image of book cover - The Politics of Happiness: What the Government Can Learn from the  New Research on Well-Being
image of book cover - The Politics of Happiness: What the Government Can Learn from the New Research on Well-Being

The Politics of Happiness: What the Government Can Learn from the New Research on Well-Being

Apr 19, 2010

How can governments use the latest research on well-being to improve the quality of life for all their citizens? What role can government policy play in creating individual happiness?


JOANNE MYERS: Good morning. I'm Joanne Myers, Director of Public Affairs Programs, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council I would like to thank you all for joining us.

This morning it is my privilege to welcome a person whose name is synonymous with excellent, Derek Bok. Professor Bok is best-known for his years as president of Harvard University, years which were indelibly marked by his leadership and hallmarked by intellectual strength and academic distinction.

This morning he is here to discuss his recent book, which is entitled The Politics of Happiness: What Government Can Learn from the New Research on Well-Being.

This narrative tells us that the successful pursuit of happiness is not merely self-serving but can contribute to a better, stronger, more caring society.

Are you happy? Do you know what makes you happy? Do you know what makes others happy?

From the time of Aristotle, the importance of happiness has been recognized. But exactly what it is and how it can be measured are questions that until fairly recently could only be answered anecdotally, or perhaps philosophically. But now, after many years of intensive research, scientists have succeeded and discovered ways of measuring how happy people are, how much pleasure or pain they derive from ordinary events and conditions of their lives.

The idea that happiness research should at least be considered by policymakers is increasingly becoming a mainstream position. In fact, even the Gallup organization has begun conducting global surveys of happiness, and several countries, such as France, Britain, Australia, and China, are considering using happiness indexes in addition to the conventional economic measures of prosperity and growth. You may have even heard that the small country of Bhutan made Gross National Happiness the central aim of its domestic policy.

In The Politics of Happiness, our speaker examines how governments could use happiness research in a variety of policy areas to increase well-being and improve the quality of life, shaping social and political policy for all their citizens.

Mr. Bok reveals that most Americans don't really know what makes them happy, so correctly identifying what will make us happy is the first step.

Then he goes on to discuss the political policies that make the most sense. For example, if families make us happier, then it follows that the government should support family-friendly policies like extended paid maternity leave and marriage counseling.

Professor Bok also undertakes serious questions about the accuracy of happiness research, recognizing both the strengths and weaknesses of the process. He even puzzles over whether happiness is substantial enough to be a goal of government and whether economic growth, which has always been dominant on the domestic agenda, should still retain such a significant role.

It is hard to argue that good government, access to education, and adequate childcare would not make for a more pleasant society. Government has the potential to create happier agendas and can enact programs that are most likely to improve the well-being of its citizens. The question is: Where shall we begin?

Please join me in giving a very warm welcome to our very distinguished guest.

Professor Bok, we are delighted that you are with us today.


DEREK BOK: Thank you for coming at such an unseasonable hour. At Harvard we outlawed 8 o'clock classes many decades ago out of a decent respect for the welfare of our students, and here I am subjecting you to an odd way to start the day.

In any case, I do want to particularly thank Joanne Myers. She knew that my subject was too large to be covered in a half an hour, so she kindly took care of the first half of my speech and I can concentrate on the second.

Actually, my story begins about two centuries ago with that famous political philosopher in Great Britain, Jeremy Bentham, who conceived the idea that maximizing the happiness of people should be the sole end of public policy. In his youth, he was full of optimism about how easily this could be done. He felt you could calculate the amount of happiness and unhappiness and subtract the unhappiness from happiness and decide which government measures were the best as easily as you could count up money. Only late in his life did he begin to have doubts about whether he had perhaps been too optimistic in thinking of what he called the felicific calculus.

Other people also quickly came to the conclusion that this was a nice idea but not operational, because of the problems of measuring happiness and unhappiness accurately; and so, except as a matter to be studied in courses on political philosophy, as a practical matter what Bentham talked about fell into disuse for about two centuries.

But, starting in the 1970s, social scientists took up the question of happiness again and began to experiment with ways by which they could measure it. They went about that subject in two ways.

One group, led by the Nobel economist Daniel Kahneman at Princeton, used the rather intrusive way of talking some luckless subjects into being telephoned many times in the day and asked, "What are you doing right now and how happy do you feel?"

