Should governments try to make us happy?

To me, happiness research is looking rather like the social capital research of the 1990s – intellectually interesting, but yielding very little in the way of worthwhile policy recommendations. But the Australian population, long inclined to looking towards the state, does not agree. According to a new poll reported in today’s Sydney Morning Herald:

77 per cent agreed with the proposition that a government’s prime objective should be promoting the greatest happiness of the people rather than the greatest wealth.

I’m briefly quoted in another story in the today’s happiness coverage disagreeing with the idea that happiness should be an objective of government. This isn’t because there is nothing at all happiness research can tell us about policies conducive to well-being, but because I think there are a range of reasons why, given Australia’s current situation, this objective is not likely to lead to long-term changes in average national happiness:

1) Few significant and lasting benefits for most people. On a 0-10 scale, about three-quarters of the Australian population will rate themselves as 7 or above in happiness or life satisfaction surveys. They are happy already, and while various positive events or changes in their lives could give them a boost, they are likely to adapt back to their genetically-influenced set range. Many of those below 7 will be suffering temporary setbacks, from which they will recover in any case. The main scope for improvement is among the people enduring persistently low levels of well-being.

2) Not easily accessible by policy. People without partners tend to have low well-being (pdf, p.11), particularly in the middle years of life. But what can government sensibly do about this? For a start, there is some reverse causation – not surprisingly, people who were unhappy to begin with find it harder to form relationships. So the government’s job will be to match Australia’s least attractive personalities with mates, and be more succesful at it than all the traditional methods plus the new online search tools. Even the left’s quixotic faith in the state’s capacity to do good isn’t likely to extend to thinking government can achieve anything here. Short of re-introducing arranged marriages, I can’t see that there is much scope for even massaging the statistics. And if divorce laws were tightened, it probably would not increase happiness – people would be unhappy in marriage rather than unhappy in divorce.

3) Redundant additional arguments. There are some causes of ill-being that can be affected by government policy, such as removing causes of unemployment or providing medical assistance to those suffering from illnesses that affect their well-being. But governments are already trying to alleviate these problems. Another argument for trying to remedy them is redundant; the only interesting issues surround how we should go about dealing with these issues.

4) Dubious arguments. Many of the various odds-and-ends policy ideas for improving happiness collected in documents like the Wellbeing Manifesto are not clearly supported by research. For example, it proposes a maximum 35 hour working week, when the research (pdf, p.5) does not show even those working much longer hours than that with low average well-being and, as reported in yesterday’s Australian, most people settle into hours that suit them over time. Nor do I know of any research showing that restricting advertising would have any discernible effects on well-being, or that stopping ‘turning universities into businesses selling degrees and make them the critic and conscience of society’ would help – indeed, it would probably reduce the number of people capable of carrying out the ‘secure, rewarding jobs’ the manifesto, in all its banality, thinks are a good thing. Being a ‘critic and conscience’ of society no doubt appeals to the kind of people who write well-being manifestos, but demand for such services is limited.

Governments should focus on what they can realistically achieve. Given the nature of the instruments they have available to them, this means that their activities will be biased toward the material – redistributing money, creating incentives etc. Changing how people feel is much tougher, and attempts to do so are likely to join the long lists of failed government policies.

20 thoughts on “Should governments try to make us happy?

  1. I have suggestion for government policy if somone really decides it is important to increase happiness scores — legalize all drugs — or at least opiates and THC. This way people who are depressed and essentially self medicating will be able to self medicate properly. That would increase happiness for some proportion of the population who can then get the drugs they want without any bother, and stop all the little short-term unhappy events when the former groups commits crime against the latter. In addition, since some proproption of the former group will be basically high all day every day, it will also increase average happiness scores.


  2. Offhand, happiness research seems pretty pointless to me. Individuals know what will best make them happy, and make life decisions accordingly. It certainly shouldn’t inform policy. Governments are better off making the assumption that increased wealth leads to greater happiness. If it doesn’t, it’s better to have the ‘unhappiness’ of wealth than the ‘happiness’ of poverty.


