Sunday, February 27, 2011

Derek Bok’s "The Politics of Happiness"

The long tradition of political philosophy beginning with Plato thinks very rigorously about happiness, justice, and other concepts that are fundamental to a good society, but it does not do any empirical research.

Today’s social scientists do endless empirical research, but they think very little about the concepts underlying their work.

When I heard that Derek Bok, former president of Harvard, had written The Politics of Happiness, a book discussing the empirical research about happiness and the policies that we could base on it, I hoped that he might give us both empirical research and rigorous thought about concepts. But I was disappointed: he is worse than most of today’s social scientists, citing one empirical study after another, but never even trying to think clearly about the concept of happiness.

The trouble becomes obvious early in the book, when he says that Jeremy Bentham was the first to try to develop a politics of happiness by looking for policies that promote “the greatest happiness of the greatest number” (p.4). Anyone who has studied the history of philosophy knows that Bentham used the word happiness to mean pleasure: he wanted to add up the quantities of pleasure and pain that any policy caused to everyone it affected, and to adopt policies that cause the greatest net pleasure.

This focus on pleasure is very different from what is measured in many studies of happiness, which ask people how satisfied they are with their life. But throughout his book, Bok slops together pleasure and the different types of happiness that our empirical studies measure - and to loosen his conceptual grip even more, he uses “well-being” as a synonym for all of them.

There are two different types of empirical studies that claim to be about happiness.

One type asks people how happy or satisfied they are with their lives overall. Even within this type, people answer differently depending on how the question is phrased: you get different results by asking people how happy they are and by asking people how satisfied they are with their lives.

The second type is called “experience sampling.” It asks people to think back over their activities of the day and to rate each activity for how much it contributes to their happiness. This method tends to make people think about how pleasant or unpleasant each activity is as it occurs, rather than about how much it contributes in the long run to their satisfaction with their lives.

When you use experience sampling, for example, people give the time they spend on child care a very low happiness rating - lower than anything except working and commuting - and they give eating dinner a very high happiness rating. But we all know that when people look back over their lives, many think that raising their children was an important part of a satisfying life, but relatively few think that eating dinner was an important part of a satisfying life (unless it involved other activities, such as being with your family).

Taking care of your children is often difficult and sometimes annoying while you are doing it, but it can seem like a very satisfying part of your life in the long run. Eating dinner is relaxing and pleasant while you are doing it, but it does not seem all that important a part of your life in the long run. The same is true of many things: learning to play the piano, training intensively for a sport, working in a political group, writing a book, and most other activities that develop and use your skills are difficult rather than pleasant while you are doing them, but they can bring more satisfaction in the long run than pleasant and easy activities such as eating dinner.

This distinction has an important effect on policy. For example, when Bok talks about raising children, he seems to assume that happiness involves pleasant and easy activities. He accepts the studies that say Americans today have more leisure than they did a few decades ago because they spend less time on work and child care combined, apparently influenced by experience sampling studies; he recommends more spending on child care, which would give people even less time than their children. By contrast, many social critics say that our lives are less satisfying because we work such long hours that we have less time to be with our children than we did a few decades ago, thinking of happiness as long-term satisfaction.

In many cases, Bok’s imprecise concept of happiness does not have much effect on his policy recommendations. He spends much of The Politics of Happiness talking briefly about conditions that everyone agrees make people unhappy, and then talking at great length about very conventional, narrow policies to address these conditions.

For example, he says that clinical depression is much more common in the United States and Canada than in other countries; you do not need much research to know that clinical depression makes people unhappy. As a policy to make these people happier, he recommends psychotherapy and drugs - and “For those who do not respond to any of these treatments, electric shock therapy is sometimes successful” (p. 134). Shock therapy is controversial, but Bok devotes just this one sentence to it - typical of his perfunctory attention to many policy issues in the book. He makes no attempt to think about why depression is so much more common in the United States and Canada and to suggest social changes that would make them less common - typical of his narrow approach to many policies issues.

