The government is planning to measure happiness regularly, delivering on David Cameron’s promise to pay more attention to general well-being.
I welcome this (with a big caveat I‘ll come to), but I’m not sure Tories should, because the sort of policies that would increase happiness are rather radical. Here are four.
1. Full employment. “Unemployment has a huge, negative impact on people‘s well-being“ says Andrew Oswald. A government that wanted to increase overall well-being would pursue full employment. It’s not obvious that this is the coalition policy.
2. Urban planning. Economic research confirms what we know - that commuting long distances makes us miserable. A serious happiness policy would change this, by - for example - locating offices nearer to homes.
3. Promoting marriage and friendship. Good marriages (pdf) and friends (pdf) make us happier, so happiness policy would encourage these. But how? The answer is not (just) tax breaks - as these merely convert couples from long-term cohabitees to marrieds. Instead, what is required are social institutions that improve the matching function between singles. I’m not sure what this entails - less commuting? more leisure? less social mobility?- but the answer might not be business-friendly.
4. Increased autonomy. Professor Oswald points out that well-being “is if anything diminishing through time.” One reason for this, he suggests, is to be found in Francis Green’s work (pdf), which shows that job satisfaction is falling as task discretion declines and effort increases.
This chimes in with work by Bruno Frey and Alois Stutzer, which shows that “procedural utility” matters. One implication of this is that happiness increases if we have more control over our political affairs and over our working environment.
In these senses, then, happiness policy is leftist policy.
Except for one thing. There’s also good evidence that religious people are happier, which suggests that happiness-enhancing policies would encourage religious belief and church-going.
And herein lies a clue as to what might be wrong with happiness policy. Happiness might be increased by cultivating false beliefs, by encouraging people to take Huxleyesque soma which inoculates them against the world‘s evils. If happiness were all, it would be better to be stupidly content than rationally dissatisfied. Which tells us that happiness should not be all.