Great news. 'Happiness research" might be having an effect on policy in just a few more decades, according to the New York Times. Instead of pursuing happiness, we will be entitled to it, and guided to it by wiser minds.
The era of laissez-faire happiness might be coming to an end. Some
prominent economists and psychologists are looking into ways to measure
happiness to draw it into the public policy realm. Thirty years from
now, reducing unhappiness could become another target of policy, like
cutting poverty... [I]f the object of public policy is to maximize society’s well-being,
more attention should be placed on fostering social interactions and
less on accumulating wealth. If growing incomes are not increasing
happiness, perhaps we should tax incomes more to force us to devote
less time and energy to the endeavor and focus instead on the more
satisfying pursuit of leisure.
Thirty years gives me plenty of time to collect my own thoughts on the subject, assuming that's OK with the authorities. Meanwhile, Martin Wolf's take on the subject gives me a warm contented feeling. Why strive to say it any better? Spare me another intellectual arms race and all the negative externalities that go with it.
Where, then, does this new line of analysis take us? Personally, I find its philosophical and scientific underpinnings far from persuasive. But even if one goes along with it, the implications for policy seem far more ambiguous than social democrats believe. The findings are an assault on modernity itself, not just the forms of modernity the left dislikes.
I also see little here to undermine core principles of classical liberalism: people should be largely free to make their own choices, mindful of their obligations to others, except where those choices are harmful; gross domestic product should not be the overriding objective of policy; a big effort should be made to eliminate extreme poverty from the world; and the state should focus on remedying harms, while avoiding adding to them. But governments cannot make us happy. Happiness is something we have to pursue - and perhaps never find - for ourselves.