Pursuing Happiness — How the Mood of a Nation Can Change Government
Derek Bok’s New Book on Happiness
Former Harvard president argues that governments could use happiness research to set public policy.
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The Fiscal Times
March 19, 2010

Economic psychology is a term few people know about or can define. But it’s gaining traction among the elite as a way to marry abstract economic theory with public happiness and behavior. In business and finance, behavioral models based on happiness and well being can predict market swings and consumer sentiment, and prompt people to buy a new product or service. For politicians, the stakes are even higher. Used effectively, economic psychology can help win elections, get legislation passed, and start or end wars.

In his new book, The Politics of Happiness: What Government Can Learn from the New Research on Well Being (Princeton University Press, $24.95), former Harvard president Derek Bok makes a reasoned argument that governments could use happiness research to determine public policy. Bok notes that most individuals are not very good at understanding exactly what makes them happy. And while “heredity probably accounts at most for 50 percent of one’s happiness level, ample room remains to affect well-being through human intervention. The acts and policies of government are one means by which that well-being may be influenced.”

Read our interview with the author:

TheFiscalTimes (TFT): Why did you write The Politics of Happiness?

Derek Bok: I’ve been intrigued since the 1970s that you can actually use empirical methods to study something as subjective and elusive as happiness. For years I couldn’t do more with my interest in this subject than read the literature on it -- I was involved in academic administration. Now that I’ve been able to dig into the growing body of research, I was struck by what it might mean for public policy.

TFT: What does it mean, in your view?

Bok: Well, I think it's a little premature for us to do what the tiny Buddhist nation of Bhutan has done, which is to make happiness a kind of focus of public policy. The field is still young and a number of points still need to be worked out. But we should at least take the happiness research more seriously. We should publish statistics about the trends in happiness and get a conversation going. As the field matures, I think it would be a very useful source of information and enlightenment. Happiness is the thing that most people would most like to have -- more than power or success or a lot of other things like that. So a representative democracy should take notice.

Happy people are more creative. They live longer. They're less likely to become depressed or commit suicide or get into drug or alcohol abuse. Happy people tend to be good for society. They have strong marriages, do a lot for other people, get involved in civic affairs, believe in democracy, and participate in democracy. All the more reason for government to promote it.

TFT: Yet different things make different people happy. Good physical health -- that seems to be important across the board.

Bok: Yes. And this is one of the virtues of happiness research: It can identify things that are more important to our happiness than we realize, which is why policymakers are likely to overlook them. When you get into the area of health, although many negative health experiences can be adapted to -- losing an arm, let’s say -- some things simply continue to produce dissatisfaction for as long as they last. And one of those is problems with sleep, which so many Americans have. If you haven't had a good night's sleep, you’ll be more affected by that the next day than by almost anything else. That surprised me. But we have it on the authority of no less than psychologist Daniel Kahneman, who won the Nobel Prize for his research on prospect theory in 2002. When he called people several times a day to find out what they were doing and how they were feeling, he learned that the quality of their sleep had more to do with how they felt than any other factor.

TFT: In the same vein, you suggest in your book that employers who fire people should treat them better in order to lessen their pain. Connect the dots here: What is the relevance to happiness and public policy?

Bok: The research shows that losing a job is one of the things that produces not just momentary unhappiness, but long-lasting and even permanent unhappiness. Losing income is really the minor part of this. Most of it has to do with the loss of self-esteem, that you're somehow a failure in the eyes of others. Even if you later get a job at the same rate of pay, the attack on your well-being persists. Scars remain. If that's true, then we need to take the way we handle unemployment and layoffs very seriously.

Managing Editor Maureen Mackey oversees scheduling and work flow and also writes and edits features and reports on a wide array of subjects. She spent more than 20 years as a senior book and features editor at Reader’s Digest.