Thursday, March 18, 2010

Policy problem?

Elizabeth Kolbert writes about some of the recent books on happiness in this week's New Yorker, "Everybody Have Fun: What can policymakers learn from happiness research?" I suppose it was inevitable that this would become a question of policy. The article notes the study commissioned by Pres. Sarkozy to look into the matter. The investigation was headed by Amartya Sen and Joseph Stiglitz and included the sensible reminder that GDP does not do a good job of measuring happiness.

But there is so much more. Daniel Kahneman points out that the happiness we experience and the happiness that we recall of the same event are not the same. This makes it very difficult. Daniel Gilbert had written that the happiness we plan for and work for are also problematic because we cannot really predict what the future us is going to be like or will enjoy. Bobby McFerrin says, "Don't worry, be happy." Kolbert makes it even more difficult by mentioning "fun", which almost everyone confuses with happiness.

None of them mention (as far as I can tell) the old rabbinic idea (I expect that it also pops up in other faiths) that happiness is forever elusive, but being good may be within our reach. And some may even find happiness when they do good.

When politicians of all stripes are busy fanning the populist flames, it may be too much to add that some people even do well when they do good.