Ideas to Action:

Independent research for global prosperity


Views from the Center


CGD has just published my essay on using happiness polls to guide policy decisions.

I’m a big fan of the economics of happiness –it throws up some very interesting findings.  For example, take the coefficients from this paper.  They suggest that people are a lot happier than average during moments of intimate relations and somewhat less happy than average every minute when commuting.  But the average person spends a lot longer commuting than they do being intimate. So, overall, people are made about three times more unhappy by commuting than they are made happy by intimate relations each day.  I’ll leave it to you to think about the potential personal and policy implications of this conclusion.

Perhaps more relevant to CGD’s work, there is a growing number of papers looking at subjective measures of the quality of life in developed and developing countries alike that are suggesting some of our traditional objective measures miss a lot of what is going on.  Carol Graham at Brookings notes the paradox of happy peasants and miserable millionaires–a number of those people who have benefited most in terms of income gains are some of the least content.  Surveys of Dalits in India suggest that a whole raft of (positive) social changes are going on that are missed by traditional poverty analyses.  So, three cheers to subjective wellbeing analysis for opening up some exciting new approaches to old questions.

At the same time, I’m worried about the idea of abandoning one flawed and over simple measure of development progress (income), and replacing it with another (happiness poll answers).  Humans are just too complicated to be constrained to one thing to maximize.  For example, the subjective wellbeing literature says that having kids has almost no effect on ours answers to happiness polls –does that mean that kids just don’t matter much to their parents?  The polls also suggest that our answers are to some considerable degree genetically determined –if we are after maximizing happiness, does that mean we should sterilize the miserable? Surely it’s a good thing if people answer the question ‘thinking about your life overall, do you consider yourself happy?’ with a ‘yes.’  But there’s much more to life than a sunny disposition –and much more to policy, too.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.