Needless to say, there was some inhibition on that research because it was rather difficult to get a large and representative sample of people willing to be badgered in this way. But that was one approach, and it gave a pretty good picture of the kinds of things that give at least a momentary emotional feeling of happiness.

The other, larger group of investigators asked a somewhat different question, "How satisfied are you with your life?"—which has something to do with happiness, but in a more reflective and summative way than the moment-to-moment impressions that Mr. Kahnemann derived.

But in any case, using one of these methods or the other, we now have several thousand articles describing inquiries of this kind. So quite a body of knowledge has grown up about what things cause happiness and unhappiness and, more important, what things are responsible for lasting happiness or lasting unhappiness, which is a very different subject.

Despite all this evidence and despite Jeremy Bentham, countries have not fallen all over themselves to use this research as an object of public policy.

As Joanne pointed out, only one country, tiny little Bhutan, wedged between China and India, has adopted the Gross National Happiness as the central index of government policy, and actually has a good deal of success in education and in health and in economic growth and in environmental preservation. They have a rather sophisticated way of measuring the effects of different policies on people's happiness. They are the only country to go that far.

But you are now beginning to get other countries interested enough to do kind of white paper policy analyses of happiness research—what effects would it have if we used it more for public policy? You are beginning to get countries like Australia, France, Great Britain, that are considering publishing regular statistics on happiness. So it is beginning to become a subject of greater interest for policymakers and legislators in different advanced countries.

I thought I would try to sketch out a little bit what would be the implications of looking at this research, now that we have such a substantial body of it; what might it mean for public policy, and would that be a good thing?

The first question, obviously, is what would one discover if one looked at all this research, which I tried to do—not all 3,000 articles, but a rather large segment of them.

The first thing that comes across is that people are surprisingly poor judges of what will make them happy. They tend to put too much emphasis on the immediate impression that something might have and don't realize how quickly people adapt to the happy and unhappy momentary events in their life without any real lasting effect on their happiness.

So many things that people value and think they really want—whether it is a pay raise or a move to Florida or winning the lottery or getting a new car—turn out to have only a short-lived effect on happiness, that you very quickly get used to them and you are no happier than you were before, or very little happier than you were before.

Fortunately, the converse is also true, that many things that you think of as terrible events in your life turn out to have surprisingly short effects on your well-being. You can lose an arm and in a remarkably short period of time you are almost back to where you were before in terms of happiness. Or you could have the end of a love affair, or you can fail to get that promotion that you were counting on. None of those things seem to have the effect on most people that we would expect.

And some things that we think must be very important to happiness do not prove out. When you study a large group of people, they don't prove out on the average.

Having children does not, on average, have a positive effect on people's happiness. Marriage has a positive effect for about a year, maybe two. Now, I should add that it is true that married people are more happy than unmarried people, but that's because happier people are more likely to get married, not because the marriage made them happier.

I hasten to add—I'm sure from your laughter that you have already taken account of this—that these are only averages. It doesn't mean that there aren't a lot of people who feel that children and marriage are absolutely central to the happiness they feel in life. But if you take everybody and average it all out, they don't seem to have much of an effect.

So what does bring lasting happiness? There are several things—not a terribly long list, but there are several things.

Personal relationships do make a difference—successful personal relationships, successful marriages, close friends, joining organizations that have supportive contact with other human beings. Those things are very important to happiness.

Interestingly enough, helping other people creates a lasting happiness. People who are very much involved in community service and civic activity and things that reach out to people who need their help, those people get a lasting happiness as long as they are engaged in those activities.

I did a lot at Harvard to try to get students to engage more in community service. We were quite successful. The students were very responsive to this. And I began to read a lot of the personal accounts that we had them write about their experience.

They all started out the same way: "I volunteered for this activity because I wanted to get something back and do good in the world, and I realized the person who benefited most was me." So students, I think, understood this after the fact, but did not realize that this was going to be personally as rewarding as it was before they engaged in those activities.

Religion has a positive and lasting effect. Part of that comes from joining a community like faith, like other organizational affiliations. But people who have a strong religious faith are happier in the United States. That is not true in all other countries. In a number of European countries this doesn't show up at all. But in the United States strong religious faith has a lasting effect on happiness.

Health, as you would suspect, has an effect. But, interestingly, it is not how healthy you actually are, it is not how healthy your doctor would say you are; it is how healthy you think you are. Actually, those two are really only weakly related to one another. Most people's thoughts about their own health do not correspond very closely to what the doctors would say, and it is how people think and not what the doctors say that matters.

