John William Tuohy lives in Washington DC

Should we measure gross national happiness?

Leslie Nguyenokwu

Move over, GDP. Psychologists Shigehiro Oishi and Ed Diener say it's time to make room for happiness, the next big tool for evaluating public policies and social development in the U.S.
Scoff all you like, but after analyzing dozens of policy-related happiness surveys and studies in a new report called "Can and Should Happiness Be a Policy Goal?" Oishi and Diener argue that people's self-reported happiness can help gauge the effectiveness of a particular policy and promote national well-being. Take, for example, disability benefits — one survey found that severe disability hurts people's life satisfaction twice as badly as unemployment. Such psychological insights into populations, the authors say, could improve how we assess and make good policies in the future.
Oishi, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, believes in measuring what matters — and that people's happiness ought to be recorded as often as possible, quarterly or even monthly. Admittedly, "it all boils down to the cost here," he said. But he compares happiness measures to other regular data collections we perform, like unemployment and life expectancy.
He and Diener looked at surveys that measured happiness on several different scales, including Diener's own 1- to 7-point scale, which asks participants to rank statements such as "If I could live my life over, I would change almost nothing" and "The conditions of my life are excellent." Sure, plenty of stuff can affect self-reported happiness — which is pretty much the most subjective thing you can ask about. Variables, as the tradesfolk say, abound: the day of the week the survey is taken, the weather, how someone reacted to previous survey questions … as a start. Oishi argues that's a reason to overinvest in multiple methods of tracking happiness.
Maybe he's onto something. According to the 2013 World Happiness Report, the U.S. tripled its per capita income over the last few decades but has seen "significant declines" in happiness levels over time. Moreover, some countries around the world already measure happiness, including Bhutan's erstwhile Gross National Happiness and the U.K.'s National Well-being Index. (Though Bhutan, in full disclosure, bailed on the happiness measure last year.) Yet some critics say that a happiness index is too "fuzzy" for serious policymaking. "We have more accurate tools of measuring depression than we do of happiness, unfortunately," said Mark Setton, founder of Pursuit-Of-Happiness.org. And the wording of the surveys is especially tricky, he explained, as many of them use different words to describe happiness.
So, maybe happiness won't exactly make the world go 'round, as Oishi and Diener would hope. But perhaps a dose of happiness policy could get Congress to do a little less ranting.

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