Why Happiness Research Has Critics Frowning

A former Harvard president cheerleads for cheerfulness

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According to The Politics of Happiness, a new book by Derek Bok, the relationship between personal contentment and factors usually associated with it--things like income, standard of living, and the ability to meet one's goals--isn't nearly as straightforward as most people think. (Apparently, even being the president isn't an automatic pick-me-up.) Among the counter-intuitive findings that Bok points to: people in desperate poverty aren't necessarily less happy than affluent people, and a policy of pursuing economic growth may not actually contribute to a national sense of well-being.

Bok, a former president of Harvard, argues that governments should spend less time trying to maximize GDP and more time making available things like civics classes, unemployment insurance, and effective treatments for depression and sleep disorders. Research suggests that greater access to these things makes for a happier society. But a number of journalists are skeptical of Bok's methodology and his conclusions. What are some of the nits they've picked?

  • Happiness Isn't the Be-All, End All  The New Yorker's Elizabeth Kolbert reminds us that "as a long line of moral philosophers have noted, there’s more to life than subjective well-being." She riffs on Bok's finding that Americans' happiness levels have stayed more or less the same for the past half century:
Imagine, for a moment, that we had enjoyed ourselves for the past fifty years. Surely, trashing the planet is just as wrong if people take pleasure in the process as it is if they don’t. The same holds true for leaving future generations in hock and for exploiting the poor and for shrugging off inequality. Happiness is a good thing; it’s just not the only thing.
  • Chicken or Egg?  The Washington Monthly's Phillip Longman enjoys Bok's urbane prose, but finds the causal factors of happiness a bit too sticky to easily parse. "Sure, statistics may show that married people generally report being happier and healthier over their lifetimes than people who never marry," Longman writes. "But how are we to know how much of that is because happy, healthy people make more attractive marriage partners than do depressed, sickly people?"
  • Get Your Head Out of Bhutan  Bok's book has blogger DianeC "spluttering with annoyance." DianeC, a writer for The Enlightened Economist and self-described "woolly liberal," can't get past Bok's tic of invoking Bhutan, a country that molds its domestic policy based on a Gross National Happiness index. Bhutan is a favorite reference point of happiness-policy proponents, and she writes that this habit of upholding an "extremely poor and authoritarian" nation as a model for the rest of the world "drives me bananas."
  • What Would We Have to Give Up?  In an evenhanded New York Times review, Alan Wolfe recoils at Bok's idea that college students should spend more time studying the findings of happiness researchers and less time perusing the canon. Wolfe believes this isn't a path to true intellectual nourishment. "[Bok] is right to search for a more positive view of the American purpose," he writes. "To achieve that, however, we need far more than behavioral economics. Maybe we could start by reading more Plato."
  • Lost in Translation  Psychology Today blogger Joseph Juhász hoots at the practices of the researchers on whose work Bok draws. Juhász explains that happiness research is often "done cross-culturally--translating 'happy' from one language and one culture to another ... When a Hungarian says 'boldog vagyok' does he mean what an American means when he says 'I am happy'? When and Englishman says 'I am happy' does he mean what an American means when he says the 'same' words? ... Derek Bok, for reasons beyond my ken, takes this goofy literature seriously and writes a book about public policy based on such unspeakably silly research."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.