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

By Yandle, Bruce | Freeman, June 2011 | Go to article overview

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


Yandle, Bruce, Freeman


The Politics of Happiness: What Government Can Learn from New Research on Well-Being by Derek Bok Princeton University Press * 2010 * 272 pages * $24.95

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. - That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. . . ."

Jefferson's beautiful and powerful words from the Declaration of Independence set out a fundamental premise for the founding of the new nation. Governments are organized to secure the rights of men to pursue happiness, not to provide them with happiness.

Derek Bok speaks to this point in the opening chapter of The Politics of Happiness, but strays beyond Jefferson's fence lines when he asks what government can learn from new happiness research that might be adapted to national policy actions. To suggest that government learns, as indicated by the book's subtitle, is to assign a misplaced concreteness to the institution itself. People learn. And people participate in government. But governments seemingly never learn.

For those who have not become engaged in happiness research, Bok provides a well- organized survey. But disappointment awaits those who expect to find evidence of the emergence of a coherent field, characterized by clearly stated theories that evince refutable hypotheses and generalized findings. Instead one finds an array of ad hoc studies that, typical of fledgling fields of study, may offer insights. For example Bok puzzles over the finding that white women were happier than white men for many years, based on happiness surveys, but that their level of happiness has fallen relatively in recent years, even while career opportunities have improved. In contrast, black women have kept pace with black men in their level of happiness and unlike white women have not become unhappier. But the author offers no discussion of multivariable modeling with control variables that might help clear the air a bit.

Another difficulty relates to whether happiness scales are cardinal as opposed to ordinal rankings and can thus be compared across experiments. For example the effects of divorce or separation are found to generate on average an eight-point drop in happiness, on a scale of 100. Loss of a job generates a drop of six points, and belief in God, for Americans at least, lifts the level of happiness by 3.5 points. While all this is somewhat interesting, it isn't likely, in a methodological sense, that one would expect a person who has lost his job and his wife but has found God to have a net loss of 10. …

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