  3. Taxing advertising may not make people happier in any direct sense, but that’s true of most forms of taxation. But advertising seems like a good thing to tax – especially if you can find a way (surely not that hard) of discriminating against ‘image’ and ‘informational’ advertising – for instance classified ads are clearly in the latter category. Anyway, it’s all pretty academic as no-politician is likely to fancy a fight with media proprietors.


  4. Nick – Does this assume that buying image (via the images created by ad campaigns) is intrinsically bad? Why are these images worse than other possible sources of image, such as political or religious affiliation?


  5. Promoting happiness has become another reason for supporting steep progressive income taxation, or rather, to make income tax more progressive that it otherwise would be. While this may not actually increase happiness, it provides lefties with a rationale that sounds more contemporary than simply arguing for high tax on normal equity grounds.


  6. I have a much simpler way of raising happiness: just put some SSRIs in the water supply.

    Incidentally, who is Nicholsa Gruen?


  7. “advertising seems like a good thing to tax – especially if you can find a way (surely not that hard) of discriminating against


  8. “Should governments try to make us happy?” Oooh – I don’t like these sorts of questions, because they’re very slippery. Firstly, what is meant by “happiness”? And the major question is, what are the desired functions of government?

    To me, happiness is a personal thing – I know if I’m happy and I have a good idea as to the sort of things that lead to me being happy, but I couldn’t say the same about anyone else. The causes of happiness are not necessarily the same for everyone or even a large number of people. Notwithstanding that, there may be things (eg doing a purposeful activity) which is a large happiness factor for many people.

    I don’t want any government to help me to be “happy” – that’s for me. Maybe a much better thing is for governments to help people to get to the point where they can have many more opportunities open to them (I’m thinking here basic skills or education), so they can have the chance of achieving whatever goals they have. Sorry Andrew, this might be off-topic, but I’d say a better question than the nebulous “happiness” one is what government can do to help people have opportunities. No doubt this reflects my own perspective (!).

    One could say that having opportunities could be attempting to have a greater happiness – maybe it is, but it seems much more well-defined to me.

    Nice blog Andrew 🙂


  9. I thought your quote was the most incisive in a generally disappointing article. If the New York Review of Books were doing this, they would have asked someone who had been thinking hard about these issues for several years (eg. you), to review the recent spate of books by Layard etc. Instead, the analysis drifted around like a dinner party conversation, and was often disconnected from the academic research, at times surprisingly so (eg. the stuff about East Germany is utterly at odds with the work of QUT academic Paul Frijters that was published last year in the American Economic Review).

    I like your list of reasons why happiness shouldn’t be a government goal. I had a go at answering the question recently, and focused on the problems of the habituation effect – because we get used to increases in living standards (indoor plumbing, lower infant mortality), they cease to make us happier.


  10. Andrew

    Interesting post.

    I agree with you about this being an intellectually stimulating topic uncertain policy relevance.

    What I find a worry is the weight of dubious proposals and poor research (taxation on advertising; increasing income tax because of “status pollution” and the hedonic treadmill; slow down micro reform because too much choice makes us unhappy; the happy planet index) that the current interest in happiness/subjective wellbeing generates.

    In the vein of checking the idea that advertising makes us unhappy, I’ve recently stumbled on some cross country data on advertising expenditure (ad spend in 75 countries 1998/99-2002/03) that I am comparing with subjective well-being data. I’ll let you know if I make progress on this – it’s in a mixture of currencies and some of the data looks dodgy. That said on my first inspection there seems to be a positive correlation between advertising expenditure as a share of GDP and mean Life Satisfaction score in the world values survey.

    Is anyone aware of any similar research?

    Whyisitso – I agree that advertising gets a bum wrap. A lot of it is awful and the object is for companies to sell as much as possible of their product. That said providing they are not misleading and the market is not distorted, the ad industry’s pursuit of its self interest should be welfare enhancing as it will help discovery of new products and choice. This is why I feel annoyed by much of the current debate about banning junk food advertising – it’s too blunt, not anywhere near the main cause of childhood obesity and could stunt promotion of “healthier” junk food.


  11. Stephen, I’d be very interested in any link you may have on this cross-country data on advertsing. I have to address a discussion group on “How Necessary is Commercial Advertising?” in a fortnight, and this sort of info would be of assistance.