Finally—and this was a surprise to me—the quality of government has a substantial lasting effect on people's happiness. It's interesting, if you look at the international comparisons of happiness, that all of the happiest countries are stable democracies that have been stable democracies for decades.

And, beyond just being a stable democracy, the amount of personal freedom, the sense that the government is not corrupt, that it is reasonably efficient, that you have some trust and confidence in it—all of those things are conducive to happiness.

Probably one reason why the United States does not, for all its wealth and prosperity, rank at the top of nations in happiness—actually, they are a substantial way down on the list among at least advanced prosperous nations—I'm sure has something to do with the rather jaundiced view of government that we have in this country.

Well, what brings lasting unhappiness? There are several things.

One is, even though marriage and children may not add to happiness, the death of a spouse or a child, or actually divorce, bring lasting unhappiness, especially the death of a spouse or a child. But even divorce, interestingly enough—and I'm sure that at least women may understand this far better than I—has much greater psychological effects on men rather than women.

Women may suffer economically from divorce, but men are much more likely to suffer psychologically and to look back five years later and still regret and have a sense of failure about the marriage, whereas women seem to bounce back and have regrets of that kind far less frequently.

Anything that creates prolonged worry or anxiety, as you would again suspect, adds to unhappiness.

The loss of a job, surprisingly, is one of the things that creates the greatest and longest-lasting unhappiness. The loss of income is really the least part of it. It is really the blow to people's self-esteem, the sense that they are not wanted; the loss of face that they feel with their neighbors and with their letting down their own family. Those are far more important.

But even when people get a job back, and even if it is a new job at the same rate of pay, the scars from being laid off tend to remain. So at a time like the present, really an incalculable amount of unhappiness is being created by the extent of unemployment that you now have in this country.

Finally, there are some conditions of health. Although there are many things, as I say, like losing an arm, that do not have long-lasting substantial effects on happiness, there are a few conditions that as long as you have them you are, almost by definition, in a state of misery.

One is clinical depression. Another would be chronic pain. A third, interestingly enough, would be sleep disorders. Millions of people suffer from sleep disorders. But, as Danny Kahnemann discovers from his research, the one thing that has the greatest effect on your sense of happiness the next day is whether you got a good night's sleep the night before. So those of you who have been putting off buying the mattress of your dreams, you might want to reconsider.

Of course I have left something out that must be included, and that is: What is the effect of money and wealth on happiness? Clearly, that is something people set great store by. But, unfortunately, this is one of the areas, this being a new field of research, which is still in a state of considerable uncertainty, and the evidence goes both ways.

Certainly we know that rich people, on average, consistently tend to be happier than poor people, and we know that rich countries consistently tend to be happier than poor countries.

On the other hand, there is a lot of evidence to show that Americans are no happier today than they were in 1950, even though the standard of living must have increased two or three times in real terms.

We have a very recent study comparing happiness among the 50 states. It comes out with some rather surprising results. Among the happiest states are Louisiana, Mississippi, Alaska, and Maine. Among the least happiest states of the country, I regret to say, are some of the wealthiest states: Connecticut and New Jersey.

If you ask where does New York fit, I'm afraid I would have to say they were number 50. Since there are only 50 states—and I can tell from this audience, again, you are all outliers, exceptions to the rule—but there are a lot of people with long faces around you that you haven't noticed, but they really drag the average down for New York.

We also know that people who care a lot about becoming rich tend to be less happy, on average, than those for whom getting rich is less important.

We don't know how to reconcile all those findings, so this very important element of our lives is still a bit of a mystery.

Well, how useful is all this research for public policy? That is really what we are concentrating on.

Of course, the threshold question is: Why would you want to make research of this kind a part of public policy? I think there are three really devastatingly telling answers to that.

One is that happiness is the state that people aspire to more than any other. More than fame, more than success, more than great wealth, more than power, people want to be happy. There is a lot of survey evidence to that effect.

And certainly, in a democracy, trying to increase the state that matters more to people than anything else is, obviously, an important thing to try to do.

The other thing is that happiness is good for people. Happiness does not consist of cultivating a lot of self-destructive habits. Happy people live longer, an average of seven years longer, than unhappy people. They are less likely to get sick. There is less suicide, alcohol abuse, a lot of other things that are not very good for them.

