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CAGE Report: Understanding Happiness

For centuries happiness was a concern exclusively of the humanities.

In the past half century, however, happiness has moved into the domain of social science and has engendered an ever-expanding body of research, of which the three pioneering papers in this report are an example. The introduction and executive summary that follows gives an excellent entrée to these papers. I would like to focus, therefore, on a critical issue: Happiness is now being considered as a potential guide to public policy; is this desirable or not?

The data on happiness come from self-reports of individuals’ feelings of well-being, and each respondent is free to define happiness as she or he sees it. It would be reasonable to suppose, therefore, that combining the answers of respondents to obtain, say, an average societal value, would be meaningless. But, in fact, there is now substantial agreement among most social scientists that such averages are meaningful. A major reason for this consensus is that people worldwide respond quite similarly when asked what is important for their happiness. It is the personal concerns that take up most of the time in most people’s lives everywhere—making a living, family, health, and work—that are most important for happiness. These are the things they care most about, and which they think they have some ability to control. A second reason happiness data are meaningful is due to a line of research initiated by Andrew Oswald, one of the current report’s authors. It turns out that the same relationships between happiness and a variety of life circumstances are found in country after country. Among those who are significantly less happy everywhere are the unemployed, those living alone, and people in poor health.

The evidence is now well established that happiness data give a quite different evaluation of well-being than the measure most commonly used these days, gross domestic product per capita (GDP). What are the reasons for thinking happiness is more meaningful? First, and foremost, happiness tells us how well a society satisfies the concerns of people’s everyday life; in contrast, GDP is limited to a single economic dimension, the per capita output of goods and services. Second, in the case of happiness, the evaluation of well-being is made by those whose lives are being assessed, rather than outside observers, so-called experts. Third, happiness, unlike GDP, is a measure with which most people can identify. And, finally, happiness is a measure in which each person has a vote, but only one vote. If happiness were to become a leading measure of society’s well-being, public policy might perhaps be moved in a direction more meaningful to people’s lives.

Contributors include:

Daniel Sgroi
Thomas Hills
Gus O’Donnell
Andrew Oswald
Eugenio Proto

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