A Happiness Wishlist

Thisbok book cover book is basically a plea in favor of the following aims that the author wants the American society to do pursue through the means of publicly funded programs and mandates.

    • Strengthen marriage and family (by providing marriage counselling, for example)
    • Encourage active forms of leisure
    • Expand programs to relive the distress of the unemployed

  • Guarantee universal health care
  • Improve child-care and preschool education
  • Treat mental, disorders, and chronic pain more effectively
  • Focus education policy on a broader set of goals (preparing students for citizenship, for example)
  • Offer more support to victims of crimes
  • Stricter environmental policies
  • Public financing of elections
  • Avoid unnecessary wars
  • Increase trust and confidence in government by educating the public to not expect too much of the government, exaggerate its faults and overlook its accomplishments.

What is new about Bok’s angle is his use of “happiness studies” to impress upon us the desirability of these items that are staple in any social-democratic wish-list. For example, studies have found that financial insecurity is correlated with lower levels of self-reported happiness, hence his plea for universal healthcare and expanded unemployment insurance.

Though one is likely to agree with some of his aims, I doubt if one would find the use of happiness studies in making the case for the aims particularly edifying or pivotal in the making up one’s mind. His arguments assume that people are insufficiently devoted to his favored aims because people lack an awareness of the importance of the aims—a situation that he believes happiness studies would remedy. It is akin to someone arguing that the government should fix more potholes because studies have shown that communities with fewer potholes have higher levels of self-reported happiness.

The author does not seem to consider that people’s insufficient might be because they have to make trade-offs. Just how much money should a community devote to fixing potholes, when there is also the need to upgrade homeless shelters and promote economic growth. To say that all these increase happiness levels is not much help in legislators’ fundamental task—making tradeoffs.

Furthermore, happiness studies have numerous problems (such as those related to measurement and confounding factors) that, Bok admits, makes their usefulness limited. He therefore does not rely on them to suggest anything radical or highly disruptive—such as a massive redistribution of income—that other policy advocates using happiness studies have done. He also acknowledges that the pursuit of his favored aims might conflict with the considerations of justice, and run up against voter prejudices and special interests that constrain legislators’ decisions. Yet he does not seem to draw what to me seems to me the most obvious conclusion—that the number cases in which happiness studies might sway the legislators’ decisions is vanishingly small.

It is not surprising then, despite paying lip service to the legislators’ constraints, he ignores them other parts of the book. “Findings that senior citizens are, if anything, more satisfied with with their lives than younger Americans may help policymakers decide to give higher priority to improving the lot of younger Americans through measures such as affordable child care or high quality pre-school education than to raising Social Security benefits” (p. 61). Does anyone really think that the legislators’ choice between expanded social security vs. expanded childcare will ever come down to what happiness studies have shown?


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