It is also—and this I wasn't sure of, but you can infer it from what I have said thus far—happiness is also good for society. Happy people tend to be kinder people, more concerned and solicitous for others. They have stronger marriages. They make better employees. They tend to be civically active and engaged in public affairs. They are more creative.

All of those things suggest that a government that tried to promote happiness would serve the best interests of its people, but also would help to strengthen society as well.

But at this point the skeptics among you will probably ask: All that's very well, but all the reports that you get when you ask people about happiness, are they really reliable enough to be used for public policy? That is a very important question, and I'm sure we still have some interesting things to learn about that.

But a lot of work has been done to try to see whether people's reports about their own happiness are reasonably connected with more objective evidence. They do find, as I said before, that people who are happy do live longer and they commit suicide less and they are rated as better employees by their employers and so forth. So there is some connection with objective reality.

We know that happier people smile more, not only smile more, but they smile more authentically. You can measure an authentic smile from a fake smile by a little muscle around the eye, so that you end up with what is called a Duchenne smile, which is a real smile. It comes from the heart and not because you are trying to convince somebody that you really feel better about them or their ideas than you really want to let on. In any case, happier people smile authentically more often.

The part of their brain associated with pleasure lights up more often. The reports about how happy they are coincide reasonably well with the appraisals of relatives and friends.

So if you put that together, I would say that we still have a ways to go in trying to find ways of confirming the accuracy. Of course, there are a lot of individual errors or misestimates by people, but when you are dealing with large numbers of people, as you are in public policy or surveys, a lot of those errors tend to cancel out.

So I would say that at least this is true, and that is that the findings we get are probably as reliable as other statistics that are commonly used in government. We've just become familiar with looking at the figures of Gross Domestic Product, of poverty rates, of unemployment rates. But if you really look at those, they are all filled with imperfections. So we are not asking our self-reports about happiness to be perfect, but are they as reliable as other statistics that we commonly use in government? I would say, looking at the evidence, the odds are that happiness research is at least as reliable as some of those very familiar statistics.

Now, the 64 dollar question is: Suppose the government did that. What really can it do to increase happiness?

There you come back to that wonderful statement by Samuel Johnson: "How small, of all that human hearts endure, / That part which laws or kings can cause or cure!"

Of course, Johnson was correct in one important point: at the core of happiness are relations with other people. Although government could do some things to improve relations among people, it can't do a whole lot. There are only limited things that government can do to provide strong marriages or better relations with your children or happier affiliations with organizations that you enjoy and so forth. That's really an individual matter.

There are some other things that obviously bear on happiness that the government doesn't seem able to do. For example, going to war in Vietnam, which doesn't seem to have served any lasting purpose for the United States, must have produced incalculable unhappiness, especially if you count the effects on the Vietnamese along with those on our Treasury and on the people who were wounded or suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome.

But we don't seem to be able to eliminate entirely unwise wars—at least wars that appear in retrospect not to be worth the havoc that they caused.

Obviously, happiness would increase if you could do away with layoffs. But we don't know how to do that either.

But there are some things that government should be able to do.

Clearly, for example, the recent extension of health care coverage relieves an enormous source of anxiety for the people who are now covered. If you have to live day-to-day with the feeling that if you got sick or if your children got sick, you don't have the money to send them to a doctor, that has to be a cause of ongoing anxiety that could be much alleviated by healthcare legislation.

Also, I mentioned some conditions of health that do produce lasting unhappiness—chronic pain, sleep disorders, clinical depression. All of those, if you look at it, are seriously undertreated and underemphasized in our healthcare system today.

Just to give you one example, millions of people suffer from clinical depression at some point in their lives, usually at several points in their lives. But if you talk to experts, they will tell you as a rule of thumb that of every six people who are clinically depressed, one is treated correctly, two are treated incorrectly, and three are not treated at all. So although we may never achieve perfection, there are certainly things government could do which will improve upon those rather dismal averages.

We could do a lot to reduce insecurity in old age. For example, the difference between having an annuity and having a lump sum when you reach retirement age makes a big difference. The fact that you don't have to worry about outliving your savings adds measurably to the happiness of elderly people.

In education, I think it's fair to say in the presence of John Brademas—I don't go back to his glory days as a chief architect of educational policy—but I would say, in the years since, the federal education policy has simply been dominated by the single goal of preparing the workforce of the 21st century. But if you paid more attention to happiness, you would put much more emphasis on a much broader policy of education that would try to do a lot of things outside of work to prepare people to live more happy and fulfilling lives.

