The Happiness Factor

With a headline like that, I bet you people can’t wait to read this one. But after reading this New Yorker piece by writer Elizabeth Kolbert on how psychological research into happiness translates into public policy, I couldn’t resist writing some sort of comment.

The upshot of the story, based on three books, is that people’s relative happiness (or sadness) has virtually nothing to do with their socioeconomic status. Rich people, poor people, it doesn’t matter:

“America’s felicific stagnation shouldn’t be ignored, [researcher Derek] Bok argues,whatever the explanation,” Kolbert writes. “Growth, after all, has its costs, and often quite substantial ones. If ‘rising incomes have failed to make Americans happier over the last fifty years,’ he writes, ‘what is the point of working such long hours and risking environmental disaster in order to keep on doubling and redoubling our Gross Domestic Product?'”

 The implications of this statement is immense. Kolbert later paraphrases Bok: “If the poor aren’t bothered by the growing [income] disparity, Bok asks, why should anyone else be?” Of course, the argument works the other way as well: what’s the point of promoting tax cuts or pro-growth policies if people would be just as happy without any money?

Hell, maybe we ought to get of modern technology while we’re at it, if living a pastoral life might make us all just as happy as we are in our electrified, computerized metropolis. Might civilization itself be, well, unnecessary?

I’m being glib here, but not so much that I can’t see how all this touches my own career. Policy and politics is my bread and butter — what if, in the end, no policy prescription, legislative compromise or even ideology really matters?

-Anthony Pignataro

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