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Happiness should be a top government priority, expert says

September 28, 2011|By Karen Kaplan, Los Angeles Times/For the Booster Shots blog
  • The psychological well-being of nations is more important than their economic output, an economist writes in Thursday's edition of the journal Nature.
The psychological well-being of nations is more important than their economic… (EPA/ARMIN WEIGEL )

Someday in the not-too-distant future, the U.S. departments of Defense, Health and Human Services, Justice and Labor could be joined be a new executive branch entity: The Department of Happiness.

That’s right. There’s a growing movement among economists and other researchers to make the psychological well-being of citizens a major government priority. The first step, they say, is to come up with a way to measure a nation’s happiness. Ideally they’d like to be able to boil it all down into a single statistic that will resonate with voters – think of it as a mental health equivalent of GDP or the unemployment rate.

If this all sounds ridiculously far-fetched, consider that the U.S. government is already “taking steps to measure quality of life,” according to a commentary published in Thursday’s edition of the journal Nature. So are government officials in Britain, Germany, China, France, Australia, Ecuador, Italy and Spain.

The biggest hurdle, writes Charles Seaford, head of the Center for Well-being at the New Economics Foundation in London, is figuring out how to define happiness:

Psychologists see it as ‘good functioning’ or the meeting of psychological needs, an approach that emphasizes relationships, autonomy, competence and purpose. Economists use more abstract terms such as ‘happiness’ or ‘utility.’

We do know that maximizing happiness doesn’t always correspond with maximizing a country’s economic output. For instance, an economic boom may be good for your bank account but the chaos it can cause may be bad for your sense of inner peace. A study published last year in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that money didn’t buy much happiness for Americans who already earned at least $75,000 a year.

If policymakers were to prioritize happiness over economic growth, they might favor policies aimed at keeping employment stable and unemployment low instead of policies that helped companies maximize their profits. They might also do more to protect the environment and preserve open spaces even if that meant sacrificing a few ticks of GDP, Seaford writes.

Seaford and his colleagues at the New Economics Foundation are already gathering data on happiness in Britain. In April, he explains, the Office of National Statistics added four questions to its Integrated Household Survey to assess “how satisfied people are with their lives; how happy they were yesterday; how anxious they were yesterday; and how worthwhile they think the things they do are.”

To goal is to create a well-being index that is easy for regular folks to understand. “Unless voters care, politicians won’t care. And voters won’t care without a number – a measure that tells them how thigns have been going and might be projected to the future,” Seaford writes.

The full essay is available online only to Nature subscribers, but you can read a summary of it here.

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