time-series averages, where it is hard to disentangle what is causing what. This is just as it is in economics. For example, as Ormerod knows, if you want to track the effects of educational policy on GDP, you do not try relating the year-to-year movements of GDP to the changes in the educational system. If you did, you would be unable to detect the effect, and you would wrongly conclude that it did not exist. Instead you work your way through each link in the chain of causation, and only infer the overall effect from that sequence of these linkages. The same is true of happiness. Overall happiness depends on how happy you are in each different area of life (family, work, community, health and so on), and policies work through their effects on each relevant area of life. As time passes, we are coming to know more and more about the links at each step in the chain of causation. So this is a forward-looking project. Our knowledge will become ever more precise, as in any progressive area of science. Of course we should not run before we can walk: we should only change policy to increase happiness if the evidence is robust. But we should be relentless in our efforts to improve the evidence. We should define what we need to know and make sure we find it. Understanding the conditions conducive to human happiness in all their complexity should be the central concern of social science. This is the opposite approach to saying we know too little and should therefore give up trying to know more, as Ormerod argues. He even hints that in general we should “forego the central gathering of information wherever practicable.” Better, presumably, for central government to fly by the seat of its pants. But if we take happiness seriously, will it imply more or less government activity? It’s too early to say. We shall certainly discover more about how regulation creates frustration and discontent, and we may conclude that the objective benefits that bureaucrats claim for it are often outweighed by the subjective disbenefits. As regards government expenditures, we shall certainly want to give more priority to promoting better mental states (less depression and anxiety, less adolescent anomie, better parenting). But it may turn out that some “objective” indicators matter less for human happiness than their advocates claim, and therefore deserve less expenditure. Eventually, after some decades, all policies will be evaluated in terms of their effects on happiness rather than on GNP. Governments have been interested in happiness at least since the Enlightenment. But only recently have we begun to measure it and explain it systematically. People of good will should not overclaim what we already know, but neither should they undermine a trend that will be so beneficial to mankind.