Flailing amidst an epochal economic downturn, governments around the world are desperate to change the subject and distract voters from their dismal economic prospects. So it is perhaps unsurprising that our political leaders have chosen this moment to propose the pursuit of happiness instead.
Happiness has the advantage of being what we are supposed to really want in life. Even better from a political perspective, it is devilishly hard to pin down what happiness is. But the politicians are likely to be disappointed.
The French started this. With unemployment high and the economy sagging, three years ago President Nicolas Sarkozy commissioned a report on how to get policy to focus less on achieving high economic growth and more on boosting joie.
Now it’s the British who are proposing that gross domestic product take a back seat to glee. As it rolled out a budget packed with layoffs, pay freezes and public service cuts earlier this year, the government of Prime Minister David Cameron also declared that “GDP is not the ideal measure of wellbeing.” It directed the office of national statistics to design a survey of happiness, to improve the measurement of its citizens’ social progress.
The political strategy is riskier than it seems, however. Britons are proud of their stiff upper lips. And even if it were possible in principle to boost their happiness —say, increasing their average exposure to sunlight to more than four hours a day— there is a reasonable chance that the government’s scorched-earth budget is going to make lots of them seriously unhappy anyway.
The French seem to have moved on. By September of 2009, when Nobel laureates Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen submitted their report to the Elysee Palace on how to bring “subjective wellbeing” and other indicators into a broad measure of social progress, President Sarkozy was too overwhelmed by the fallout from the world’s financial disaster to pay much attention.
There is, to be sure, much substance to the proposal to include dimensions like health, social connections and happiness alongside economic growth in our evaluation of progress. Its weakness is that this is, in fact, obvious. A government in a democratic society that measures progress strictly by GDP and ignores its citizens’ happiness is unlikely to remain in office for long. Voters’ sense of wellbeing tends to play a big role in how they vote. Smart politicians pay attention.
It is, of course, true that economic growth can be at odds with other things that improve our wellbeing —clean air and free time come to mind. Still, the anti-materialistic urge that defined the 1960s, enshrined in Bobby Kennedy’s famous statement that GDP counts everything “except that which makes life worthwhile,” proposes a false choice between economic prosperity and happiness.
As Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke put it to students at the University of South Carolina in May, societies with a bigger GDP tend to have better medical care, nutrition and sanitation, lower infant mortality and higher life expectancy, a cleaner environment, more free time, safer and more interesting jobs, better education, and more opportunities to enjoy art and leisure. That tends to lead to more satisfying lives.
The proposition that wellbeing can’t be bought for money is true in a narrow sense: social scientists have determined that beyond an income threshold of some $75,000 a year, more money doesn’t raise societies’ immediate sense happiness. But this instinctive, short term happiness is a fuzzy and unpredictable emotion. People who are given a bar of chocolate report a big jump in this happiness; so do people who find a stray dime. It’s the kind of instinctive emotion kindled by sun or rain.
But when wellbeing is measured as satisfaction with life, a notion that invokes a more careful evaluation of our lot, there is no threshold: money and life satisfaction rise in tandem. More money does make people more satisfied.
So what can Britons expect of their government’s enthusiasm for measuring their happiness? At the margin, it could lead to some useful things. Understanding the relative impact of money and leisure on people’s wellbeing might help the government calibrate policies about time off. Understanding the relative impact of unemployment and inflation on happiness might help refine monetary policy.
But if the British are hoping Mr. Cameron will overcome the challenges of economic deprivation and high unemployment, and come up with a new and improved way to deliver satisfaction, they will probably be disappointed.