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The Politics of Happiness is a very important book. Its main premise is that surveys and other methods of measuring people's wellbeing are providing increasingly meaningful results. Based on this premise, Bok argues that governments should use the results of wellbeing research in addition to existing economic measures to guide policy-making. Furthermore, Bok provides many insightful examples of how existing policies in the United States could be changed to increase its citizens' wellbeing. This book will cause considerable controversy because it provides an appealing challenge to the deeply ingrained economic and political orthodoxy about how to measure progress. This review will briefly outline the chapters of The Politics of Happiness, while highlighting some of its notable strengths and weaknesses.
In the 23 short pages of Chapter 1, Bok reviews a mountain of current research on wellbeing in an impressively accessible way. Even seasoned wellbeing researchers are likely to learn some new insights from this erudite chapter. Chapter 1 also explains that 'happiness', 'satisfaction with life', and 'wellbeing' will be used interchangeably, as is common practice in this area. Philosophers will see the continuation of this practice as a considerable down-side to this book because they have been arguing over the nature of happiness (what happiness really is) and its relation to wellbeing (what is ultimately good for a person) for a very long time. Many different theories have resulted, most of which are mutually exclusive. What philosophers find so irksome about conflating 'happiness' with other near synonyms such as 'satisfaction with life' is that these terms represent distinct, and often incompatible, definitions of wellbeing. The distinct philosophical origins of these terms, and various survey questions that use them, become of vital importance when comparing the results of wellbeing research. For example, many surveys use different questions to assess wellbeing, resulting in conflicting conclusions about important matters, such as who is happy and what makes people happier.
Chapter 2 sets out to assess the reliability of the research on wellbeing. Bok dispels several weak objections to the reliability of the research before making a claim that would make most economists laugh out loud. After discussing some weaknesses of traditional economic indicators, such as the level of employment, Bok concludes that: "the results of happiness studies seem, if anything, more reliable than many familiar statistics and other types of evidence that legislators and administration officials routinely use in making policy" [p40]. Bok does not provide a strong enough argument to make such a bold claim. His defense of the reliability of wellbeing research rests mainly on significant correlations between various measures of happiness, including self-assessments of life satisfaction, consensus opinions of others about how happy someone is, frequency of smiling, and brain scans. Considering that the failure of this defense would severely weaken his thesis, Bok should have provided more primary references to the relevant studies. Furthermore, Bok really needed to discuss the size of the correlations of these measures, not just their significance. A highly significant but small correlation between two measures means that they are very likely to be related in some small way, but that they are certainly not the same thing. What Bok doesn't mention is that this is the case with the measures he discusses.
In Chapter 3, Bok concludes that policy-makers should use research on wellbeing to inform their decisions because happiness is one of a few very important aims of public policy. For those who believe that wellbeing research is reliable enough, this conclusion is a likely corollary. This chapter could have benefited from more detail on the problematic questions of if and how governments could test the effect their policies have on the happiness of their citizens.
Chapters 4 and 5 address the traditional political and economic concerns of growth and inequality. These two compelling chapters will surprise those not familiar with wellbeing research because they make a powerful case for both economic growth and inequality having dramatically less impact on wellbeing than is commonly believed. In addition to discussing the latest wellbeing surveys on these topics, Bok also discusses research from several academic disciplines to help explain why these surprising results might occur.
Chapters 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10 include detailed policy recommendations regarding healthcare, employment, superannuation, families, education, and government itself. Bok argues for these recommendations with large does of convincingly applied common sense. Unfortunately, Bok's arguments for his recommendations often pay only lip service to the notion of happiness or to any relevant wellbeing research. Most of Bok's policy suggestions seem like they may well improve people's wellbeing. However, levels of wellbeing in Western nations have proven largely indifferent to policy changes over the last few decades. Bok should have discussed more directly-relevant wellbeing research to make his recommendations more convincing. After the regular use of salient wellbeing research in the first half of the book, the later chapters were often disappointing in this regard. A real strength of these chapters, however, is that Bok explains how some of his policy recommendations would pay for themselves (by, say, lowering burdens on state services elsewhere). Policies that might increase wellbeing and will pay for themselves should appeal to even the most conservative anti-wellbeing-research economist.
In the final chapter, Bok summarizes his arguments regarding the significance of wellbeing research for policy-makers. With The Politics of Happiness, Bok joins the likes of Lord Richard Layard and Bruno Frey in the swelling ranks of prominent academics who are calling for governments to take wellbeing research seriously. Policy-makers and anyone interested in politics or wellbeing should read this polemical book. Indeed, foregoing this book will surely result in being on the back foot in future discussions about what progressive governments should be doing for their citizens.
© 2010 Dan Weijers
Dan Weijers (né Turton) is a founding co-editor of the International Journal of Wellbeing and an assistant lecturer and PhD candidate in the Philosophy Department at Victoria University of Wellington. His research specialty is moral philosophy, especially interdisciplinary research on wellbeing. http://www.danturton.com