I am very much taken by the thoughtful discussion offered by Will Wilkinson and then by Darrin McMahon’s reply to our various posts. Darrin continues to teach me history. When I said that Darrin was confusing happiness with pleasure, I did not mean that he did so in his book, for he surely did not. But in his Cato Unbound article, he wrote of happiness as if it were pleasure. His reply offers admirable clarification.
Now to substance. I am no more enthusiastic about a Stalinist effort to make everyone happy than McMahon or Wilkinson. Yes, the state would become oppressive, and would likely screw it up besides. And I certainly don’t want an established religion just because religious observance seems to make people happier (or for any other reason). But the problem I tried to address in my comment was not addressed by either Wilkinson or McMahon. As an empirical fact, states DO make policy. Should policy be determined by the “new science” of happiness? Of course not. Should it be informed by the “new science” of happiness? Absolutely. And I think this is especially true if and when research reveals that existing policies — meant to enhance welfare — are actually doing the opposite. The state should be asking itself whether it is imposing obstacles to well-being, and if it is, whether there are benefits that offset these obstacles. If not, policies should be changed and obstacles removed.
It might turn out that the very best thing the state can do to enhance well-being is to increase wealth. Ruut’s data certainly suggest that this has a bigger effect than many researchers and scholars (including me) often acknowledge. If this is true, it justifies current state policies, which essentially neglect or ignore anything but the enhancement of national wealth. But what if enhancing security (personal, not national), equality, and democracy contribute much more to well-being than enhancing wealth? What if a rich and diverse cultural life does more to enhance well-being than increased wealth? And what if there are ways to enhance security, equality, democracy, and culture if we are willing to sacrifice a little GDP? Should we do it?
I would love for there to be a national conversation about this issue. If current policy wins, I’ll sit quietly on the sidelines and shake my head. But I want state policy that is justified by something other than blind faith. I want state policy that is justified by something other than the desire to avoid confronting difficult questions. A developed science of happiness offers the possibility that reasoned evaluation can replace faith or mindlessness in shaping what the state does in the future. And finally, just as the state doesn’t shove the pursuit of wealth down our individual throats, it needn’t shove the pursuit of happiness — rightly understood — down our throats. It can just put policies in place that make some pursuits that are now difficult easier, and others that are now easy more difficult. “Soft paternalism,” as The Economist called it (April 6, 2006, subscription required), is the kind of thing I have in mind.