Government’s Role in Happiness is Focus of New Book

Posted March 8, 2010 at 3:04pm

The country of Bhutan started it.

Deciding that happiness was a better measure of government success than economic indicators, the leaders of the South Asian country created a “happiness index” that included the four pillars of “gross national happiness” — democracy, economic growth, environmental protection and cultural preservation.

As a result, Bhutan has had some measure of success at least in the sense of an improvement in the quality of life: Incomes have increased, life expectancy is up, infant mortality is down, and literacy has improved.

Other countries have since jumped on the happiness bandwagon, and now Britain, China and Australia are considering adding a happiness index to their measurement of progress.

The happiness trend caught the attention of scholar Derek Bok, a professor and former president of Harvard University. In his new book, “The Politics of Happiness: What Government Can Learn From the New Research on Well-Being,” Bok explores a number of new studies related to the concept of happiness and then painstakingly asks whether and how government can do much to increase human happiness.

The answer, in short, is not as much as we might think. Government can only do so much to affect certain elements of human nature, of course. But before Bok reaches that conclusion, he reveals the results of a series of fascinating studies that may do a great deal to upset our basic assumptions about what creates happiness and what doesn’t.

The first surprise is that in the United States, according to economist Richard Easterlin and others, “average levels of happiness … have risen very little if at all over the past 50 years despite substantial growth in per capita incomes.”

Why is that? We now live with the Internet, cell phones, 24-hour stores and all sorts of other advances and conveniences that our grandparents could only imagine. But Bok observes that “as incomes rise, people soon grow used to their higher standard of living and feel they need even more money to lead a good life.”

The lesson, of course, is that science is telling us that getting and spending alone don’t allow humans to achieve happiness.

So, if having more things (and working harder and longer hours to get them) doesn’t lead to happiness, what does? The results as reported by Bok provide the most interesting elements of “The Politics of Happiness.” In general — and this is no great surprise — wealthier nations are generally happier than poor countries. But the causes of that greater happiness are a little hard to pin down. Bok conjectures that happiness causes wealth, instead of the other way around: “Happier workers,” he writes, “are more successful and earn more money.”

Another reason for greater happiness among the wealthy might be connected to the higher-quality jobs they hold, with more control over their workday and more challenges that allow them to feel satisfied. Imagine, instead, the person who stands long mornings knocking out tall skim decaf latte after tall skim decaf latte. He may call himself a barista, but that doesn’t negate the tedium and petty insults of the job each day, and it certainly isn’t a job of power and influence.

Financial success is not the only thing that contributes less to happiness than we might think. Warm climates don’t seem to elicit greater happiness, studies show. Watching many hours of television — nope. A great meal at a restaurant or a fun day at the ballpark bumps up happiness only temporarily.

So what does create real and lasting happiness? In addition to inherited temperament, Bok says there are six things that create joy: marriage, social relationships, employment, a perception of having good health (more so than actual health), religion and good government.

While those elements are not especially shocking, what is also interesting is what seems to create unhappiness. Divorce, for instance, can bring a blow to happiness that can last as long as 10 years, research says. Parenthood, despite all its wonderful moments, is actually pretty tough on the happiness quotient. Bok says a number of studies show that the happiness of couples declines after the birth of children and (duh) doesn’t rise again until children have flown the nest. Unemployment brings another blow to happiness — even when a layoff has nothing to do with an employee’s work, going through unemployment creates “prolonged distress.” Losing income is part of it, Bok says, but even more significant is the blow to the ego.

What doesn’t seem to cause prolonged unhappiness also comes as something of a surprise. Losing a limb or even becoming quadriplegic seems to bring only a temporary drop in happiness.

There are also some interesting findings related to the positive aspects of happiness, although less surprising. Everybody — introverts and extroverts — feels happier in the presence of others. In fact, “several researchers have concluded that human relationships and connections of all kinds contribute more to happiness than anything else,” Bok writes. Having a social network seems to provide a kind of buffer against setbacks and mishaps.

The people of most industrialized nations see themselves as “fairly content,” Bok says. He posits that “most people have a natural tendency to be happy” (Americans included) and that people have a “remarkable ability to adapt to differing environments.”

So, taking all this information into consideration, what is the role of government? This new research raises an even bigger question: Should government try to play a role in improving happiness?

Bok feels it should. He looks at a number of practical ways that government might add to a population’s overall happiness: redistributing income; preventing financial hardships; ending suffering from pain, depression and even insomnia; strengthening families and marriage; improving education; and expanding a sense of government through civic education.

It’s an ambitious agenda, but in the end, Bok falls short in coming up with solutions that are realistic or affordable. Instead, he turns back to the question of whether economic growth is the most accurate measure of happiness.

“Clearly, the most profound question raised by this new body of work is whether growth should retain such a dominant place on the domestic agenda,” he writes. In fact, “the constant preoccupation with growth has not helped Americans become any happier over the past 60 years despite the doubling and redoubling of the Gross Domestic Product.”

Bok leaves readers with more questions than answers. In terms of our understanding of human happiness, “The Politics of Happiness” raises a number of challenges to our assumptions. But in terms of providing a blueprint for a government to go forward, he seems to do a better job of proving that government should not act like a nanny worrying about its citizens’ insomnia, and instead focus on larger issues, letting us go about our pursuit of happiness on our own.