And finally, of course, you could work hard at trying to improve the processes of government, the things that make people distrust government. The obvious influence of money in politics; the use of earmarks, of gerrymandering; the fact that there is no independent ethics commission, but that members of the legislature judge their own ethical behavior—all of those things, if you did something about them, would help to shore up people's confidence in the integrity of their government.

But I have left out one big question before I come to a close, and that is: What would you do about economic growth?

There are a number of prominent environmentalists who have used the happiness research to argue that, given the dangers of global warming, we should move to a growth-less society, we should stop economic growth, because there is no indication it adds to happiness and it certainly adds to the cataclysmic dangers to our environment.

Indeed, some fairly prominent people have come out the same way. John Stuart Mill was one. John Maynard Keynes, the most influential economist of the 20th century, said in about three generations (which is about where are now) we will have come to a condition of abundance that we can stop growing and pay attention to the things that really matter in life.

Well, three generations have come and gone, and I would say we are at least as preoccupied with economic growth as we were at the beginning, and it really seems pretty unrealistic to think about stopping it anytime soon.

For one thing, the evidence is not yet clear. There is a considerable body of evidence that says that continued growth does increase happiness, although there is a lot of evidence the other way.

One thing that is clear is Americans overwhelmingly want growth.

Still another thing that is clear is that stopping growth would cause enormous havoc if you tried to do it. There would be great danger of plunging the country into depression and widespread layoffs, producing much more unhappiness than you would gain.

So I think it is rather impractical to think about stopping growth. But what seems to me to be more practical is that perhaps we should give it a little less emphasis. We shouldn't turn down perfectly sensible things that almost all other prosperous countries have adopted, like paid parental leave, because it might have some small, unspecified effect on the rate of economic growth.

We should probably do some things environmentally that get voted down because they might have some effect on growth.

So at the margin, I think the evidence supports being perhaps a little less wedded to the idea that maximizing growth is a telling argument in so many public policy debates.

But in any event, to sum up, because I have probably gone over my allotted time, I think if you ask, "What can we realistically expect from all this happiness research in the foreseeable future?" I would be the first to admit that it is premature to expect governments to start relying heavily on this research. It is still a young field. There is a lot that we don't know. There is a lot that is in conflict. There are going to be improvements of technique which will make the research more reliable, more understandable, than it is today.

I do think looking at happiness research might give the government some very interesting clues about things that perhaps are emphasized, priorities that might be somewhat rearranged. In conjunction with other evidence, therefore, I think the happiness research can already be useful for people to look at.

I certainly feel the government should sponsor the regular publication of statistics on what is happening to happiness in this country. At the very least, that would spur a lot of interesting and useful conversation about happiness—What causes it? What causes lasting unhappiness? What does this imply for my own life? That has to be, I think, useful in a society.

In the fullness of time, although the field is young and not fully worked out yet, who knows? It may be that at some time in the future we will find ourselves following in the footsteps of tiny Bhutan and vindicating poor Jeremy Bentham, who, interestingly enough, remains in mummified form in the London School of Economics, which he helped to start, where he is trotted out once a year, according to his last will and testament. He may even begin to smile in his somewhat deteriorated state at the thought that his idea two centuries ago has at last borne fruit.

Thank you very much.

Questions and Answers

QUESTION: Thank you so much. You saw that many, if not all, of us were smiling genuinely at your whole approach, and many of us by being here are participating in a happy activity.

But I wanted to ask you, since you have been such a distinguished leader of higher education—well, that's what it says in your biography, and we all know you—

I could put you in touch with a number of professors and students who might wish to challenge that idea. But go ahead.

QUESTIONER: Now the question. Many people were adversely affected by the Great Depression because they couldn't get the jobs they thought they should, and this had a terrible effect for them for the rest of their lives. Now we are in the great recession—coming out of it. But there are a lot of people who have been trained to be lawyers at Harvard, or anyplace else, who can't find the jobs that they expected, that they saw people getting three years ago.

What advice—and this applies to people starting out, because it is a special group, and they have been trained and they have spent so many years studying and so forth, as well as unemployed—what advice—what way can they adjust their expectations of happiness? What can we do to help them?

DEREK BOK: Well, that's a tall order. I'm sure, because so many of the students who come out of places like the Harvard Law School have had success all of their lives, that to some extent they are more vulnerable to setbacks and disappointments of this kind.