  12. Whyisitso

    My search for data trawled up a lot of links to very expensive marketing information sites. Since I have no budget for research (I am on leave without pay while I am overseas) the only readily available source I have found is from the World Advertising Research Center – see the link below.

    I’m not sure how reliable the data is, it’s in a mix of currencies and note it is also copyright. Here is the link:

    My initial examination indicates a quite weak but positive relationship between advertising spending per unit of GDP and Life satisfaction. I have not yet tested for statistical significance. This is all very preliminary and should be treated with caution (there may be a few methodological issues as richer countries are usually happier than poorer ones and there is more advertising in richer countries) – I am no econometrician. I am just curious about some of these bads that the commentariat keeps throwing up in the pursuit of understanding happiness.

    On the last point, I note that Layard’s book on happiness lays into advertising but cites no sources on the link between happiness and advertising (the footnotes lead nowhere on this).

    In the overview of “Culture and subjective wellbeing” (edited by Diener and Suh), they suggest a study of advertising and SWB might be interesting on the grounds that as subjective well being is fairly high even in countries with limited resources, this suggests that when expectations are low and/or when people have relatively low levels of desires for things that require resources, they will still have high SWB. They argue that this is the opposite of what advertising does.


  13. Stephen – I am not aware of previous attempts to do this kind of correlational research, though I think the anti-advertising argument is (or at least can be) a little more subtle than saying all advertising is bad. If it was (as whyisitso assumes) purely informational, then it might be thought to be annoying to have all these messages coming at you, but no worse than that. But the main objections is that advertising creates wants that we would not have had otherwise, and which we would have been content without feeling, ie it disrupts the stasis that people like Hamilton want.


  14. Andrew

    my post that has gone astray touches on your point about creation of wants.

    Diener and Suh in the overview of “Culture and Subjective Wellbeing” suggest that high levels of satisfaction in poorer countries suggests that even when expectations are low and/or when people have relatively low level of desire for things that require resources they will have high SWB. They suggest this supports the Buddhist emphasis on limited desires leading to nirvana. They go on to state that this is the opposite of what advertising does and suggest that a study of expenditures on advertising would be interesting.

    I’m not too sure that Hamilton’s treatment of the issue is that subtle, given the Australia Institute arbitrarily deducts half of advertising spending from their well-being index.

    Another point raised in the missing post was that Layard in “Happiness Lessons From A New Science” none too subtlety lambasts advertising but cites no references.

    There may be a problem with the correlation I cited to the extent that happiness tends to be higher in richer countries and advertising expenditure also tends to be higher in such countries.

    Is there some other way of getting the link I mentioned to Whyisitso?


  15. Stephen – Thanks for the link; your comment was in the spam filter for some reason.

    Due to the multiple routes to well-being, it is at least possible that both theories are right to an extent. In Western growth socieities, there are pleasures in anticipation and achieving goals. Even if adaptation means that the well-being boost on getting what we want does not last long, we quickly move on to the next thing, so average well-being is always high. In other societies with strong social structures, the steady-state might work, particularly if there are few temptations or (through belief systems like Buddhism) people train themselves to ignore them.

    A trouble with Hamilton’s argument is that he assumes that in the West that because we are happy with our current levels of consumption, there is no need for more. But this assumes that well-being is a static rather than dynamic thing; in the West it is at least partly dynamic. This is why without economic growth I think well-being would decline even if income remained the same: we are used to novelty, and giving it up would be painful.


  16. At the risk of being pedantic … one might agree with Andrew that government is best placed to affect material incentives, but the quote from the SMH was about what the government’s prime objective should be – happiness or wealth? Surely, in a situation where there is a conflict between the two, the government should choose among options with maximum happiness in mind – for example, it should tax or regulate air pollution sources in cities, with the aim of maximising happiness, even though doing so may well result in lower material wealth. This, of course, is simply standard economics.

    All Andrew’s long list of problems with government action to maximise happiness indicates is that it should be cautious about intervening in many areas of life – ie, that government failure is often likely to outweigh market failure in those areas. I agree.

    But that is an argument about what is the best option for government to take in pursuit of its objective; ie, whether to intervene or whether doing nothing will be best for happiness.


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