Monday, October 13, 2008

Happiness

We might have expected fuzzy concepts like 'happiness economics', and the idea that economic growth is overrated, would be dropped as the economic crisis bites and more tangible concerns return to the foreground of British politics. However, the BBC asks whether "with so many political certainties being shredded, perhaps there has never been a better time to take a long, hard look at what we want from our leaders."



The truth is that politicians can't deliver happiness. Even the smartest of academics don't really understand it. While some believe that it can be measured through surveys, which apparently correlate to certain activities in the brain, a study for the Institute of Economic Affairs highlighted how the results of those surveys don't just fail to correlate with income but also a range of other supposed social goods from longevity to gender equality to public spending and even rates of depresssion. They conclude that happiness data over time is "an extremely insensitive measure of welfare". This is because people are asked to rank their happiness in categories (from 'not happy' to 'very happy') that encourage an answer relative to other people around them and put an upper bound on each person's rating of their happiness while income is an absolute figure and can rise without limit.



If happiness can't even be measured reliably then trying to replace GDP with some measure of it is clearly a mistake. Politicians and bureaucrats will embrace all manner of measures to make us happier with no way of assessing results or understanding what really works. Dubious schemes will be supported with vast amounts of taxpayers' money, which it will be easy to justify taking on the grounds that people's money doesn't make them happy.



Of course, happiness isn't just a matter of what you are paid. However, money is the raw material that allows us to make all sorts of choices, including those that make us happy. The IEA study highlights the fact that more reliable, longitudinal data on happiness (that compares different people rather than different times) suggests that people are generally happier if they enjoy a stable family life, for example, and a comfortable income makes that easier.



In the end, the BBC's premise that we should think again about what we ask of our political leaders is a sensible one. However, instead of giving politicians an even broader mandate to try and make us wealthy or happy we should recognise that prosperity and happiness are things we have to build for ourselves. The ordinary taxpayer can use the money in their pocket to pursue wealth or happiness more effectively than politicians can on their behalf. We should stop asking politicians for more than any leader can deliver.

15 comments:

Gracchi said...

Just to ask a question Matt- is it worth turning the question round and thinking about unhappiness. In a sense I'm more worried about unhappiness than happiness- perhaps that's my natural Hobbesian instinct but a summum malum worries me more than a summum bonum attracts me- I'd be interested- has any research been done on unhappiness?

James Higham said...

They can't deliver it but they can create preconditions, by getting out of the way, for it to happen.

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