Can We Really Measure Happiness?

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The Wall Street Journal's Carl Bialik reports on skepticism about the meaning of surveys of happiness, now equally popular among the left and right. Lord Layard, cited by Mr. Bialik, believes that high taxes make people happier by discouraging them from the neurotic pursuit of competitive acquisition:

We may have less money. But so will everybody else. If my child cannot buy the latest trainers, nor can his friends. So he may not feel so bad after all.

Prime Minister Cameron is imposing massive service cuts and tax increases in the interest of deficit reduction. Perhaps he hopes the socialist peer is right, that voters will thank him for curbing their wanton spending and guiding them toward a simpler, more joyous lifestyle.

But there's more. The Nobel laureate psychologist Daniel Kahneman and his collaborators have found that there are two kinds of happiness -- how you evaluate your life, and how you experience it from hour to hour, often very different. See his TED 2010 talk. And the political use of happiness surveys invites possibly unwelcome feedback. Wouldn't voters' calculations about the political impact of a happiness survey affect their responses?

Rather than ask people about their feelings, which are probably multidimensional anyway, it would be better to balance GDP with other measurements of  well-being. The French live longer than the Danes, for example, but report their health as worse.

(I blogged about other sides of this issue last year.)

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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