I can’t tell if it’s my mental filters or something out there, but I am seeing a lot of stories about happiness these days. Most question the connections between the way human beings express their reflections about how life is going and about some objective measure that is supposed to correlate with these feelings. Yesterday I wrote about the growth model of human well-being. Before that I was pointing to David Brooks’s op-ed piece on the failure of economics to account for the existential or emotional side of [well-]being.
Today here’s yet another article I came across–this one while I was reading the New Yorker in bed last night. Elizabeth Kolbert reviewed three books all about happiness. The theme in all is that happiness is not everything in life, or, more accurately, pursuing happiness only with the economic machine doesn’t work well once one has reached a plateau where the basic [Maslovian] needs of life are being satisfied.
Two of the three books she reviewed–Derek Bok’s The Politics of Happiness: What Government Can Learn from the New Well-being, and Carol Graham’s Happiness Around the World: The Paradox of Happy Peasants and Miserable Millionaires–argue for changes in domestic and international economic policy. One main theme is that the indicators used to design and track these dominant policy domains are deeply flawed, based on much empirical data. Bok raises a very serious challenge to any policy intervention arguing that people don’t always know what will make them happy. Cass Sunstein, now responsible for shaping relevant policies in the Obama administration has argued in his book (reviewed here) with Richard Thaler, Nudge, along these lines that policy should nudge people toward choices that are good for them. Given the studies on which the Bok and Graham books are based and on much other research, any policy designed to produce happiness needs to be approached with great caution and humility.
At the end, Kolbert makes the tie that always get my attention, connecting the planet’s ailing state to the search for happiness through consumption.
Consider again the finding that a half century of escalating consumption has not brought Americans increased satisfaction. This is a disturbing fact, and certainly one that seems pertinent to discussions of economic policy. . . But let’s imagine, for a moment, that we had enjoyed ourselves for the past fifty years. Surely, trashing the planet is just as wrong if people take pleasure in the process as it is if they don’t. The same holds true for leaving future generations in hock and for exploiting the poor and for shrugging off inequality. Happiness is a good thing; it’s just not the only thing.