When the science of happiness meets public policy, two things tend to happen. First, some people in the room get excited about the opportunity for our policy goals to extend beyond traditional economic indicators (e.g., income, employment), and better capture elements of the good life that cannot be explained in dollar terms (e.g., social trust, individual happiness). Second (but probably simultaneously), other people in the room begin to worry that the whole point of government policy and of the reasonable limits on what governments can legislate appear to have been forgotten (freedom anyone?). How should this scenario pan out?
Some elements deserve more explanation before the story continues, and I conclude that, contrary to the main worries, the science of happiness can be successfully incorporated into policies in a way that increases freedom.
The science of happiness can be described as the amalgamation of the current scientific knowledge related to happiness. Happiness science is not just about measuring levels of happiness, and happiness-like concepts; it’s also in the business of explaining and predicting levels of those concepts in various contexts.
Several academics have suggested that, since we now know how to measure these aspects of the good life, and they are generally held to be important, then we should include the most accepted of them (e.g. satisfaction with life) among the explicit goals of public policy (see a review here). In some ways, this suggestion is exciting, because traditional economic indicators are often acknowledged as inadequate for guiding public policy; they are far from useless, but they don’t capture everything that is important to us. The deficiencies of focusing on only traditional economic indicators were eloquently discussed by Robert F. Kennedy in his speech at the University of Kansas in 1968:
Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year, but that Gross National Product—if we judge the United States of America by that—that Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. … It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities. … Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. … It measures neither our wit nor our courage, … ; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. (Kennedy, 1968).
GNP was never intended to be a measure of the success of a nation, it was intended to be a measure of national production (England, 1998). Nevertheless, measures like GNP became the goals of many policy advisors. But, the people want to measure more. In a 2005 BBC opinion poll, 1001 participants were asked whether the government's main objective should be the "greatest happiness" or the "greatest wealth", and 81% replied, “happiness” (Easton, 2006).
Measuring is one thing, but implementing specific policies in order to increase people’s happiness is another. Many of us don’t have a lot of faith in government institutions (Stevenson & Wolfers, 2011). So, it’s no surprise some people don’t want the government “making them happy”. Shouldn’t the government just do its best to stay out of the way, and let us pursue our own vision of the good life (as long as we don’t harm others)?
For Friedrich Hayek (1960) the point of government policies is to increase freedom. We all have different interests and views of the good life. So, the government should provide us with freedom to pursue those different ends, rather than create interventionist policies that privilege (if not enforce) specific versions of the good life. Surely there is wisdom here. Policies aimed at happiness, or any other specific view of the good life, should not be coercive because some will not share the relevant view of the good life, and assuming the dominant view of the good life is correct opens the door for widespread abuses, or at least the oppression of minorities.
So, how can we use the science of happiness to inform policies that are not coercive, that do not reduce freedom, but increase it? I think policies that implement “nudges” focused on helping people overcome episodes of depression can do all this.
I’d need the following premises:
1. When a set of options exists, a policy that changes how those options are presented is not prima facie coercive. (Unless, e.g., some options are completely hidden).
2. Policies that cost a lot of taxpayer dollars to implement are coercive unless the vast majority of those who stand to gain AND those who do not stand to gain from the policy consent to it.
3. People with depression sometimes experience difficulty doing the things that they know they should do in order to achieve their own version of the good life. So, depressives might suffer from a temporary loss of subjective freedom during a bout of depression.
4. Decreasing depressive symptoms, or helping people overcome a bout of depression, increases depressives’ happiness and freedom.
5. A cheap and widely supported policy that brings about a better presentation of helpful options to people with depression would be non-coercive and would increase happiness and freedom.
And an example:
What about online adverts on relevant websites (e.g.) that take the person to a portal hosted by an AI chat bot that “listens” to them and encourages them to use helpful resources, e.g., “here is the number you need to call: …”). The initial outlay could be crowdsourced, or taxpayer funded on the understanding that depression costs “the economy” more than $210b per year (which no longer “trickles down” to the masses). There is no coercion, just better presentation of the options. We might even save enough, as a nation, to build a huge wall (if we really want to do that!).
Easton, M. (2006). Britain’s happiness in decline, BBC News, 2 May 2006. Retrieved October 9, 2013, from: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/programmes/happiness_formula/4771908.stm
England, R. W. (1998). Alternatives to Gross Domestic Product: A critical survey. In F. Ackerman, D. Kiron, N. Goodwin, J. Harris & K. P. Gallagher (Eds.), Human wellbeing and economic goals (vol. 3) (pp. 373–402). Washington, DC: Island Press.
Hayek, F. A. (1960). The constitution of liberty. Chicago: University of Chicago
Kennedy, R. F. (1968). Speech at University of Kansas, March 18. Transcript available from: http://www.glaserprogress.org/program_areas/pdf/Remarks_of_Robert_F_Kennedy.pdf
Stevenson, B., & Wolfers, J. (2011). Trust in public institutions over the business cycle (No. w16891). National Bureau of Economic Research. http://www.nber.org/papers/w16891
Weijers, Dan & Jarden, Aaron (2013). The Science of Happiness for Policymakers: An Overview, Journal of Social Research and Policy, 4(2). The free official version
Department of Philosophy