A Short Blog Post on a Very Big Question: Well-Being and Policy

Here in the UK, a general election looms. Key themes are common to every western democracy, albeit with a few local characteristics; that is, economic growth, prosperity (narrowly defined around income and wealth), inequality (median wage growth or the lack thereof) and, to a degree, well-being (in the UK’s case proxied by arguments over the NHS). Climate change and the environment will be foot-noted at best.

So could we do better? Emphatically, yes.

To commence with, every politician (and, in fact, everyone), regardless of political persuasion, should read the report “Well-Being and Policy” published by the Legatum Institute last year. The executive summary is here and the full report here. Note the report is written by a suite of top-ranked economists including Angus Deaton and Richard Layard.

The report makes a compelling case that the young discipline of ‘well-being and happiness’ has now matured sufficiently to drive policy. Following from this, my recommendation is that every party organises its manifesto around the three major types of happiness set out in the report (and for the last few years in this blog):

  1. Life satisfaction: how we evaluate our lives
  2. Affect: the daily positive feelings (happiness, joy, contentment) and negative feelings (anger, sadness, fear, depression and so on) we experience
  3. Eudaimonia: whether we feel our lives are meaningful

Where does GDP, income and wealth show up in the above trilogy? They show up quite a lot in life satisfaction, but not so much in affect and eudaimonia. So let’s just drill down into life satisfaction a bit more. We can see its principal components here (click for larger image):

Impact of Policy A upon Life Satisfaction jpeg

For simplicity, let us ignore the eudaimonia and affect forms of happiness and presuppose that policy was purely aimed at the life satisfaction and its determinants as detailed above.

Measured against this new metric, a government could embark on a green agenda that made the UK totally fossil fuel free by, say, 2030 as long as sufficient improvements were made with respect to well-being as it relates to employment, education, family, community, environment, physical heath and mental health such that this offsets any loss in well-being from income. If this were possible, then we would have made a net positive policy choice. In short, we can have our cake and eat it: a society with a higher level of well-being and a society that isn’t destroying the well-being of future generations.

Actually, it gets even easier than that. The entire system as it stands is built around valuing consumption as the main driver of happiness. How many adverts over the last month have you seen admonishing you to cultivate an allotment as opposed to buying an SUV? Yet the evidence in the happiness literature is quite specific: engaging in a community recreational pursuit has a far greater impact on happiness than, say, purchase of a new car (on the impact of auto purchases, see here). Indeed, it is somewhat miraculous that non-monetary forms of happiness have survived the onslaught of a system that values nothing that cannot be bought.

Traditionally, economics has gone with the maxim of revealed preference; that is, look at what people do, not what they say. In short, if they are doing it, by definition it is making them happier. But psychological studies (and more recently economic studies) show that the link between what people do and whether what they do makes them happy is far more tenuous.

Let’s take cigarettes. A study by Gruber and Mullainathan demonstrated that by taxing cigarettes, the government made smokers happier by forcing them to cut down or stop smoking. By extension, in a world where we are continually persuaded to consume, we may work excessively and incur too much debt. By constricting our consumption choices, the government could actually make us use our time to secure far superior sources of happiness than those just founded on the acquisition of consumer goods.

In conclusion, what every politician should be peddling is growth in well-being–everything else is irrelevant.

One response to “A Short Blog Post on a Very Big Question: Well-Being and Policy

  1. Every politician thinksthey are promoting growth in well-being. The problem is that there are conflicting claims as to how that can be done, especially while trying to honor commitments to individual liberty found in most country’s organizing documents.

    Our modern political economy gives huge numbers of people the freedom and means to change what they do in pursuit of their own well-being. People today have far more flexibility in that regard than those who lived only a hundred years ago. That many are unsuccessful is a shame, but this is about as good as it gets.

    For many of the reasons discussed here on this blog, life will soon get harder and harder, options will narrow and disappear, people will suffer and die. For all its drawbacks, we will soon look back on these years as still being part of a golden age of material wonder and personal freedom.

    I don’t expect any politician will help prepare us for our diminishing prospects. They will only grudgingly react after the fact, if even then. So I am preparing as well as I can for the end of these decades of vast affluence. I hope to survive it, but I think I will miss these times more than a little.

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