First published Oct 6, 2010. Updated July 5, 2013
The US Declaration of Independence of 1776 states that “the pursuit of happiness” is an “inalienable right”. The economics of happiness aims to reconsider the traditional measurements of well-being, by identifying the variables influencing private well-being in order to implement public policies more susceptible to satisfy the aspirations of citizens. The macroeconomics of happiness reveals that from a certain level of attained degree of development, the possession of capital does not intrinsically entail happiness. Therefore, a reduction of marginal utility occurs. Similarly, the microeconomics of happiness reveals that social and environmental quality has an increasing impact on the durability of human satisfaction.
Public policies derived from the economics of happiness currently encourage the debate for a new remedy to the ongoing crisis, characterized by an economic crisis and a democratic deficit of representation. This new debate sustains the need for greater state intervention and for considering social problems as constitutive of the concern of the political sphere. The state must implement institutions and rules able to form a legal frame in which intense competition is less valued, because of its alienating and destructive long-term effects on the community’s organic character. Policies able to act in a transformative approach upon human nature are valued. For instance, policies instituting a progressive consumption tax or a progressive income tax, should allow individuals to pay less attention to the issue of capital accumulation. This would benefit both the state (higher fiscal income) and the individual (more cooperative and altruistic).
In conjunction with it, the economics of happiness provides an answer for the macroeconomic orientation states should take with regard to the unemployment/inflation issue. Empirical studies highlight that unemployment is worse than inflation for the degree of happiness. Employment provides essential intrinsic satisfaction. Because the current crisis is all-embracing an economic and democratic crisis, states should be aware of the importance of intrinsic satisfaction when implementing policies, provided by the realization of personal aims and perseverance (Spinozian conatus). States should increase the number of subsidized jobs and offer aid for structuring the unemployed free time.
In the end, the positive school of psychology put the accent on the importance of procedures and norms in the achievement of happiness. The utility of procedures appears as a key for the achievement of subjective well-being. It follows that the answer, for lightening the democratic deficit of representation, is the increase in the participation inside the political sphere. The increasing accountability and transparency of political institutions is therefore expected to revitalize citizenship, by empowering it. Hence, new public policies should implement a new agora for a vox populi, within which hierarchical relationships between semi-opaque state institutions and politically powerless citizens, dissolves into a comprehensive and participatory arena.
However, the implementation of this new type of policies does not consider the very nature of preferences, by not capturing the preference satisfaction in a given situation: there is no characteristic or appropriate purpose (i.e. contextualization). These policies pass over the fact the preferences are mostly adaptive, external and contingent, influenced by socialization. Owing that adaptation might be a form of resignation, if the current crisis persists – as it seems to occur – and reformative policies are not implemented, citizens might tend to have decreasing expectations and a less critical attitude towards the state. Hence, if policies derived from the economics of happiness were applied, they would provide citizens with only a minimum minimorum of happiness satisfaction. Another objection is that such public policies are unable to capture the variety of subjective preferences determining happiness. Without presenting a Huxleyan totalitarian risk, these public policies still do impose a universal regularity careless of particularities. These policies are by their very nature ethnocentric and impose some sort of paternalism. Indeed, as earlier mentioned preferences are adaptive, furthermore, in the case of the economics of happiness, preferences are no longer part of the private sphere. As politicians try to modify citizens’ preferences, they interfere in a more insidious manner with the traditional private sphere.
In conclusion, public policies derived from the economics of happiness – by being founded on realist grounds – provide elements of answer to the global crisis. However, in order to soften the effects of the crisis, such policies should have a more eudemonist dimension (1). They should focus more on the utility of the moment and not on the overall retrospective satisfaction.
(1) Eudemonism, theory that states the highest ethical goal is happiness and personal well-being