Happiness Surveys and Public Policy: What's the Use?

Article excerpt


The PR defense sees SWB surveys as evidencing preference utility, a measure of the extent to which individuals' preferences are realized (with individuals permitted to have an intrinsic preference for items that are at least partly nonexperiential, such as consumption, health, liberty, accomplishment, knowledge, and so forth). By contrast, the EQ defense argues that SWB surveys provide useful information about the quality of individuals' mental states. This defense is, in a way, much more straightforward. Although individuals are not infallible about the content of their mental states, surely each individual is generally more epistemically reliable about what she thinks and feels than about the occurrence of what she wants. Moreover, it seems straightforward to design survey questions focusing on experiential quality: for example, "How happy are you?"

Indeed, many scholars in the SWB literature offer (what appears to be) some version of the EQ defense. The most prominent example is Daniel Kahneman, who argues that information about experience utility should play a substantial role in structuring governmental choices. Kahneman and his collaborators (for short, "Kahneman") have pioneered a novel framework ("objective happiness") for measuring experience utility, and have empirically implemented this framework in several large-scale studies. (132) But Kahneman is hardly alone in seeing SWB surveys as evidencing experience utility. There are numerous other SWB researchers who present--or at least seem to present--the EQ defense.

That defense, once more, can take a strong or weak form. In the strong form, the EQ defense of SWB surveys endorses experientialism about well-being. A leading example of this approach is the best-selling book, Happiness: Lessons from a New Science, (133) written by Richard Layard, a prominent SWB researcher. Section A responds to Layard's arguments and, more generally, criticizes the strong EQ defense.

The weak EQ defense is more promising. It refrains from endorsing experientialism about well-being. Experientialism about well-being is, at a minimum, normatively controversial. The weak EQ defense of SWB surveys declines to take sides in that thorny debate. It claims only that good experiences are one aspect of well-being--a claim which seems very hard to deny.

More problematic is the assertion that policymakers should take account of the experiential impact of governmental policies via SWB surveys. In Section B, I illustrate the difficulties with the weak EQ defense of SWB surveys via a close analysis of Kahneman's "objective happiness" framework. Kahneman's work is by far the most systematic attempt, to date, to develop a policy-relevant measure of mental states. And Kahneman now acknowledges (or at least is willing to entertain) that well-being has nonmental aspects. The "objective happiness" framework should thus be understood as a concrete elaboration of the weak EQ defense: one that sees SWB surveys as evidence of experiential quality, and experiential quality as one important determinant (among others) of well-being.

Key objections to the "objective happiness" framework are its implausible presuppositions regarding temporal separability and, even more fundamentally, the separability of the hedonic from the nonhedonic. Relatedly, the framework offers no guidance in how policymakers should integrate information about hedonic utility with nonhedonic information. Finally, although the theoretical elaboration of "objective happiness" uses an "observer" to make time-tradeoff judgments so as to cardinalize hedonic utilities, the "observer" is not to be found in Kahneman's empirical studies, and even the theoretical elaboration fails to allow for heterogeneity in observer judgments/preferences.

Section C sketches a different and arguably more promising approach to integrating information about experiential quality into policy choice: an approach that includes happiness as one of the entries in individuals' preference utility functions, and that employs revealed or stated-preference studies to estimate the extent to which preference utility depends upon happiness. …