The declaration of independence eloquently recognizes the natural rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Life and liberty are relatively clear concepts, but happiness has flummoxed social scientists and philosophers for a long time. The plain meaning of the text would seem to refer to the freedom to pursue happiness, recognizing that definitions of happiness differ somewhat from individual to individual. For me, two hours at a Die Hard sequel is pure bliss, but for others, like those in a Susan Sontag reading circle, watching Bruce Willis rack up victories and sharp quips would be a special kind of hell.
This notion of the individual pursuit of happiness, however, is not the concern of former Harvard president Derek Bok in his new book, The Politics of Happiness: What Government Can Learn from the New Research on Well-Being. Bok tries to apply new social science research to the more abstract utilitarian question of what can bring the greatest happiness to the greatest number.
Bok’s summary of the available research is skillful and to the point. The fact is that Americans do not seem to be getting happier, and are no happier today, according to the experts, than they were in the 1950s. In addition, after a point—basically, entry into the lower middle class—increased wealth does not bring about increased happiness. People in the aggregate are poor judges of what makes them happy.
Since people can’t predict what will make them happy, Bok sets out on his own to figure it out. The book’s subtitle, which slyly substitutes the notion of “wellbeing” for happiness, gives the game away. The danger is that such an approach has the potential to yield a laundry list of his favorite policy prescriptions. In other words, “wellbeing” becomes his individual notion of what a happy society would be like.
Bok first considers the idea of economic growth and decides that promoting it does not promote happiness. So much government policy for the last half century, he argues, has been devoted to fostering constant increases in the gross domestic product that it freezes out other policy choices—including some that might promote contentment. For example, a government looking to increase the size of the economy will be less interested in conserving natural resources or minimizing pollution. In this regard, Bok should be pleased that the Obama Administration is now in charge, and he no longer has to worry unduly about policies directed toward aiding economic growth.
The rest of us, however, do have to live with the consequences of a stagnant economy and an eroding job market.
One somewhat untraditional area that Bok explores is psychology. Sleep disorders, depression, and chronic pain affect millions of Americans, and Bok thinks that a governmental focus on solving or at least ameliorating these problems would foster our collective wellbeing. With respect to sleep disorders, for example, he recommends an educational campaign to raise awareness, increased focus on the problem by medical schools, and more government funding for sleep research. For depression, he counsels, again, an awareness campaign, more focus by medical schools on the problem, and subsidies to encourage more psychiatric care and treatment. As for these subsidies, he does not say whence they should come, but Uncle Sam would clearly be on the hook. Unfortunately, Bok does not explore how trillion dollar deficits affect sleep and depression in parents and grandparents.
Though he grants that Americans tend to distrust their government and are cynical about its ability to solve problems, Bok thinks it possible to improve Washington. Among other recommendations, he suggests “sustained improvement in the quality of government officials.” But this is not an invitation to conservative reform, e.g., to increase accountability of elected officials. Instead, Bok draws from the Progressives: he wants to promote government expertise and isolate citizen input. He favors increasing our reliance on “independent” government agencies such as the Federal Election Commission and boosting public financing of political campaigns. Yet he refuses to explore the dreary historical record of such measures.
Still, he inadvertently advances an important argument. Increased wealth may not have brought about increased happiness, but neither has government spending, which increased tremendously over the past half century. Perhaps a more interesting and balanced book would have explored how the American Founders might have viewed federal happiness crusades. Such a study might have fostered appreciation for their vision of protecting Americans’ freedom to pursue happiness—among their own families and communities, and through their own challenges and triumphs.