Still grumpy about compulsory happiness

Richard Layard has been a powerful advocate for the use of well-being or happiness as the aim of government policy for many years now. The new book he has co-authored with other happiness researchers, The Origins Of Happiness: The Science of Well-Being Over the Life Course, is a useful overview of the now-large body of empirical work exploring the links between measures of happiness (I’m going to use the book’s shorthand) and potential explanatory factors. It looks at both adult outcomes and child development. There is a substantial bibliography and excellent index. And, while not a completely easy read for the general audience – as technical jargon does slip in – it’s also very accessible.

My ‘but’ is not about the book specifically but about the advocacy of a well-being policy target in general. The applied work linking potential causal explanators to individual happiness is persuasive, and it’d be hard to argue with the kind of policy conclusions one might draw: keep employment high and stable; fund mental health care far more generously; aim to have a high trust society. Some conclusions are equally persuasive without having obvious policy implications: children need a stable and loving family more than they need a high income family; family conflict is bad for children’s well-being.

I was less familiar with the work reported in the book on education, and am not sure what to make of these sections. The empirical claim is that additional years of education contribute relatively modestly to individual happiness, and this is almost outweighed by the negative effect of comparing oneself to others: “Extra education brings considerable benefits (direct and mediated [via higher income]) to the individual. But these are substantially offset by the negative effect of one person’s education on others in the peer group.” In contrast to the received wisdom, in other words, education has negative rather than positive externalities. Maybe, this chapter concludes, it’s ok to continue with higher education because there will perhaps be some civic benefits. The unwritten coda is that the authors might like to see the education arms race halted – just as they want to policies to end the income arms race, for their conclusion is that people in the main care about their relative status, and the only way to stop this making them unhappy is to stop them trying.

Less jawdropping is a chapter on the influence of schools on children’s well-being. Its conclusion is that there is great variation between schools, and a good school has a far better impact on children’s well-being, attainment and behaviour than a similar amount of money spent by the individual family. The result doesn’t seem to be due to individual teachers, so the cause lies in the institutional context. This seems interesting and well worth further exploration, especially given the wide variation between schools.

The book’s main message is the same as the original Easterlin paper: rising incomes do not translate into rising happiness, and we could all be happier if we stop pouring our energies into positional outcomes such as income, where we compare ourselves with other people. Anyway, the argument goes, the psychological mechanism of adaptation or habituation moderates the benefit of rising incomes. Therefore policymakers should aim to increase happiness, not incomes. This seems illogical to me: if we are all going to return to a happiness set-point after a period, why bother with policies trying to increase happiness? (And never mind the point that happiness data by construction range from 0 to 10, with the great majority of people in the top half of that range; while income measured by real GDP is an analytical construct that can in theory rise without limit. Am I missing something here? It rarely gets mentioned in the discussions of the happiness lit.)

In sum, I’m in full agreement with the authors about policies to improve some of the factors that clearly affect people’s well-being. But I still don’t want well-meaning economists and psychologists (all with PhDs) trying to make people happy, utilitarian engineers of souls – still less politicians.

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I also just read Animals Strike Curious Poses by Elena Passarello and was hugely disappointed. It had rave reviews, and is about the relationship between humans and animals. Although she obviously knows a lot – and some sections of the book were very interesting – it’s massively over-written and veering into the kind of creative writing task you set school children: “Write about how it feels to be a woolly mammoth being hunted.”

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