Bok is most frustrating when he deals with the subject of economic growth, because happiness research does challenge the conventional wisdom by suggesting that growth should not be our goal, but Bok’s discussion of economic policy is so conventional and so ill-informed that he says we cannot act on this research in any significant way.

He shows that, though there are some disagreements, most happiness research shows that growth does not increase happiness, and so he asks: “If it turns out to be true that rising incomes have failed to make Americans happier, as much of the recent research suggests, what is the point of working such long hours and risking environmental disaster in order to keep doubling and redoubling our Gross Domestic Product?” (p. 63) But then, after a very shallow discussion of the economic issues involved, he concludes that we cannot slow growth significantly.

For example, he says that “America is such a major market for other nations that stopping expansion or even slowing it severely could easily throw the world into recession” (p. 72). He does not even mention all the studies showing that our continued growth could drive resource prices up enough to cause scarcity in developing nations and could cause global warming that brings crop failures to hundreds of millions of people. Bill Clinton recently made the point that our use of corn ethanol to power our cars is contributing to world hunger by driving up the price of grain, but Bok does not even consider the economic effects of this sort of competition for resources. He also does not consider whether developing nations could base their growth primarily on their own markets, as Western nations did, rather than being so dependent totally on the American market. He devotes only one paragraph - a total of three sentences - to these issues.

He also says that “There is also little reason to believe that many countries would agree to follow America’s lead in stopping growth. India, China, and other developing nations with per capita incomes far below ours would surely be reluctant to do so” (p. 72). If he looked at the numbers, he would see that slowing growth in the developing nations alone could make an important contribution to controlling global warming. He would also see that, if their current growth rates continue, China will reach America’ current levels of per capita income in a few decades, and India will follow a couple of decades later. Then the billions of people in those two nations will face the same issue that Americans face now: should they continue to promote rapid growth even though it does not contribute to their own happiness and threatens environmental disaster? Their answer to that question will determine whether the world faces environmental collapse by the end of the century, but Bok is blissfully ignorant of all these facts. He devotes one paragraph of four sentences to these issues.

He also does not consider -and seems never to have heard of - the most important policy measure that could slow our economic growth and increase our happiness: giving workers the choice of working shorter hours with the same hourly earnings, a policy already adopted in the Netherlands and Germany.

This policy could slow growth significantly. In 1950, Dutch workers worked longer hours than American workers, but now they work only 70% - 75% as many hours per year as American workers. Because they choose more free time rather than more income and consumption, they have slower economic growth and less impact on the environment than they would if they worked as long hours as we do.

This policy is viable economically. The Dutch economy is as successful as the American economy, and it has a much lower rate of unemployment.

This policy is supported by research that tells us growth does not make Americans happier - and by research that tells us the Dutch are much more satisfied with their lives than Americans are.

Anyone who thinks rigorously about the concept of happiness and decides that we should promote people’s long-term satisfaction with life, rather than promoting easy and pleasant activities such as eating dinner, will support choice of work hours, because it allows people more time to spend with their children, to develop and use their skills, and to do the other things that require effort and provide long-term satisfaction. By reducing stress and giving people time for satisfying activities, choice of work hours might even reduce the incidence of clinical depression and the need for electric shock therapy.

Anyone who understands the issues underlying our economic and environmental policies will support choice of work hours, because it significantly increases our chances of avoiding painful resource shortages and catastrophic global warming. But Bok pontificates about economic growth without understanding the issues. As we have seen, he spends one short paragraph each on two key issues. He apparently has never heard about the success of choice of work hours in the Netherlands, which slows growth but does not stop it. And so he concludes that “Even if it should turn out that growth does not bring added happiness, there is no way at present to stop the economy from growing without creating problems that would outweigh any hoped-for benefits” (p. 207).

No matter how much empirical research you do about happiness, you are not going to come up with better policies, if you do not understand the policy areas that you are working with, and if you do not think clearly enough about the concept of happiness to develop a vision of a better society.

All page references are to Derek Bok, The Politics of Happiness: What Government Can Learn from the New Research on Well-Being (Princeton University Press, 2010).