Happy Talk

A former Harvard president makes the case for government promotion of happiness.

In the faraway kingdom of Bhutan there once lived a ruler devoted to the happiness of his people. Upon assuming his throne, he declared that the measure of success in his realm would no longer be increases in material wealth; instead, the Himalayan nations guiding star would be expanded “Gross National Happiness.” Accordingly, King Wanchuk set forth a five-year plan, declaring, “If, at the end of the plan period our people are not happier than they were before, we should have failed.”

This was in 1972. The plan called for expanded democracy, literacy, environmental protection, and chauvinistic support for the colorful religious and cultural practices of the nations ethnic majority. This last has been hard on the minority Nepalese, some 100,000 of whom now live in refugee camps. But aggregate happiness among the remaining people reportedly remains high, with the only major downer being the hoards of visiting hippies, adventure tourists, and assorted seekers hoping to share in the glow.

Recently, Bhutans commitment to Gross National Happiness has also attracted a more serious foreign admirer. In his new book, The Politics of Happiness, Derek Bok, the two-time president of Harvard, writes, “The sheer utopian audacity of a country that commits itself to making happiness the centerpiece of national policy is enough to compel a respectful interest.” He wonders if maximized happiness shouldnt be our own national goal as well.

All the more so, Bok continues, because we no longer have to count on gurus, sacred texts, or wise kings to tease out the way to happiness. Instead, we can rely on the findings of Western social scientists who over the last forty years or so have created what Bok characterizes as a “boom industry” in happiness research. There are international conferences of highly credentialed academic happiness investigators who publish thousands of peer-reviewed articles every year in journals exclusively dedicated to their specialty. Both ordinary people and governments, Bok asserts, should draw on this ever-growing body of research to guide us to the good life.

So far, this sounds like a book that will be a pleasure to read. Who isnt intrinsically interested in what makes for happiness? Moreover, though the idea that maximized happiness should be a goal of statecraft isnt newthe English philosopher Jeremy Bentham pushed it in the eighteenth centuryit sure is wonderful to hear that modern science and government can, after so long, come together to help us overcome our lives of quiet desperation.

According to Boks description of this new research, the keys to happiness, beyond inherited temperament, are as follows: “strong marriages, close friendships, acts of charity and community service, feelings of good health, religious faith, and a stable democracy with a responsive, effective, accountable government.” Since most Americans regard these experiences and conditions as wholesome and desirable, most will be cheered to hear this. Its also delightful, to most of us anyway, to have science confirm that taking advantage of other people or amassing great sums of wealth does not bring happiness, or at least not as much as one might think. As Bok summarizes, “The findings of researchers offer the appealing prospect of a world in which the happiest people tend to do more for others and to gain satisfaction by doing so.”

Yet my mood fell as I read on. To begin with, there are, as Bok admits, significant problems in measuring happiness and discovering its causes in any truly scientific way. More troubling, even if the general findings of happiness research are accepted, they often lead to policy prescriptions that are illiberal and antidemocratic. I credit Bok with great intellectual honesty; most of the best arguments against using Gross National Happiness as a prime goal of government he raises himself, and as he acknowledges their force, he gradually gives up more and more ground. This makes for a bummer of a read after the first chapter, but it still provides insights into the mysteries of happiness.

Two curious facts speak to the methodological problems of determining what brings happiness. First, behavioral economists have found that people with vision will pay more to avoid becoming blind than blind people think it is worth paying to regain their sight. Second, in his book Stumbling on Happiness (which I highly recommend), Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert notes that conjoined twins often report being happy, even joyful, in each others company, to the point that they almost universally resist, even as adults, any attempt to surgically separate them. It turns out that people adjust to adversity more than we tend to realize, finding reasons to feel good about life even when fortune would seem to be against them. In medieval times, Christian scholar Boethius noted this phenomenon and attributed it to “the consolation of philosophy.” Todays psychologists are likely to call it rationalization. But either way, ones sense of well-being often doesnt depend very much on what others, or even our previous selves, would see as good fortune.

Conversely, when good things happen to us, we often adjust to that, too, feeling less happy than we thought we would after having children, for example, or moving into a corner office. We may become unexpectedly sated by our good fortune, or discover that it contains details we hadnt imagined that spoil its pleasure, or find we simply miss the thrill of chasing our dreams.

