What Is the Happiness Lobby?

Growing Body of Questionable Research Lends Support to Paternalistic Policies

In recent years, there has been an explosion in published research into the causes and implications of happiness. The field of happiness research has grown enormously since the 1974 publication of a study by University of Southern California economist Richard Easterlin that found that higher income in the United States between 1946 and 1970 was not accompanied by greater happiness among the population. For years, happiness research remained an academic field. But recently, a growing movement has sought to use the results of this research to influence public policy, by both government and intergovernmental organizations. Examples of such efforts include United Nations Resolution 65/2011, the Sarkozy Commission in France, the OECD Better Life Index, the Happy Planet Index, and various British government initiatives.

An example of the rationale behind the use of happiness research in policy comes from the Office of National Statistics in the United Kingdom, which states: “The aim is that these new measures will cover the quality of life of people in the UK, environmental and sustainability issues, as well as the economic performance of the country.” It further adds: “Measuring national well-being will provide a more coherent measure of ‘how the country is doing’ than standalone measures such as GDP.”

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. 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. Some states in the U.S. have already gone down this path by measuring a Genuine Progress Indicator as a means of attempting to gauge the population’s success.  

However, there are several reasons why such metrics are unlikely to provide a coherent measure of “how the country is doing.” This approach would introduce significant greater subjectivity into an area that needs to be as objective as possible for it to be of any use.

This paper outlines the methodological and political problems with use of happiness measures for political purposes.