What Public Policy Can Add to Happiness

Darrin MacMahon notes that people are fairly happy in contemporary capitalist democracies and asks me what public policy can do to create even greater happiness for a greater number. In my view there are options at three levels: the macro level of nations, the meso level of organizations, and the micro level of individuals. I have discussed these options in more detail elsewhere.[1]

So far, the discussion has focused on the macro level. Next to the societal conditions already noted, I can also mention women’s emancipation, the rule of law, and good governance. Next, there are probably conditions for happiness in the realm of culture that we cannot quantify as yet. For instance, I expect that people are happier in nations that produce good arts than in nations where artistic production is poor. Time will tell.

Happiness also depends on the organizational settings in which we spend much of our time, such as schools, workplaces, and old-age homes. Yet happiness is typically of no great concern to these organizations, since their incentives direct their attention to other things. As a result, little knowledge has developed in this field. Public policy can improve that situation in several ways. One way is to bring differences in happiness to attention, for instance, by monitoring the number of happy life years produced by old-age homes. Once such differences become visible, the market will do its work.

Happiness also depends on individual life decisions, such as occupational choice and age of retirement. Many of these decisions are also made on the basis of incomplete information and as a result there is often a discrepancy between the happiness initially expected and the happiness later experienced.[2] Public policy can help people make more informed decisions by furthering research on the long-term consequences of such choices on happiness, much in the same way that it supports research on the consequences of lifestyle on physical health. This is a policy of informing people about happiness without interfering in their own choices.


[1] Ruut Veenhoven, “Healthy happiness: Effects of Happiness on Physical Health and the Consequences for Preventive Health Care,” forthcoming in the Journal of Happiness Studies. Online since March 2, 2007 at http://www2.eur.nl/fsw/research/veenhoven/Pub2000s/2006a-full.pdf.

[2] Maarten Vendrik and Johannes Hirata, “Experienced Versus Decision Utility of Income,” in L. Bruni and P.L Porta, eds. Economics and happiness: Framing the Analysis, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007) pp. 243-266.

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.