Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Nature Commentary on Legislating the Good Life

The latest issue of Nature has this interesting Commentary piece on the importance of turning to the science of happiness/wellbeing to guide public policy rather than simply assuming sound public policy can be equated with the goal of maximizing economic growth.

Here is a sample:

This interest in well-being — and its subjective measurement — is good news. Economic growth is just one of many tools for bringing about good lives. Political decisions involve trade-offs — between, say, fostering economic growth and stable communities, or agreeable urban landscapes. The traditional focus on gross domestic product (GDP) as a target biases these decisions. The result is lower levels of public well-being than could be the case if people's quality of life was the priority. As economic activity places a greater strain on the environment than many other routes to happiness — such as spending time with one's family — this bias is also bad for sustainability (see 'Good lives needn't cost the Earth').

There are two key challenges for researchers, politicians and policy-makers: first, to gather and interpret new data, so as to create a much fuller science of well-being to rival traditional economics; and second, to create public understanding of some headline measure of well-being and of the role of policy in influencing it, in order to create the political will to use the new science.

....Well-being is variously defined. Psychologists see it as 'good functioning' or the meeting of psychological needs1, an approach that emphasizes relationships, autonomy, competence and purpose. Economists use more abstract terms such as 'happiness' or 'utility'.

Social surveys over several decades have shown that economic and social policies affect aspects of well-being, however it is defined. Income correlates with well-being, but only up to a certain level, which varies between countries. In the United States, for example, earnings above US$75,000 don't add much more happiness2. Studies also reveal that loss of income is more damaging than a gain is beneficial, and unemployment is more damaging to well-being than is the consequent loss of income. Casual employment is bad for well-being, but self-employment is good, at least for those earning a decent income. Commuting is bad.