America’s government may be the first one in the history of the world that started out with the expressly stated goal of making its citizens happy. Jefferson set out “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence. Madison added “to promote the general welfare” to the six purposes of government in the Constitution’s preamble. Both believed that democracy was the system most likely to deliver on the promise of helping people live happier lives.
But what makes people happy? Is it unlimited economic growth? The right to own as much stuff as our ever-expanding houses and storage units will hold? A sense of total dominance over the world’s other nations? Or (as many of us have come to suspect) are there other, better sources of well-being that we could be focusing our resources and energies on instead — and which might, over the long run, actually make us a happier country?
In his new book, The Politics of Happiness: What Government Can Learn from the New Research on Well-Being, former Harvard president Derek Bok delves deeply into the emerging field of happiness research, and brings back empirical evidence that points to the specific kinds of government policies that, according to the science, have proven reliable and effective at creating happier individuals and societies.
His conclusions aren’t surprising — in fact, he admits that they’re things that Americans whose values are in the right place have understood for centuries — but what’s new is the mountain of scientific evidence that backs up our old common-sense beliefs about what makes people and nations happy. In an era when conservatives reflexively tag progressive proposals as “socialist” or soft-headed or un-American or simply economically not feasible, Bok has given us a solid summary of fresh new data that breathes new life into old liberal arguments about what good governance can do.
One important finding is that beyond a point, more money doesn’t equate to more happiness. (Where that point is is a matter of dispute; and there will always be people for whom there is no endpoint at all.) Thanks to a century of rampant consumer culture, fed by the media and the advertising industry, money-equals-happiness is a dominant assumption in America these days; but Bok’s research proves conclusively that this single-minded focus on economic growth alone is wrong-headed. Worse: in our dogged pursuit of wealth-at-all-costs, we’ve lost sight of many other (often less expensive) measures that have been proven, time and again around the world, to promote far greater individual and collective well-being. Specifically, these include practical policies that:
* Strengthen marriages and reduce the stress of parenting
* Encourage active forms of leisure and recreation
* Cushion the financial shock of unemployment, and facilitate lifelong education and the transition to new work
* Guarantee unconditional access to competent healthcare
* Make it easier for people to prepare for a comfortable, secure retirement
* Improve preschool and early childhood education
* Ensure the mentally ill get adequate, effective, consistent treatment
* Empower doctors to deal more intelligently and effectively with undertreated conditions like sleep disorders and chronic pain, which destroy the happiness of millions
* Refocus education policy away from its single-minded emphasis on producing compliant workers; and toward creating creative, fulfilled individuals who are competent to pursue happiness on their own terms
* Restore Americans’ damaged faith in their government, specifically by increasing accountability and responsiveness, raising public awareness of effective laws and programs, enacting fair and consistently-enforced regulations, following the rule of law, and ending the culture of corruption that currently dominates our politics.
It reads like a progressive wish list — a ratification of the kind of “for the common good” policies we’ve always stood for. But Bok’s approach is academic and disinterested and acutely non-ideological: he reaches these conclusions only because the preponderance of data proves (once again!) that reality has a distinctly liberal bias.
The Politics of Happiness gently suggests plenty of reasons why the world’s richest country isn’t anywhere near the world’s happiest as well. With 58% of America’s discretionary government spending going to the military — which adds to the happiness of nobody except a few defense contractors and their shareholders — it’s obvious that our national priorities are way out of whack, especially for a country founded on the premise of pursuing happiness. It’s beyond the scope of Bok’s book to suggest ways we might re-arrange those skewed priorities. That job is left to us. But the task of confronting the entrenched interests who have put their own profits ahead of Americans’ general well-being becomes much easier when we’re armed with hard data to prove that our ideas will, in fact, deliver the outcomes we claim they will.
This data has implication for our longer-term economic thinking as well. As we begin the century-long effort to feel our way toward radically different economic models that value sustainability over growth, a lot of people are terrified that learning to live within the Earth’s limits will impinge on our overall ability to create happiness. In this view, the suggestion that we can “learn to be happy with less” is tantamount to not being happy at all.
Bok’s book is a potent corrective to this fear. His data affirm that perpetual economic growth really isn’t nearly as intrinsic to human happiness as we’ve come to assume it is. In fact, when it comes to money, people’s well-being depends more on their feeling of being sheltered from financial risk and loss (from job loss, illness, retirement, or theft and corruption) than it does on simply getting more money or stuff (which confers only a brief surge in happiness).
Furthermore: financial security is only one of the five pillars that Gallup’s worldwide research has identified as being essential to true well-being. The others include fulfilling work, satisfying family and personal relationships, physical well-being, and a rich community life that includes solid support networks and opportunities to help others. People who enjoy a relatively high sense of well-being in these four other areas tend to be happy regardless of their income.
Government policies can do a great deal to foster well-being on all five of these fronts. And the new science of happiness gives us very specific guidance for how to craft truly effective policies that are targeted to generate maximum happiness for the largest number of people. Not all of these policies are cheap — universal health care and guaranteed retirement are major long-term fiscal commitments, for example — but a surprising number of them (such as changing regulations that discourage doctors from treating chronic pain patients) are simply a matter of making up our minds that the pursuit of happiness is a worthy goal, and then, wherever possible, thoughtfully designing policies that maximize that goal.
Restoring the pursuit of happiness to its historic role at the center of our philosophy of government will be harder; and convincing our lobbyist-addled legislators to prioritize the happiness of average Americans over that of defense contractors, Wall Street, and Big Ag will be harder yet. But it’s a worthy vision for progressives to pursue; and Dr. Bok has laid out a new set of strong arguments that can help us make the case.
And with that — welcome to Firedoglake, Dr. Bok!