The Official Pursuit of Happiness

CAMBRIDGE – In a time of tight budgets and financial crisis, politicians nowadays look to economic growth as the centerpiece of their domestic policy programs. Gross domestic product is taken to be the leading indicator of national well-being. But, as we look ahead to 2011 and beyond, we should ask ourselves: is it really wise to accord such importance to growth?

Granted, many studies have confirmed that wealthier nations tend to be happier than poor ones, and that rich people are generally more satisfied than their less affluent fellow citizens. Yet other findings from several relatively well-to-do countries, such as South Korea and the United States, suggest that people there are essentially no happier today than they were 50 years ago, despite a doubling or quadrupling of average per capita income.

Moreover, in a recent Canadian study, the happiest people turned out to reside in the poorest provinces, such as Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, while citizens in the richest provinces, notably Ontario and British Columbia, were among the least happy. Since happiness is ultimately what people want the most, while wealth is only a means to that end, the primacy now accorded to economic growth would appear to be a mistake.

What seems clear from such research is that people do quite poorly at predicting what will make them happy or sad. They focus too much on their initial responses to changes in their lives and overlook how quickly the pleasure of a new car, a pay increase, or a move to sunnier climes will fade, leaving them no happier than before. It is hazardous, therefore, for politicians simply to rely on opinion polls and focus groups to discover what will truly enhance people’s happiness.