We can, of course, try to get around our general incompetence in predicting what will make us happy or sad by relying on the reports of others. We can ask people who should know what it is like, say, to raise a family or become rich. But unfortunately we cant expect such people to be generally truthful about many of the questions we most want answered. For example, widespread belief in the assertion that children bring happiness, whether true or not, is essential to any societys long-term survival. Accordingly, in any enduring society, its stakeholdersstarting with aspiring grandparentswill generally do what it takes to inculcate that belief, whether it is at odds with their experience or not. Similarly, in our capitalist system, many hucksters are involved in sustaining the belief that material wealth will make you happy, starting with the corporations and governments whose growth depends on ordinary people always striving for material gain. Children + More Money = Happiness is a self-replicating meme, and many will conspire to threaten the happiness of any who try to resist it.

There is also the problem of what causes what. Sure, statistics may show that married people generally report being happier and healthier over their lifetimes than people who never marry. But how are we to know how much of that is because happy, healthy people make more attractive marriage partners than do depressed, sickly people?

Happiness research leaves us with many interesting correlations that are fun to speculate about. It is interesting to know, for example, that todays white women in the United States report being less happy than their mothers did a generation ago. We could also have a good dinner-party discussion about why the percentages of Americans in general who declare themselves “very happy,” “pretty happy,” or “not too happy” are almost exactly the same as they were half a century ago. Some have used this data to argue variously that women are happier in traditional roles, or that rising affluence, at least beyond a certain level, doesnt bring increased happiness. But with so many confounding factors at work it is hard to come close to justifying any particular conclusion.

What if, for example, Americans of the baby boom generation are generally more willing than their grandparents to admit that they are depressed, or even to exaggerate their unhappiness with life? I certainly see that pattern in my own extended family, and in the cultural progression from sunny Benny Goodman to doleful Bob Dylan to tormented Kurt Cobain. When it comes to the “luxury of woe,” different generations have different takes. If anything, those who face the greatest hardship may have the greatest need for enforced cheerfulness, and vice versa.

Cross-cultural comparisons of happiness also bring difficulties. The Danes, for example, report themselves to be the happiest people on earth. This is seemingly good news to those selling the virtues of bringing a Scandinavian-style welfare state to the United States. But if the Danes are really so happy, why is their suicide rate 8 percent higher for men and 80 percent higher for women than in the United States? Denmark, we might remember, is not only the land of Hamlet; its also a cold, dark country most of the year where annual alcohol consumption has more than doubled since 1960 to one of the highest levels in the world. Denmark could well be one of the most depressed countries on earth, and, for just that reason, it is a place where cultural norms push people to say, when asked about their mood, that, yes, of course theyre fine.

The final problem with using todays happiness research as a compass for statecraft is that it often points in undesirable directions. For example, self-reported happiness among the poorest Americans has stayed the same in recent decades even as their share of total income has declined. Thus, if our sole goal were to maximize population happiness, there could well be no case for redistribution. The happiness of the poor doesnt seem adversely affected by increasing inequality, while raising taxes to give them more resources would certainly make a lot of wealthier taxpayers less happy.

Bok is also unable to resolve the following dilemma emerging from the findings of happiness research: that living in a democracy seems to promote happiness, but majorities of people, at least in rich countries, keep wanting more and more stuff that happiness investigators conclude wont make them happy. Bok puts his greatest efforts into arguing that happiness research should warn us away from policies to stimulate economic growth and toward directing more resources to better child care, universal health care, and the like. But even if we could figure out how to pay for more happiness-inducing benefits without an expanding economy, this would still leave another more fundamental problem: the reality that in our democracy, from the very beginning, the majority of voters have opposed policies that dont produce ever more economic growth and the higher employment levels that go with it. (Of course, we could do without democracybut happiness research tells us thats a downer, too.)

A less intellectually honest author might gloss over these objections to his thesis, but Bok doesnt. Instead, he retreats, rejecting happiness research as a basis for income redistribution, or as having any realistic application to the question of purposefully restraining economic growth under democratic rule. He is also unable to bring himself to argue that a state dedicated to maximized happiness should somehow nudge people into discovering the joys of religion, and he rejects the seeming implication of happiness research that governments should, as Bhutan has done, allow majorities to exclude minorities in the interest of fostering the happiness-inducing effects of tightly bonded, homogeneous communities. Who wants to go there?

By the later chapters of the book, Bok is thus reduced to advocating that happiness research should at least prompt us to put more resources into such areas as better pain management, cures for sleep disorders, greater emphasis on liberal arts education, and retirement security. Yet justifying such policies hardly requires all the rickety scaffolding involved in the concept of maximized Gross Domestic Happiness. Which, it turns out, is often not only at odds with justice, but sometimes with democracy itself.

This site and all contents within are Copyright 1969-2011 Washington Monthly
Editorial offices: 1200 18th Street NW, Suite 330, Washington, DC 20036

Phillip Longman

Phillip Longman is senior editor at the Washington Monthly and the policy director at the Open Markets Institute.