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Free New Book on Happiness Research and Public Policy

The Institution for Economic Affairs, a free-market British think-tank, has released a freely-downloadable edited volume titled … and the Pursuit of Happiness, packed with papers summarizing the public-policy implications of recent work in happiness research.

Here are a few highlights gleaned from a quick browse.

Christian Bjørnskov, a professor of economics at Aarhus University in Demark, reports on the relationship between subjective well-being and size of government:

What appears to be the unequivocal conclusion to be drawn from the sober, scientific part of the wellbeing literature is that larger government does not imply a happier population. Indeed, when a growing battalion of social scientists sympathetic to government interventions engage in wellbeing research and fail to find empirical evidence in favour of such interventions, it seems safe to conclude that more or larger government is not associated with better wellbeing. As Ruud Veenhoven honestly concluded againsthis own political preferences more than a decade ago, the characteristics of welfare states neither create wellbeing, nor do they make the distribution of such wellbeing more equal (Veenhoven, 2000). A further decade of research has confirmed this conclusion despite popular claims that government interventions can and do create happiness.

On the contrary, the large and growing literature finds either no consequences of government policies or direct negative effects of large government (cf. Bjørnskov et al., 2008a, 2008b). Yet even if there are no direct effects, there is reason to worry that increasing the size of the government sector and its active role in society could cause losses of happiness in the long run. As documented by Sacks, Stevenson and Wolfers in this volume, economic growth leads to happiness in the long run. Likewise, economic globalisation also tends to contribute to subjective wellbeing (see Tsai, 2009). Activist government policies and a growing public sector are likely to undermine both growth and globalisation (e.g. Fölster and Henrekson, 2001; Bergh and Henrekson,2011), and thus slow down what is already a slow trend towards more wellbeing that may be difficult to track in rich countries.

As such, the apparently popular case for an active government that creates happiness rests on very shaky foundations.

Christopher Snowdon, author of The Spirit Level Delusion, tackles happiness and inequality:

In summary, there is no empirical evidence that people in more egalitarian countries enjoy happier lives, nor is there any credible reason to think they should. Scholars of happiness have identified many factors which improve life satisfaction scores but income equality is not one of them. Furthermore, since none of the factors which have been shown to boost happiness is more abundant in the ‘more equal’ nations, it is unlikely that those societies would be happier even by chance.

Devoid of support in the academic literature, the myth that ‘more equal’ countries are happier is the creation of a political faction Niemietz (2011) terms über-relativists, who have taken the modest observation that some people raise their aspirations in line with people they know as evidence that anxiety about income inequality is the main determinant of happiness in the Western world. Having taken this position, it makes sense to them that countries with the lowest levels of income inequality should be the happiest. The über-relativists have to navigate so many obstacles of logic to arrive at this position that the mere fact that ‘more equal’ societies are not happier by any empirical measure is not enough to make them turn back.

Insofar as ‘happiness studies’ is a ‘new science’ at all, it is not one that offers sustenance to those who pursue an egalitarian agenda. If one is looking for a sound basis for a happier life, one might heed the words of Diener and Biswas Diener (2009), who conclude: ‘Thus: our advice is to avoid poverty, live in a rich country, and focus on goals other than material wealth.’ This might be stating the obvious, but happiness research rarely does otherwise.

There’s plenty more good stuff in the volume, including papers by Paul Ormerod, Pete Boettke & Chris Coyne, and Betsy Stevenson, Justin Wolfers & Daniel Sacks.


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