How Government Can Make the American Public Happy

Derek Bok discusses the government's ability to foster happiness and well-being.

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Political leanings can have a lot to do with how someone feels about government and the policies it enacts. But to what extent does an individual's overall happiness spring from government actions, such as education reform? In his new book, The Politics of Happiness: What Government Can Learn from the New Research on Well-Being, Derek Bok attempts to answer that question, among others. The former Harvard University president and now a professor at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government recently spoke to U.S. News about the nature of happiness and its implications for public policy. Excerpts:

What is happiness, and what does it have to do with politics?

That's a big question. Happiness is obviously a complicated subject, but I think it includes at least two things. One consists of the immediate sensations of pleasure or displeasure that you experience during the course of a day. The other is a more reflective judgment that you make about your life. Researchers are trying to get at happiness in both ways. As for why the government should take an interest, there are at least three good reasons. First, according to a number of opinion polls, happiness is the thing people want most—more than power, fame, or money. One can think of those other things as a means to happiness, but happiness is the ultimate end. The second reason is that happy people live longer; they commit suicide less; and they are less inclined to abuse alcohol or drugs. And third, happiness turns out to be quite good for society. In other words, you don't get to be happy by trampling on people. Happy people tend to be better employees, better citizens, better husbands and wives, and tend to help others and get more involved in the community.

But can happiness be universally defined? What makes one person happy might not make another person happy.

That's an important point. But for the purpose of public policy, of course, that's the case with most things that government deals with. Whatever the government does is not going to strike everyone the same way. But you have to look at the overall effects of what happens to the most people. Even though every finding on happiness will have lots of exceptions, the research is still useful to government because it gives a sense of what things, on average, are likely to increase happiness or detract from it.

So what social or political policies specifically can improve people's happiness?

I would start by saying that improving the quality of government and people's confidence in government turn out to have a substantial effect. You would do things like try to take money out of politics, or create stronger rules on ethics. You would try to do away with earmarks and gerrymandering and other things that seem to make politicians only interested in their own re-elections. You would certainly put a heavy emphasis on reducing unemployment. You would also look in the area of health. There are three afflictions that produce lasting unhappiness that most people never adapt to. One is chronic depression, another is chronic pain, and a third is sleep disorders. All three of those keep giving you pain and distress as long as they last, and all three turn out to be, for various reasons, very underemphasized in our health care system.

What do you think are some of the most surprising elements of this new research on happiness?

I was surprised by what a long-lasting effect unemployment—specifically, being laid off from your job—has. Of course, everyone knows it's unpleasant to be laid off from your job. But the surprising thing about unemployment is how long the effects last. And it's not the loss of money. Even for people who get another job at the same rate of pay, the unhappiness from being laid off, the sense of being useless, tends to linger on in some cases for years afterwards.

To what extent should the government even be responsible for the happiness of citizens?

In a democracy, you have to be interested in furthering the thing that most people feel is most important to them. And happiness is No. 1, according to the polls. But a somewhat different question is: Should governments start relying on this research? And there I would be more cautious. This is a new field, and there is a lot that is not known, and still lots of contradictions and conflicts. I think the field needs to mature a bit more before the government puts a lot of weight on it. I would regard the research as providing useful clues, but not definitive answers.