Happiness as an Input to Political Deliberation

In his most recent post, Barry writes:

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.

I agree completely that policy ought to be informed by happiness research. But I think it is too abstract to speak of “states” as the relevant policymakers. Generally, policymakers are either politicians voted into office by citizens, or bureaucrats appointed by politicians. And policy is made at many different levels, from local school boards to the U.S. Congress. At what level should happiness research inform policymaking? Again, I agree with Frey and Stutzer [pdf], who write:

The results gained from happiness research should be taken as inputs into the political process. These inputs have to prove themselves in political competition and in the discourse among citizens, and between citizens and politicians.

I think their point follows from the kinds of considerations I touched on briefly in my reply to Darrin’s lead essay. An overall system of institutions that does in fact tend to produce happiness will generally involve a lot of procedural rigamarole, such as mechanisms of democratic representation, separation of powers, and so forth, that more or less guarantee that considerations of happiness will not be the only or even the most emphasized inputs to the political process. Questions that turn on considerations of justice may loom much larger than considerations of happiness, and appropriately so. Yesterday, for example, the Supreme Court handed down a decision affirming the legality of Congress’s ban on intact dilation and extraction procedures. Whatever considerations were dominant in legislative and judicial deliberation over this intensely controversial issue, happiness wasn’t one of them, and I think most of us find that natural and acceptable.

Furthermore, when it comes to nuts-and-bolts policymaking in democratic societies, it is unavoidable that the often myopic economic and political interests of industries, unions, and other interest groups will play a large role. We can only hope that our institutions are designed in ways that minimize competition over the reins of power and reduce incentives to fight over the fiscal commons, but instead channel economic resources and human energies into more productive and peaceful paths.

I agree with Barry that we need to have a conversation about how our social, political, and economic institutions relate to our well-being. Thankfully, we are having it, and we always have been having it. It is probably impossible to avoid having it in a democracy with free institutions. Happiness research just introduces a new wrinkle into the perennial conversation. I intended my recent paper on the policy implications of happiness research as precisely the kind of input to public deliberation Frey and Stutzer suggest. My conclusion was that the science of happiness in its present incarnation is of limited use, due largely to the difficulties of defining and measuring happiness, but that the best results happiness research so far has produced — and Ruut’s work is exemplary — seem to pose little challenge to liberal societies with high-growth economies and roiling commercial cultures, contrary to what a number of prominent happiness researchers seem to be saying.

Barry, when you say “I would love for there to be a national conversation about this issue,” that is, the issue of whether we would be willing to “sacrifice a little GDP” in order to “enhance security, equality, democracy, and culture,” do you mean something more grandiose than what we are doing right now?

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • In this month’s lead essay, Darrin McMahon, Ben Weider Associate Professor of History at Florida State University and author of Happiness: A History, puts the contemporary obsession with happiness in historical and philosophical perspective. Tracing our current notion of happiness back to “a dramatic revolution in human expectations” in the seventeenth century, McMahon argues that we have come to see happiness as not only something that is possible in this life, but which ought to be the aim of life. Noting that the recent spate of worried meditations on happiness is a luxury of the already wealthy and secure, McMahon argues against the single-minded focus on happiness as both an individual and social goal. Casting a critical eye on the aspirations of the new “happiness research,” McMahon argues that there may be natural limits to happiness, agrees with John Stuart Mill that “The only chance is to treat, not happiness, but some end external to it, as the purpose of life,” and asks us to heed Aldous Huxley’s warning of a society in which everyone is happy “and yet the world is a nightmare.”

Response Essays

  • Swarthmore College psychologist Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, argues that Darrin McMahon’s cautionary tale is based on the confusion of happiness with pleasure. For Schwartz happiness “rightly understood” is “authentic happiness” centered on the development of virtue and excellence. We should not be afraid to apply such a conception of happiness to policy, for “figuring out what does and does not bring happiness, or utility, might vastly improve the ability of national policies to increase welfare.” Schwartz suggests we will find that not only does happiness not rise in lockstep with wealth, but that happiness in fact begins to decrease at a certain level of affluence. Free-market capitalism, Schwartz argues, tends to turns us into “infantilized pleasure-seekers” not oriented toward authentic happiness. “No one is going to get rich in a society full of seekers of human excellence,” Schwartz says.

  • Ruut Veenhoven, editor of the Journal of Happiness Studies and director of the World Database of Happiness, argues that happiness levels are not stagnant, as McMahon maintained in his lead essay. Citing the most recent data, Veenhoven observes that levels of average happiness have increased over the past 30 years in the United States and the European Union, while the increase in the expected number of “Happy Life Years” is even more dramatic. “This increase in overall quality of life is unprecedented in human history,” Veenhoven writes. McMahon’s concerns about an overemphasis on happiness are misguided, Veenhoven argues. Far from making us complacent, happiness improves health, creativity, and citizenship. Though Denmark is the happiest country on record, Veenhoven notes that “this does not seem to have damaged the Danes.”

  • In his reply to McMahon, Cato Unbound managing editor Will Wilkinson lays out three “enormous problems” for the “quest for a scientific politics of happiness.” First, happiness is just one value among many. Second, no one knows for sure what happiness is. Third, Wilkinson sets up a dilemma. On the one hand, if a scientific politics of happiness is understood as the active management of social welfare by political elites, then it pseudoscience. On the other hand, if it is understood as a science of social coordination, then the specific aim of happiness becomes secondary to the requirements of effective coordination. This “institutionalist” conception of a scientific politics of happiness can overcome the problems of pluralism and definition, Wilkinson argues, but at the price of losing focus on the preeminent value of happiness.