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The Politics of Happiness

The Politics of Happiness: What Government Can Learn from the New Research on Well-Being

Copyright Date: 2010
Pages: 272
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  • Book Info
    The Politics of Happiness
    Book Description:

    During the past forty years, thousands of studies have been carried out on the subject of happiness. Some have explored the levels of happiness or dissatisfaction associated with typical daily activities, such as working, seeing friends, or doing household chores. Others have tried to determine the extent to which income, family, religion, and other factors are associated with the satisfaction people feel about their lives. The Gallup organization has begun conducting global surveys of happiness, and several countries are considering publishing periodic reports on the growth or decline of happiness among their people. One nation, tiny Bhutan, has actually made "Gross National Happiness" the central aim of its domestic policy. How might happiness research affect government policy in the United States--and beyond? InThe Politics of Happiness, former Harvard president Derek Bok examines how governments could use the rapidly growing research data on what makes people happy--in a variety of policy areas to increase well-being and improve the quality of life for all their citizens.

    Bok first describes the principal findings of happiness researchers. He considers how reliable the results appear to be and whether they deserve to be taken into account in devising government policies. Recognizing both the strengths and weaknesses of happiness research, Bok looks at the policy implications for economic growth, equality, retirement, unemployment, health care, mental health, family programs, education, and government quality, among other subjects. Timely and incisive,The Politics of Happinesssheds new light on what makes people happy and how government policy could foster greater satisfaction for all.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-3219-4
    Subjects: Political Science, Economics, Psychology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-x)
    (pp. 1-8)

    Deep in the Himalayas, wedged between India and China, sits the tiny Buddhist nation of Bhutan, a land marked by tall mountains, deep forests, and glacier-fed rivers and streams. All but inaccessible to foreign visitors, Bhutan was virtually unknown to the outside world until the 1960s. Its poverty, illiteracy, and infant mortality ranked among the worst of all nations. In 1972, however, something unusual happened in this remote country that caught the attention of people around the globe. A new king, Jigme Singye Wanchuk, declared that from this point forward “Gross National Happiness” rather than Gross National Product would be...

    (pp. 9-31)

    Although empirical research on happiness hardly existed before 1970, it has since become a boom industry. Mounds of evidence have accumulated on how happy people claim to be in different countries, how their levels of contentment vary from one subgroup of the population to another, and what conditions or experiences are most closely related to the way people feel about their lives.* Several thousand articles have now been published on the subject. Books on how to be happy fill entire shelves in Borders and Barnes & Noble. International conferences abound. There is even a scholarly journal devoted exclusively to the...

    (pp. 32-44)

    Can anyone claim to measure something so elusive, so intangible, so changeable as happiness? Jeremy Bentham certainly thought so. To him, measuring happiness and unhappiness was a simple matter of “account and calculation, of profit and loss, just as for money.”¹ In later life, however, he began to have doubts about whether the calculations were as simple as he had originally thought. Could someone’s varied experiences, pleasures, and pains actually be combined by some mechanical process? And did we really know how to compare one person’s happiness (or unhappiness) with another’s? “You might as well pretend,” he later wrote, “to...

    (pp. 45-62)

    There are powerful arguments for making happiness a focal point for government policy. Its overriding importance to human beings has been affirmed by influential thinkers from Socrates to John Locke to Sigmund Freud. According to opinion surveys, happiness usually ranks at the top of the goals people hope to achieve, a high regard that should surely count for something in a democratic state.¹ What’s more, as indicated in chapter 1, the way to lasting happiness seems to include acts of civic engagement, kindness, and other behaviors far more beneficial to society than an endless pursuit of momentary pleasures and trivial...

    (pp. 63-78)

    The most provocative issue raised by the new research on happiness is whether Americans are wise to place such a high priority on increasing and sustaining economic growth. In claiming that the added possessions people crave do not necessarily bring lasting happiness, investigators have not only attacked a major aim of government policy; they have called into question a central premise of economics—namely, that consumers are the best judge of their own welfare so that one can reasonably assume that a rising per capita Gross National Product will provide a corresponding increase in well-being. The implications of this critique...

    (pp. 79-98)

    To liberals, inequality of income has long cast a dark shadow over America—“a stark challenge to American national life,” in the words of James K. Galbraith.¹ These words seem truer than ever today. Income differences in the United States are unusually large and have widened steadily in the past few decades. From 1973 to 2000, the most affluent 20 percent of Americans increased their income by 61.6 percent, six times faster than the poorest 20 percent (10.3 percent). By the end of the century, the richest 1 percent claimed a share of the national income not equaled since the...

    (pp. 99-123)

    Life is full of risks. Most of them stem from events that no one else can do much about—the end of a love affair, a rejected first novel, a failure to win a coveted promotion. But some common hazards can be minimized by legislation. Indeed, many acts of government—food and drug laws, for example, or speed limits—can be described as efforts to reduce risk. One frequently used device for this purpose is some sort of mechanism that spreads the cost of misfortune widely and thereby softens the blow to individual victims.¹ Compulsory unemployment and automobile insurance are...

    (pp. 124-138)

    Many of the multiple sorrows that befall human beings are beyond the power of government to remove. Many others inflict only transitory pain, since people recover surprisingly quickly from most of life’s setbacks and disappointments. But a few afflictions stand out because they cause severe and prolonged distress, affect large numbers of people, and seem at least somewhat amenable to enlightened public policy. Three of the most prominent examples are chronic pain, sleep disorders, and depression. None of them is commonly numbered among the nation’s high-priority illnesses. Yet all three offer exceptional opportunities to any government seeking to improve the...

    (pp. 139-155)

    Researchers agree that love, friendship, and positive relations with other human beings contribute much to happiness, a result that will hardly surprise anyone. Of these experiences, close ties within the home matter most both for parents and for children.¹ Helping to build such relationships, however, represents a far greater challenge to policy-makers than finding ways to protect people from economic hardship or from the suffering caused by depression and chronic pain. As the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once observed, “If you expect a government program to change families, you know more about government than I do.”² Still, warm human...

    (pp. 156-178)

    People often misjudge what will bring them enduring happiness or pain.¹ It stands to reason, then, that any serious attempt to increase well-being should give a prominent place to education. Schools and universities are the obvious institutions to assume this responsibility by trying to cultivate interests and supply the knowledge that will help young people make more enlightened choices about how to live their lives.*

    Researchers exploring happiness have done much to identify the activities and behaviors that tend to contribute most to an enjoyable and satisfying life. Among these pursuits, work and career are undoubtedly important. Employment is essential...

    (pp. 179-203)

    Earlier chapters have discussed a sample of the ways by which the federal government could try to increase well-being and relieve distress: a more vigorous campaign to alleviate mental illness and chronic pain, a comprehensive effort to strengthen marriage and family, a series of measures to enhance people’s peace of mind by giving them greater protection from the financial risks arising from retirement, illness, and the loss of a job. The focus of this chapter, however, is not on new programs to improve lives but on people’s feelings about the government itself. One of the interesting findings from the recent...

    (pp. 204-212)

    After 35 years of intensive research, what have investigators discovered that adds significantly to the teachings of that champion of happiness, Jeremy Bentham? Essentially, researchers have succeeded in doing what Bentham could not accomplish: to devise a way of measuring how happy people are and how much pleasure or pain they derive from the ordinary events and conditions of their lives. As a result, investigators are often able to reach conclusions that can help lawmakers decide which legislative programs are most likely to improve the well-being of the citizenry. It is true that many of these findings merely echo what...

  16. NOTES
    (pp. 213-246)
  17. INDEX
    (pp. 247-262)