Happiness and Policy

As we said last time, there is a lot of interest in positive psychology, that is, research into what makes people happy. If we think that we have greater insight into the sources of human happiness, shouldn’t that have some influence on policy? Today’s reading is a chapter from a book whose title tells you what the author thinks: The Politics of Happiness: What Government Can Learn from the New Research on Well-Being.

We had one of those wide-ranging seminar-style conversations. I don’t think there was a main point, so I’ll just make notes of some of the things we talked about.

Spencer started us off by saying that adaptation is something that anyone who wanted to make policy based on happiness studies ought to worry about. If people adapt to either wealth or poverty, a rich person might be pretty much as happy as a poor person. One conclusion you might draw is that the distribution of income isn’t that important: people are pretty much equally happy no matter how much money they have, so what’s the big deal? But Spencer thought that was too quick. Your note taker concurs: that might be the correct answer, but I want to hear more about why.

Mikayla and others raised questions about whether happiness is identical with well-being. We noted a variety of other things that people care about: fulfillment, achievement, virtue, and so on. For instance, someone might prefer to accomplish something difficult to leading an easy, happy life.

Prof. Brown was interested in contrasting the happiness we get from liberty with the happiness (or lack of anxiety?) we get from security. I think she was headed in the direction of thinking that happiness research might lead us to prefer security to liberty. (As a guy who spends most of his time with Thomas Hobbes, this sounds right to me. Or perhaps I should say it sounds less sinister and more familiar to me. Everyone wants security first.)

This gave me an opening to hijack the conversation for some of my own questions about privacy. (Sorry Prof. B!) It seems to me that people mind virtual surveillance a lot less than they mind surveillance by another person in space. Those both seem to be equivalent losses of privacy. But maybe the fact that one makes us unhappy while the other does not means that we might draw distinctions between them. More broadly, I am curious about whether a loss of privacy is the sort of thing that we could not adapt to, much like physical pain, mental illness, or involuntary unemployment. I genuinely don’t know. This makes it difficult for me to assess the importance of privacy; the literature on the subject has lots of table thumping but not a lot of detail on the importance of privacy. In particular, I wonder if anyone has studied the effects of surveillance in East Germany. Did people adapt or not? I want to know!


I told a story about surveillance drones over Baltimore. I heard it on Radiolab. It’s amazing: give it a listen.

The library has an electronic copy of Bok’s book, in case you want to scan it without leaving the comfort of your room. (See the link below).

I referred to a monograph by some researchers at the Institute of Economic Affairs in the UK (Johns and Ormerod 2007). They were motivated largely by people who use happiness research to question the value of economic growth and, thereby, the desirability of open markets. They point out that lots of things cannot be correlated with happiness, e.g. environmental improvements. But no one is disputing that environmental regulations are a good idea. They also note the problem of correlating a bounded variable (tell us how happy you are on a scale of 1-5) and an unbounded one (GDP growth). And I’m pretty sure they throw some cold water on the thought that money does not contribute to happiness (I can’t recall, though). I’ll put a copy on Sakai.


Bok, Derek. 2010. The Politics of Happiness: What Government Can Learn from the New Research on Well-Being. Princeton University Press.,1708,638,245,251.

Johns, Helen, and Paul Ormerod. 2007. Happiness, Economics and Public Policy. Institute of Economic Affairs.