Happiness: No longer the dismal science?
Posted by hkarner - 8. April 2012
Source: The Economist
One of the more surprising growth industries to have taken off during the current period of economic downturn and austerity has been “the happiness industry”—the increasing activity of economists (not philosophers) who study what constitutes happiness and make recommendations to governments about how best to increase it. This industry has recently achieved an early pinnacle of success with the publication of the first World Happiness Report. Commissioned for a United Nations Conference on Happiness, under the auspices of the UN General Assembly, it bears the imprimatur of Columbia University’s Earth Institute and is edited by the institute’s director, Jeffrey Sachs, and two happiness experts, Richard Layard of the London School of Economics and John Helliwell of the University of British Columbia. The report unmemorably finds that the world’s happiest countries world are in northern Europe (Denmark, Norway, Finland, Netherlands) and the most miserable are in Africa (Togo, Benin, Central African Republic, and Sierra Leone).
This is one of a number of new products from the happiness industry. According to the Washington Post, a group of experts including Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist who won the Nobel Prize in economics, met in December to draw up measures of “subjective well-being”. The group is financed by the American administration, and if its measures are deemed reliable they could become official statistics. If so, America would become the latest country to clamber aboard a happiness bandwagon. The French government started publishing its own happiness indicator in 2009. Britain’s Office for National Statistics has a programme for measuring national well-being, and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development is drawing up guidelines so its members (mostly the industrialised rich countries) can produce “well-being data”.
It might seem rather peculiar that just at the time recession is presumably leading to a substantial increase in misery—and when the reputation of economists is not exactly sky-high—that economists are so busy creating a new set of indicators to debate. The reason for the activity is that there is, in the report’s words, an “emerging scientific study of happiness”. Researchers break down people’s feelings into “affective happiness” (everyday ups and downs) and “evaluative happiness” (a person’s overall assessment of his or her life). They have constructed indicators that look at happiness from different vantage points, using questions such as “How happy were you yesterday?” (that is what Britain’s ONS asks); “All things considered, how satisfied are you with your life as a whole nowadays?” (from the European Social Survey); and “Taking all things together, would you say you are: very happy, quite happy, not very happy or not at all happy?” (the World Values Survey). The different answers give economists plenty to argue about.
No doubt this emerging science—if it is indeed a science—is improving the understanding of what happiness is. At any rate, it is certainly providing a lot more more information about it. But the authors of the World Happiness Report want to go further than just providing information.
They argue that happiness can be measured objectively; that it differs systematically across societies and over time; that happiness has predictable causes and is correlated to specific things (such as wealth, income distribution, health and political institutions); and that therefore it should be possible for the government to create the right conditions for happiness to flourish. The authors want governments to use happiness as a guide to public policy, rather as they use gross national product (GNP) now. But given governments’ (and economists’) recent record in managing GNP, it is not clear whether it really would be such a good idea for the government to decide it knows better than individuals do what constitutes their happiness and how they can best pursue it.