Perhaps the best thing that one can do is to try to acquaint them with the experience of other people who have lived through this, like the generation that lived through the 1930s. I'm sure they would recall that there were some pretty tough and difficult times, but that they did pull out of it, and that eventually prosperity comes back, and that they may be even better people because of the fact that everything has not come easily to them.

So I think what I would try to do, rather than try to trot out research or something of that kind, would be simply counsel them about the fact, number one, that you are not being consigned to a permanent condition, that this will pass, that your education will in the end stand you in very good stead.

And try to get them to think a little bit about how their situation can make them stronger, more effective, better human beings, as it surely can, as I'm sure it did do to a number of people who struggled during the Depression but eventually came out stronger than they might have been if life had always been easy and they had never had to struggle with adversity.

But I have seen these students, and I know at various other times, when they have been threatened for the first time in their lives with the thought that things might not go the way they always had in the past, that they react more strongly than they should.

So I think that you point to a very real problem and one we all need to—if we have relatives in that position, we all ought to perhaps go out of our way to find some way of talking to them and pointing out the positive side of what they think of as unthinkable adversity.

QUESTION: Can you give us some of your thoughts on the subject of envy and its role in happiness? For example, when you talked about the states where people seem to be happier, I couldn't help but notice that there seemed to be less income disparities there than there are in New York, where they are very great. And also, when you talk about Western Europe versus the United States, you see those kinds of disparities as well. So what do you think about the importance of envy and how can you control for it in studies of relative happiness?

DEREK BOK: I am sure that envy, as you would suspect, does rob people of some happiness and well-being, especially if you are fixated on it. I think the mistake comes in extrapolating from that and saying, since envy obviously produces discomfort and unhappiness, the more unequal you are, the greater the unhappiness must be; therefore, the United States, and New York in particular, must have an especially serious problem.

The short answer is, according to the research, none of that is true, except for the part, that envy clearly does not help your happiness and probably detracts from it.

But there have been a lot of studies of all kinds—not just happiness research, but a lot of close observation of poor people in different urban communities. They all come out the same way, and that is poor people in the United States are not resentful, they don't necessarily get less happy with greater inequality.

In fact, there are some very good studies—I have to say they're good studies because they were done by Harvard professors—that show that since the mid-1970s, when the extent of income inequality in this country has risen a great deal since that time. It's not just corporate CEOs who have gone from much more modest salaries, maybe 20 times that of an average worker, to well over 100 times that of an average worker, but it is across the board.

But, curiously enough, if you look at what has happened to the distribution of happiness, the distribution of happiness has become more equal over the last 30 years, not less so. Now, exactly why that is is hard to say, but I think it has a lot to do with the American dream, that people are not resentful of people. You are resentful, I am resentful, when I see bankers making extraordinary amounts of money, particularly when their record does not seem to provide any basis for it. But that doesn't trickle down.

When they look to see if people have gotten less happy as the United States has gotten less equal, they found that only one ascertainable group in American society was less happy as a result of greater inequality—and you can probably guess what it is—well-to-do liberals, they are less happy.

But poor people are not less happy. I probably should have mentioned that, because obviously that has some effect on the liberal point of view about equalizing incomes.

Now, that doesn't mean that poor people don't suffer from a lot of specific hardships and that you wouldn't want to try to alleviate those hardships in different ways. But the idea that income inequality in itself is a source of unhappiness seems to be true in Europe, where they don't believe in the American dream nearly so much and they are much more inclined to feel that greater inequality means greater unfairness.

That is not the view of poor people, and it hasn't been for years. It has confounded—every researcher who does it comes away saying, "I can't believe this, but really, they are happier flipping hamburgers in the inner city now than they were before, and they are remarkable unresentful about people who are hedge fund managers and so forth."

Indeed, we can comfort ourselves with the fact that if happiness were distributed as unequally as income, we would have had a revolution long ago. But it is not. That holds the society together.

QUESTION: Let me focus on the politics of your Politics of Happiness, and particularly presidential politics and personal presidential politics. Can you make a case that presidents who have a generally happy demeanor usually end up running happier administrations and more stable administrations?

For instance, FDR [Franklin Delano Roosevelt] was an eternal optimist. Eisenhower ran a pretty stable government—there were omissions to be sure, but generally the 1950s were thought of as a placid, happy time. And Ronald Reagan we know was an optimist and smiling.

Lyndon Johnson, on the other hand, was filled with angst and was not a happy man probably as president. And Richard Nixon we know had his problems. Gordon Brown, over in England, which is having terrible problems, was a congenital grouch from the beginning.

