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The Fallacy of a 'Gross Happiness Index'

Millie Jefferson

Bill Radke

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Bill Radke: First of all, if the government measured happiness, what would we be measuring?

Darrin McMahon: I don't know -- you tell me. It's important to realize that we don't have precise numerical qualifications on how happy someone is on a scale. It's just people's own subjective evaluations of how happy they are in comparison to others.

So what effect, if any, do you think it has that the government tracks, for example GDP, but not happiness in any measurable way?

Look, there are all kinds of indexes out there and the United Nations has a development index and we keep statistics on many things. And I suppose, in theory, I'm not opposed to government trying to measure happiness, but it's not going to be an effective means on which to base public policy. Nor do I think the government should be in the business of trying to affect policy with the end of happiness.

I don't want to suggest for a second the kinds of conversations that are going on in this country and up on Capitol Hill have any relation to this, but let's look down the line. Remember the great nightmare of Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World" -- the brave new world was one in which everyone was happy. The government had figured out how to make people happy and affected that. That's a dystopian picture. And so that's always in the back of my mind when people talk about carrying out happiness for others.

In the 19th century, the best example of this is Marxism. Marxism was a science of happiness. Marx believed he was bringing about "real happiness." That's a phrase he uses. Stalin described himself as the constructor of happiness. That sounds awful to us, and perverse, as of course it was. But I think it does highlight the way in which happiness can be used for ends that are not happy.

Well Darrin, let's say you are a U.S. congressman and you are trying to pass a Happiness Stimulus Package. And I know you are skeptical, Darrin, but this is just a political ploy on your part -- you're just shamelessly pandering for votes. What's in that stimulus package?

OK, well I'll give you the response that might come out of the South: We know very well from the research on happiness that religious affiliation correlates well with positive subjective well-being, or happiness. As to what about religion actually causes higher happiness, that's unclear. But should I, as a pandering Southern congressman, be saying that we need more religion in public life? I think a lot of people would be resistant to that. And yet that seems to me to point out one of the slight dangers in having government too involved in promoting happiness.

How has studying this subject so much, Darrin, changed your personal approach to happiness?

I came to a realization in the process that many people who study happiness have come to as well -- and that is that if you think too much about it and you focus too much, it eludes your grasp. Go on a walk by the beach. Don't do it for happiness, do it because you like the beach and you want to be with your family and what it is that you do. Then hopefully happiness will come to you, rather than you always trying to grab it and having it squirm out of your hands in the process.

I understand you have a young child, as I do as well. How much happiness do you derive from being a parent?

The data seems to suggest that being a parent, in fact, makes you unhappy. If you track people's happiness, it goes down in the period they have kids. And when the kids leave the house, it goes back up. I think this is a wonderful illustration of the limitations of happiness as an index. There are all kinds of ways you can organize your life -- you can do it in terms of virtue, or meaning, or a religious goal, or a justice... so on and so forth.

If you take that to the extreme, we shouldn't have children, because it doesn't make us happy. Well that's absurd -- and moreover, fundamentally wrong. Maybe on the day-to-day, it has an impact. I woke up at 3 a.m. this morning because young Julian, who is six months old, was crying away and I had to go back and put the pacifier in his mouth five times. That didn't make me happy. But at the end of the day, or at the end of 16 or 17 years, the amount of joy he will bring to my life, the enriching sense or quality he gives to my life as a whole, that is incalculable. And no government index will ever calculate that.

Darrin, I wish you a fulfilling weekend. Let's not talk about happiness anymore.

I was happy to be here!

Thanks a lot, Darrin.

Not at all, thanks a lot it was fun.


  • Comment | Refresh

  • By David Suda

    From Fargo, ND, 03/15/2008

    I just had a lecture on happiness and the self. The basic argument was happiness can not be pursued, it must ensue from actives that we want. To be happy one must be free, mature, and have self-respect. I guess if government wants to purse policies that increase happiness they should allow people to express them selves in healthy ways. That is want I think your guest was getting at when he said pursuing happiness is a slippery thing.

    To summarize, happiness must ensure, not pursue. The less we worry about it. The best government policy concerning happiness is one of freedom and tolerance of actions that allow one to express him/her self while not hurting others.

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