Happiness economics and its discontents.

Author:Adhia, Nimish
  1. Introduction

    In the nineteenth century, Jeremy Bentham expressed the hope that, in reforming society, political economists might aim for the "greatest happiness for the greatest number." But that concept faded in twentieth-century economic thought because of the great difficulty of measuring happiness across people in a way that is quantifiable and comparable. More recently, a group of economists, psychologists, political scientists, and other researchers claim to have found a functional method of measuring happiness. "We possess what prior generations conspicuously lacked," declares the political scientist Benjamin Radcliff (2013). "With the advent of sophisticated modern research methods, we have learned to measure and study happiness" (p. 3). The opening paragraph of a recent paper (2005) by the economist Richard Easterlin, a leader in the use of such methods, lays them out very succinctly.

    I take the terms "well-being," "utility," "happiness," "life-satisfaction," and "welfare" to be interchangeable and measured by the answer to a question such as that asked in the United States General Social Survey (GSS): "Taken all together, how would you say things are these days--would you say you are very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?" A substantial methodological literature has developed on the reliability, validity, and comparability of the answers to such questions ... For the present purpose, I take the responses to be meaningful and reasonably comparable among groups of individuals, and focus on the determinants of happiness, so measured." (p. 29) By aggregating the responses to the happiness survey question and subjecting them to econometric analysis, these researchers claim that "we are now in a position to discover the empirical answer to the question of how to structure society so as to best serve the goal of human happiness" (Radcliff 2013). They claim that happiness research provides policymakers with a much-needed corrective. "The United States and many other capitalist nations suffer from a fetish about economic growth," writes the psychologist Tim Kasser (2004), "believing that the best measures of national progress derive from the gross national product (GNP) and the stock market. The nation is considered healthy if the economy is growing, and great faith is placed in the belief that economic growth will spur all sorts of wonderful outcomes and that the failure of growth will bring about calamities." Jonathan Adler and Martin Seligman (2016) echo such bemoaning. Easterlin, famous for his 1974 finding that increased prosperity in the preceding thirty years was not accompanied by rising happiness levels, counsels that "the pursuit of economic growth as a policy objective is questionable" (2005, p. 54).

    Happiness research is therefore expected to offer the economic growth-obsessed policymakers with a broader set of goals, vetted by happiness research, to focus on. There is "compelling evidence in support of the contention that 'big government' promotes human happiness," writes Radcliff (2013, p. 133). The political scientist Derek Bok, a former president of Harvard University, in his book The Politics of Happiness: What the Government Can Learn from the New Research on Well-Being, summarizes his recommendations:

    Happiness research reinforces the importance of programs to strengthen marriage and family; encourage active forms of leisure; cushion the shock of unemployment; guarantee universal health-care and a more secure retirement; improve child-care and pre-school education; treat mental illness, sleep disorders, and chronic pain more effectively; and focus education policy on a broader set of goals. (2010, p. 208) Nonstate actors are also enlisted in happiness-promoting efforts. Because research has shown that trust in public institutions is correlated with happiness, Bok writes that "the media, along with schools and colleges, will need to educate the public to counteract the widespread tendency to expect too much of government, exaggerate its faults, and overlook its accomplishments" (2010, pp. 209-10).

    Other researchers are skeptical about whether the findings of happiness research can tell us anything useful for policymaking. The philosopher Will Wilkinson (2007) writes that "happiness research is seriously hampered by confusion and disagreement about the definition of its subject as well as the limitations inherent in current measurement techniques." A group of German economists, in their recent book on the subject, conclude that "using happiness research as a normative concept to deduce how things should be is highly questionable" (Weimann, Knabe, and Schob 2015). The philosopher Martha Nussbaum (2012) writes that "the appeal to subjective wellbeing, as currently used ... is so riddled with conceptual confusion and normative naivete that we better pause and sort things out before going any further." The multidisciplinary scholar Deirdre McCloskey (2012) describes the whole endeavor of drawing policy implications from happiness studies as an "inch towards madness." This paper provides a thematic account of some such criticisms. II.

  2. Criticism 1: The Conflation of Concepts

    Many happiness researchers consider various distinct but sometimes related concepts such as happiness, well-being, enjoyment, and so on as identical. But would a person reflecting on her life likely arrive at identical answers to each of the following questions?

    1. What would increase my pleasure?

    2. What would increase my happiness?

    3. What would increase my life satisfaction?

    4. What would increase my well-being?

    5. What should I engage in?

    Consider, as one example, that eating a double chocolate fudge sundae right now would give me pleasure, but it would not make me happy if I am supposed...

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