You have talked about the demeanor equaling very often the reality. What is the case to be made for that?

DEREK BOK: Not strong. In the first case, I am reminded of the old, old saying that the plural of anecdotes is not data.

Just to indicate one of the specific hazards of reasoning in this way, it so happens that at an earlier point in my life, maybe 15 years ago, every summer I happened to be involved in an activity that took me to Aspen, Colorado. At the very same time that I was there, another activity brought Gordon Brown to Aspen. We would play tennis every morning, and after we played tennis we would have long talks about the state of the world. So I have the feeling I came to know Gordon Brown really quite well.

I think a nicer, more decent person, more concerned about the things that you would hope a politician would be concerned about, I have rarely met. So, while I agree the media face of Gordon Brown is a grouch, as you point out, is dour and so forth, that is certainly not the way I found him.

I came away saying, "Gee, any government who would have Gordon Brown at the head would be fortunate." Now, it doesn't seem to have worked out that way, but it does indicate the hazards of doing it.

I would be very surprised if the demeanor of a president had that much effect. I think people will judge by what is happening in their own lives. Although I think optimism, and certainly the optimism that Franklin Roosevelt had at a moment of maximum despair in our country, is very important politically. I doubt whether it had lasting effects.

I think the policies may have had lasting effects, however one wants to construe those, but I know of no evidence that would suggest—that's one of the things that perhaps hasn't been studied enough—that the kind of demeanor and view of life that a president gives forth really is powerful enough to change the happiness level perceptibly of the people.

But who knows? That is one of the things that may come out, like much else, that confound us in the future. But I don't think it has been done yet.

I must say this was a fascinating talk. But I have a suggestion for you. The follow-up book should be The Politics of Unhappiness. I think that is what we are seeing today. I think that the conservatives are really trying to make Americans unhappy so that they can have their way.

For example, how do you convince a population that they don't really need healthcare? You have to make them feel unhappy about whatever is connected with having that good in their lives. You see it again and again. I think that is a very serious question that requires a lot of serious investigation.

Without wanting to venture into those treacherous waters, putting it in party terms, I would certainly say one thing, that we do know that people's attitudes toward government, their confidence in government, has—surprisingly, it is one of the six things that really has significant effect on people's happiness.

Party aside, if you look at the kind of deadlock and stalemate that we have in the Congress at the present time—but I think, even more, if you look at the kind of vitriol that is poured into the system, whatever their political backgrounds may be, of a lot of the commentators who talk about public policy and talk about politics—I can't help but think that this eats away at people's public trust, and anything that diminishes public trust—now, clearly you want a balance; you don't want the people to trust the government too much. But there was a time not that long ago—it peaked in the early 1960s—when levels of trust were much higher.

It is also true that in every country I know of that is happier than the United States, on average, you have markedly higher levels of trust and confidence in government than you find in the United States.

I do think we have a political atmosphere here which has certainly not been helped by the state of political commentary. Even in the mainstream media, the tendency to dwell on the negative and not to emphasize the positive achievements of government I think is very harmful.

I did a study at one point where I got—because Americans differ terribly about the methods and the parties and the philosophy—they don't differ on the ends. There is very high consensus on what we would like to see in society.

I took 70 different things on which there was very high consensus—low employment and high growth and affordable healthcare and a whole bunch of things like that —and found that over a 40-year period demonstrably the United States had improved in over two-thirds of those cases, and only in less than a quarter had there been any deterioration. Yet, the polls of the government consistently showed the public saying, "The country is headed in the wrong direction, everything the government touches gets worse." None of these things could be true objectively.

That is clearly harmful. As long as we keep emphasizing the negative more than the objective evidence suggests that it should be, we will pay a price in terms of the happiness and well-being of the people.

QUESTION: I plead guilty to unfair practices because I read the book yesterday. I must confess I got nervous in reading that the Bhutanese, after taking their surveys of happiness, proceeded then to get rid of all their Nepalese immigrants, which made me a little nervous.

DEREK BOK: Only 100,000 of them.

There are complex questions. But I found it interesting that the unhappiest time of the entire New York public during the day was during commutation. I am going to cite that at a conference this afternoon on mass transit as an argument to improve mass transit to the outer boroughs. I am going to cite Derek Bok's book, that the unhappiest hour of the day of New Yorkers is in commutation. Are there other specific governmental practices pinpointed like that that you can suggest?

