“Science” of Happiness Fails to Measure Up

Happiness researchers' policy prescriptions are unproven

April 11, 2007

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Happiness research, the survey-based study of subjective well-being, claims to definitively establish the correlation between European-style socialist democratic policies and happiness. Heavily regulated markets and strong egalitarian welfare state would enhance Americans’ life satisfaction, assert happiness researchers. In “In Pursuit of Happiness Research: Is It Reliable? What Does It Imply for Policy?,” one of the first systematic analyses of happiness research from a libertarian perspective, Cato policy analyst and managing editor of Cato Unbound Will Wilkinson argues that methodological flaws and an unfair reading of the evidence undermines happiness research findings.

Happiness research “falls short as good science and fails to get off the ground as an adequate ethical standard for evaluating public policy,” writes Wilkinson. It “is seriously hampered by confusion and disagreement about the definition of its subject as well as the limitations inherent in current measurement techniques,” discrediting it as an authoritative source for empirical information about happiness, he explains.                                 

If the results of happiness research, despite methodological and philosophical objections, are taken at face value, the data actually bolster the case for greater economic and social freedom as embodied by the U.S. model of relatively limited government. “In various rankings using different surveys, the United States consistently ranks from the mid-teens to the mid-twenties out of well over 200 countries — in or around the 90th percentile — in terms of average self-reported happiness. A 2005 Harris poll using the Eurobarometer questions found the U.S. to be happier than every European country, other than Denmark,” writes Wilkinson.

Nor would wealth redistribution contribute to Americans’ happiness, says Wilkinson: “If the redistributive openhandedness of the state has any effect on happiness at all, it is a surpassingly small one…. If the U.S. is less happy on average than some other nations — and it is happier than all but a handful — the scope and generosity of the welfare state has little or nothing to do with it.”

Wilkinson concludes: “if happiness research is going to be good for anything, it is not going to be for guiding well-meaning technocrats who seek to make us happier by pulling this policy lever or pushing that policy button. Rather it is going to be good for providing insight in how ‘to live wisely and agreeably and well.’ This is insight we all badly need, and it is not the government’s to give.”                                                                                                

Policy Analysis #590