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The suspicious science behind 'happiness' surveys

Columbia University Professor Jeffrey Sachs, perhaps the world’s leading “sustainability” guru, has a favorite country when talking about progress: the tiny mountain Kingdom of Bhutan. 

As he points out, “Forty years ago, Bhutan’s fourth king, young and newly installed, made a remarkable choice: Bhutan should pursue ‘gross national happiness’ (GNH) rather than gross national product.” 

Yet this is the same king who presided over what was essentially a medieval theocracy until his abdication in 2008. 

If that seems at odds with the idea of the nation pursuing “happiness,” it should. There are all sorts of problems with attempts to formalize the pursuit of happiness as if it were a science.

Individuals know how to augment their own happiness better than any public officials acting on their behalf.

The central question in making happiness the focus of government decision-making is: How do you measure it? Proponents of happiness research have developed metrics and indices which they say are firmly grounded in the scientific method. When you lift the stone, however, all sorts of unpleasantness are revealed. These measures are essentially subjective.

In a new study from the Competitive Enterprise Institute, “What is the Happiness Lobby? Growing Body of Questionable Research Lends Support to Paternalistic Policies,” Blake Taylor and I take a stick and prod around in these metrics. What we find isn’t pretty.


The first measure in assessing happiness is obtained by asking people how happy they are. Yet the questions that are commonly asked in such surveys are vague and unscientific, like:

  • Taken altogether, how would you say that things are these days?
  • Do you think of yourself as very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?
  • Have you felt you are playing a useful part in things?

The answers to these questions cannot be empirically tested or verified. They are subject to all sorts of vagaries up to and including what mood the person being questioned is in.

Moreover, in an attempt to quantify the responses, they are normally coded on a scale from one to ten or even from one to three. 

An obvious problem presents itself: What happens to respondents who say they are “very happy,” thus receiving the top mark on the scale, but then their situation improves? 

The indices, quite simply, have a built-in bias against measuring improvements in people’s condition. A person at the top of the scale who feels worse when asked a question for a second time will drive his ranking down, but one who feels happier will have no effect.

Yet these dubious measures aren’t the only ones included in happiness indices. Other measures judged by the researchers to affect quality of life go into the mix, yet the selection of those measures is subjective by itself. 

For instance, the OECD Better Life Index contains two measures of the effects of crime: the homicide rate and the assault rate. 

Measuring the assault rate depends on accurate reporting of such crimes (which may be inadequate in countries with ineffective or corrupt police forces), and is therefore problematic in itself. 

However, the category is obviously incomplete as there is no measure of property crime. Someone who has his or her meager belongings stolen regularly is unlikely to be happy, even when subjected to no other crimes.

Even if these measures were meaningful, it is difficult to see how they can helpfully inform public policy. 

Presumably, they could be used to promote some activities and restrict or prohibit others on the basis of whether they seem to increase or decrease happiness. This, however, runs slap bang into what Nobel Prize winning economist Friederich Hayek called “the knowledge problem.” Individuals know how to augment their own happiness better than any public officials acting on their behalf.

Finally, these indices, which normally show that the Western world has not become happier since the 1940s, plainly miss something. Not only are we healthier and wealthier and more educated, but our society has changed fundamentally for the better in a lot of ways. 

American society has improved leaps and bounds in terms of extending rights and freedoms to previously disenfranchised citizens. None of this is reflected in the measures that happiness researchers like to cite.

The people of Bhutan have recognized this as well. 

In the first peaceful transition of power under the new democracy there, a government was elected that declares itself “happiness skeptical.” 

The new Prime Minister Tshering Togbay, facing crippling debt levels, recently said that, "If the government of the day were to spend a disproportionate amount of time talking about GNH rather than delivering basic services, then it is a distraction."

Looks like we can learn something from Bhutan, after all.

Iain Murray is director of the Center for Economic Freedom at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.