Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Which is the more appropriate policy objective: opportunity or contentment?

The Pursuit of HappinessCarol Graham’s new book, ‘The Pursuit of Happiness’, makes an important contribution to consideration of the relevance of happiness research to government policy because it considers explicitly which dimensions of happiness are most relevant as public policy objectives. Happiness researchers have previously argued in favour of particular definitions of happiness - for example positive feelings, emotional well-being, satisfaction with life, capability or opportunity – without much consideration of the relevance of their favoured definitions to public policy.

Early in the book, Carol suggests: ‘A plausible assumption is that most societies would be interested in maximizing the number of citizens who believed they were leading purposeful lives but less concerned about how often people had smiled yesterday. Yet even that statement reflects normative priors that might not apply to all cultures and societies, some of which might emphasize the importance of contentment in day-to-day living more’ (p.30).

Near the end, she comes to the conclusion that a policy that aims to guarantee contentment to all citizens, rather than the opportunity to pursue a fulfilling life, ‘might be unacceptable in most societies’ (p 122). Carol also acknowledges that measures of subjective well-being can contribute to better government policies by making policy process better informed, irrespective of whether any particular dimension of happiness is pursued explicitly as a national objective.

The public policy choice between pursuit of contentment and widespread opportunity is characterised in this book as a choice between Bentham and Aristotle, with Bentham in favour of maximizing the contentment (or pleasure) of the greatest number and Aristotle in favour of maximizing the number of people who have the opportunity to lead a meaningful life (i.e. to flourish). This might be a little unfair to Bentham, who held that utility includes anything that ‘tends to produce benefit, advantage, pleasure, good or happiness’, which would certainly encompass the opportunity to lead a meaningful life. Nevertheless, many Benthamites have tended to equate happiness with pleasure and even J S Mill, who sought to distinguish between the merits of higher and lower pleasures, saw both tranquillity (contentment) and excitement as the main constituents ‘of a satisfied life’.

The opportunity to lead a meaningful life implies agency, which Carol defines as ‘the capacity to make choices and act on them’ (p 41). She perceives individual agency to be limited by income, education and information constraints as well as institutional constraints, i.e. by all factors that limit individual opportunity.

So, doesn’t greater agency or opportunity lead to greater contentment? Not necessarily. Carol points out that people with limited wealth often report being very happy while people who are in the process of obtaining higher levels of wealth (frustrated achievers) often report feeling miserable. She suggests that the way people answer happiness questions in surveys is to a large extent determined by their agency. The process of acquiring agency may produce short term unhappiness because of uncertainty associated with the adjustment process (e.g. in relocation away from family and friends) and if expectations of a more fulfilling life do not materialize this could result in lasting unhappiness.

Doesn’t this make contentment a more appropriate objective than agency? If the peasants are happy with their lives as they are, why seek to improve the opportunities available to them? I think Carol provides a good answer to these questions. She points out that while adaptation to circumstances is usually positive from an individual psychological perspective, it can lead to collective tolerance for a bad equilibrium. For example, crime and corruption have less effect on subjective well-being in countries where crime and corruption have become an entrenched feature of society. This should not make it any less desirable to reduce crime and corruption in such places.

The numerous examples that Carol draws from her research experience to illustrate the points she is making help make this book a pleasure to read. Readers are told about happy peasants and frustrated achievers in Latin America; about survey respondents in Afghanistan who are apparently happier than the world average despite objective conditions that are markedly worse; about migrants who are markedly less happy than the average for the countries they have migrated to; and about obese people who are less happy than the non-obese, but much less unhappy when there are more obese people around them.

My only reservation about the book is that I am not persuaded that the unhappy growth paradox – lower average happiness in countries with relatively high rates of economic growth after controlling for per capita income levels – is largely attributable to unhappiness associated with the process of acquiring agency. As I have suggested before, I think the unhappy growth phenomenon might disappear if researchers could control for wealth rather than income levels. The appearance of unhappy growth might largely reflect the influence on well-being of wealth (reflected in quality of housing, financial assets, human capital, public infrastructure, social capital etc.) which may take several decades to accumulate.

However, that is a minor reservation. I have no hesitation in recommending this book to anyone who is interested in the role of government in the pursuit of happiness.

A recent conference presentation by Carol Graham on 'Happiness around the World: The Paradox of Happy Peasants and Miserable Millionaires' is available here.


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