In Pursuit of Happiness Research: Is It Reliable? What Does It Imply for Policy?

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Executive Summary

"Happiness research" studies the correlates ofsubjective well-being, generally through surveymethods. A number of psychologists and socialscientists have drawn upon this work recently toargue that the American model of relatively limitedgovernment and a dynamic market economycorrodes happiness, whereas Western Europeanand Scandinavian-style social democracies promoteit. This paper argues that happinessresearch in fact poses no threat to the relativelylibertarian ideals embodied in the U.S. socioeconomicsystem. Happiness research is seriouslyhampered by confusion and disagreement aboutthe definition of its subject as well as the limitationsinherent in current measurement techniques.In its present state happiness researchcannot be relied on as an authoritative source forempirical information about happiness, which, inany case, is not a simple empirical phenomenonbut a cultural and historical moving target. Yet,even if we accept the data of happiness research atface value, few of the alleged redistributive policyimplications actually follow from the evidence.The data show that neither higher rates of governmentredistribution nor lower levels of incomeinequality make us happier, whereas high levels ofeconomic freedom and high average incomes areamong the strongest correlates of subjective well-being.Even if we table the damning charges ofquestionable science and bad moral philosophy,the American model still comes off a glowing successin terms of happiness.