Are “Happiness” Surveys a Farce?


Washington, D.C., August 29, 2013 – Central planners have latched onto a new approach for pushing paternalistic policies – the happiness index. A new report from the Competitive Enterprise Institute takes a closer look at some of the problems with using happiness indices for political purposes.

“The idea is that if governments attach significant value to this happiness research and data, they could formulate policies that would attempt to maximize aggregate happiness,” say report authors Blake Taylor and Iain Murray. “The first step toward this central planning approach to happiness would be to supplement or replace traditional economic performance measures, such as Gross Domestic Product (GDP) with one that focuses on subjective well being.”

If that sounds like the wishful thinking of international do-gooders, the authors note that some states in the U.S. have also started down this path by putting forward a “Genuine Progress Indicator” attempting to gauge the population’s success.

The happiness lobby argues that the academic findings on which they base their policy prescriptions are firmly grounded in the scientific method, but Taylor and Murray explain how the survey questions are often arbitrary and limited.

– Use of vague and unscientific survey questions is common, such as:

  • Taken altogether, how would you say that things are these days?
  • Do you think of yourself as very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?
  • Have you felt you are playing a useful part in things?

– Use of ceilings – Survey respondents max out in measurable happiness at the highest value on a given scale, making it methodologically impossible for them to increase their score. Even if happiness increases after someone reports being “very happy,” there’s no way for the survey to reflect that increase.  But, clearly, a person can go from being “very happy” to “even happier than before.”

– Conclusions from arbitrary, incomplete data sets – Among the happiness lobby’s favorite tools are arbitrary indices to devise international happiness rankings. Examples include the New Economics Foundation’s Happy Planet Index (HPI) and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) Better Life Index. These indices are used to make conclusions about which nations perform better according to their standards of well being. The OECD claims that it has identified 11 “dimensions as being essential to well-being,” each of which is comprised of one to four criteria, for a total of 24 different metrics. However, some of the criteria are clearly subjective, arbitrary, and not internally consistent.

Yet, despite all the errors and subjective bias, the happiness lobby audaciously claims that planners know how to make individuals happy better than the individuals themselves.

The better solution, the report concludes, is that public policy be made to “accommodate the fact that all individuals have unique preferences and goals and therefore ought to be able to pursue the ends that matter most to them, with minimal interference.”

> Read the CEI OnPoint:  What is the Happiness Lobby? Growing Body of Questionable Research Lends Support to Paternalistic Policies, by Iain Murray and Blake Taylor