Can happiness be legislated?

Can happiness be legislated?

Happiness can’t be legislated


LONDON – The question is topical because economists and other experts are increasingly doubting whether existing policies, such as steps to increase economic growth, really add to people’s welfare and contentment.

In fact many surveys suggest the opposite – that as societies get richer it is unhappiness, rather than happiness, that spreads as consumers have bigger incomes and spend more.

So the argument goes that enlightened governments should put less emphasis on dubious measures like gross national product and on maximizing national income, and instead do more to make people generally happier.

It is certainly true that some of society’s strongest needs, like a cleaner environment, less crime on the streets, better education and so on are already high state priorities, lying beyond the simple satisfaction of material wants.

But whether governments should go beyond these basic public tasks and attempt specific “happiness” policies is quite another issue. It is clear that some policymakers think the time has come to do just this.

In Britain, the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit has been working on possible new policies “with an explicit well-being focus,” while the leader of the Conservative opposition in Parliament, David Cameron, has called for a national measure of gross national well-being to replace gross domestic product as a policy goal.

Meanwhile, happiness research has grown in American universities, while back in Britain books have poured out on the issue, including one by professor Richard Layard, ambitiously titled “Happiness; Lessons from a New Science.”

The issue of what constitutes happiness, and whether it can be measured objectively, has been argued out among philosophers for centuries, in fact for millenniums. The idea that governments can now rise above conventional economic measures and assess scientifically what makes people happier seems deeply flawed.

Happiness may anyway mean quite different things within different cultures. For example, Japanese research suggests that Asian ideas of a satisfying lifestyle may contrast sharply with the sometimes frenzied search for the happiness goals in the more individualistic Western societies.

The truth is that no one knows the answer or ever will. Happiness is personal and determined inside each one of us, and often changing from day to day. Moreover one person’s happiness, like building a beautiful new house, or buying a glittering new car full of gadgets, or even acquiring a lovely new girlfriend, is often somebody else’s misery.

Many people just do not know what brings them happiness, and make things up if asked. The Layard book even advances the bizarre view that it is a person’s level of income relative to others that makes someone happier. So he implies that leveling out income disparities through more progressive taxation will bring more life satisfaction and feeling of well-being all round.

But there is very little evidence that this or any other ‘scientific” policy will enlarge general happiness. There is some slight evidence that as a society that is very poor grows a little richer people feel better, although other grumbles and discontents soon set in. But it is not within the power of governments to push people into being happier, and the attempt to do so can have truly ugly results.

The whole argument about happiness and the omniscient state telling people what is good for them is dangerously reminiscent of the dark ‘scientific” doctrines that led to the totalitarian systems and the fascism that so disfigured the 20th century. It shows clear signs of the technocratic itch to construct a brave new world that led to such horrific outcomes when tried.

None of this is to suggest that either governments or societies should be governed by purely material concerns, nor that conventional economic measures are a perfect guide to policy. It is right that communities should want things – such as more green open spaces and less pollution – that their own incomes cannot buy and that wise administrators should decide how best to provide.

About the only solid evidence from all the happiness data and research is that usually a stable family life, good marriage, financial security, sound health, and a feeling that people around one can be trusted do help contribute to individual happiness. Also, it appears that people with deeply held faiths and beliefs are often more content with their lot.

But these can hardly be turned into official policy objectives and provide no justification for busybody interventionists to dictate to people how to behave.

Everyone has a right to the pursuit of happiness, as the American founding fathers recognized way back in the Declaration of Independence. But it is a right to be exercised by individuals. It is not for the state authorities to determine which kind of happiness they should pursue.

Some countries have tried that. For example, the Kingdom of Bhutan outlawed television, insisted that everyone wear national dress and confined foreigners (mostly Nepalese) to camps, all in the name of maximizing gross national happiness.

This is an example that no one wants to follow, and those urging governments to adopt new happiness and well-being policies are not only foolish but also playing with danger.

They should stick with the more modest aims of ensuring freedom, true democracy and wise administration. Or lie down and rest until the impulse to intervene in these fields has passed away.

David Howell, a former British Cabinet minister and former chairman of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, is a member of the House of Lords. Contact: