The Hazards of Happiness Research

My new Cato Policy Analysis, “In Pursuit of Happiness Research: Is It Reliable? What Does It Imply for Policy,” was released today. If you’re wondering why we need long papers about the hazards of happiness research, look no further than Bill McKibben’s new essay in Mother Jones:

According to new research emerging from many quarters, … our continued devotion to growth above all is, on balance, making our lives worse, both collectively and individually. Growth no longer makes most people wealthier, but instead generates inequality and insecurity. Growth is bumping up against physical limits so profound—like climate change and peak oil—that trying to keep expanding the economy may be not just impossible but also dangerous. And perhaps most surprisingly, growth no longer makes us happier.

There’s about five kinds of wrong in this one short passage. One of them is generated by the fact that McKibben is apparently ignorant of the most recent work on happiness – much of which directly contradicts his claim that we are not getting happier with growth. You’ll find the up-to-date scoop in my new paper. (Here’s a bite-sized taste.)

If you’re worried about this whole business about measuring happiness and using the results to determine public policy, you’re not alone. Darrin McMahon in the elegant lead essay of this month’s Cato Unbound casts a skeptical eye over the entire enterprise. But in today’s installment, Swarthmore psychologist Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less comes to the defense of the politics of happiness, and argues (in the McKibben vein), that more wealth can actually make us worse off. Is it true? Tune in to Cato Unbound on Friday when Ruut Veenhoven, Director of the World Database of Happiness, will drop the latest data.

Or, if you’re anxious, you can get plenty of secondhand Veenhoven in my paper.