[Former Harvard University president Derek] Bok devotes many pages to the policy implications of happiness studies. The findings of happiness research, he writes, reveal the wisdom of adopting “sensible policies” ….
Recommended policies do not always follow from the research findings that Bok cites. He notes, for example, that “surveys suggest that Americans over 65 are feeling happier about their lives than the rest of the adult population, a conclusion supported by other studies showing that well-being for Americans in reasonably good health slowly rises after 30–40 years of age and continues to increase into their 70s” (p. 102). Also, “apparently … money is not perceived as a major problem by the vast majority of currently retired Americans” (p. 103). Such findings, Bok concludes, “may help policy-makers decide to give a higher priority to improving the lot of younger Americans through measures such as more affordable child care or higher-quality pre-school education than to raising Social Security benefits” (p. 61).
Although this redistribution may appear to be a sensible policy, what evidence do we have that government subsidies for child care or pre-school education will increase the happiness of young Americans? According to Bok (p. 153), “No investigator has inquired into the effects of successful early childhood programs on the happiness of participants.” How are we to know, then, that the increased happiness of children and young parents will more than offset the decreased happiness of the elderly forced to live with smaller pensions? A majority of retirees may live comfortable lives, but many elderly Americans live in poverty, presumably with low subjective well-being.
Larry Willmore, Review of The Politics of Happiness: What Government Can Learn from the New Research on Well-being, by Derek Bok (Princeton University Press, 2010), Population and Development Review, June 2013, pp. 350-353.
Access without payment requires that you (or your institution) subscribe to Population and Development Review, but you can read a full, early draft of my review here.