Happiness – Part 2

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I had intended to do a detailed follow-up to my earlier post about happiness research.  However, I think the reasons for my scepticism of the work by Derek Bok and others have already been expressed far more cogently by Steven Landsberg, Will Wilkinson, and Richard Epstein.

Recall that Bok thinks there is a troubling disconnect between the following facts: (1) society has grown much more prosperous in the past three decades but (2) self-reported levels of happiness have remained largely constant during the same period.  Bok asks, “what is the point of working such long hours and risking environmental disaster in order to keep on doubling and redoubling our Gross Domestic Product?”  In my earlier post, I suggested that subjectively reported happiness seemed to be a thin basis on which to make recommendations about public policy settings, let alone radically reshaping public policy.

Landsburg points out a flaw in Bok’s approach, which I find reasonably compelling:

Wait a minute, now. Self-reported happiness has been flat for fifty years despite rising incomes. Self-reported happiness has also been flat for fifty years despite dramatic increases in leisure and environmental quality. (Since 1965, the average American has gained about six hours a week of leisure—the equivalent of seven vacation weeks a year.)  So why aren’t Bok and Kolbert asking why we bother to come home from the office, take vacations, and clean our air and water?

Will Wilkinson piles on:

Landsburg asks an excellent question. Income inequality has skyrocketed, but that hasn’t made Americans less happy. So why care?

I essentially agree with Wilkinson’s conclusion: 

The fact of stable U.S. levels of self-reported happiness is an ideological Rorschach test; the way it is used tells you more about the person using it than anything else.

Anyway, the answer to Bok’s question is pretty easy. There are many, many other benefits of economic growth.

Finally, there is a very good discussion between Richard Epstein and Russ Roberts, which you can download here.  Epstein discusses some of the false assumptions of the happiness researchers and argues convincingly that envy is a terrible motivation for public policy.

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One Response to “Happiness – Part 2”

  1. Alex Says:

    I like these comments. I wouldn’t have read them if it weren’t for your post. Cheers.

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