I certainly think the policy of greatly subsidizing owning homes in the remote suburbs and exurbs and subsidizing transportation to and from the city probably is very questionable in terms of its effect on happiness, because you are quite right about commuting.

Those are not the most unhappy moments. The most unhappy moment of the day is when you talk to your boss. Supposedly, a great many people in this room are bosses of someone. I just want to point that out. Be kind when someone comes to see you, because they are lots of times more frightened than they let on and they are not having a good time. If you put them at ease, you will do your little part to make the world a little happier than you found it when you got up this morning.

Thank you so much for tackling big questions that a lot of people wouldn't dare to tackle. An earlier book, as some of you know, tackled the question, "Are we allocating our human resources in the most optimal way?" which is another very important issue.

I would like to follow up a little bit more on what specific policy impact you could have with some of your arguments. I see some that would be very direct.

For example, people talk about occasionally eliminating the tax deduction for charitable contributions, which I know you would probably be upset with if they eliminated that. But it goes to society and the social organizations. It goes to creating this bond of people helping other people.

Another question might be mortgage deductions. Does owning a home bring some level of happiness over the long term? Maybe recently for some people out West, no.

But coming out of the financial crisis, are there ways that this research can influence politicians in Washington, adding to their arguments for making change that is important in your view?

DEREK BOK: Sure, there are a number of things. I'll just mention a few.

First of all, in healthcare I would give a higher priority to these three afflictions, which if you add them up, you're really talking about many millions of people suffering either from clinical depression or from sleep disorders or from chronic pain. There are certainly things government could do to alleviate those problems. They are all underfinanced and could be much better treated than they are already. So that is one thing.

I happen to believe in family policies. I think the Bush Administration, George W. Bush, was the first administration that put some real money into trying to strengthen families. Things like marital counseling, there is some pretty good evidence that that really does help hold marriages together. There is a lot of evidence that shows that people who want to get married but didn't, five years later, are very happy that they didn't. So that kind of research.

There is a lot of evidence that counseling with respect to unwanted pregnancy can help significantly reduce the amount of births to, particularly, single teen-age women. All the evidence is that the children of those marriages are not a source of joy to their parents and that certainly isn't a constructive way for the young people.

I would put a lot more money in preschool. Unfortunately, we don't understand exactly why, but preschool has enormous effects on reducing the kinds of behavior—it doesn't make people smarter, which is what it was put in for. It has an effect on their cognitive ability only for three years, or four years maybe, and then they sink back.

But suddenly, if you keep watching them, you notice that when they get into their teens, then late teens, and then into their 20s, you see they drop out of school less, they complete school more often, they are on welfare less often, they commit crimes less frequently. I'm sure all of those things benefit society, but also benefit the human beings. It can't be fun to be out of work or to be arrested and imprisoned and all the things that happen to so many children who grow up in one-parent families. Certainly you could have a measurable improvement on those things.

There are certainly things you could do to provide greater security and peace of mind for people in old age. A large number of people are paying huge amounts of out-of-pocket medical expenses. It must make it very hard to live.

Long-term care—most people have to bankrupt themselves in order to get long-term care.

There has been a huge movement away from annuities to giving people just a lump sum. There are lots of things government could do to alleviate that. But we do know, just to be precise about it, that people who have $30,000 guaranteed for life in an annuity are happier than people who have a lump sum that is giving them $50,000 a year in income but they have to live with the prospect that they might outlive their savings and not have anything but Social Security to sustain them.

Those are all just—that is just a sampling of specific practical things, none of which is a blockbuster but each of which could make a difference for really millions of people.

So just as the Senator from Illinois once said, "You know, a million here, a million there, and pretty soon you're talking about real money."

One of your great contributions at Harvard was the creation of the office for the arts. My question is: What do you see as the relationship between appreciation and participation in the arts and happiness?

DEREK BOK: I think that is a prime example of what I would mean by trying to have an educational policy that prepares people to live a full and rewarding life, as opposed to making them effective members of the workforce, which is what a succession of presidents explicitly did.

If you look at the things that we test every year, they are things that are related to workforce. We don't ask about their artistic interests, their civic knowledge and engagement. We ask about the skills that are related to the workforce. And we shouldn't. We should try to educate people to do a lot of things. The arts is certainly a very large part of it, developing a range of interests.

I think even something rather humble like exercise. You don't put all your money into sports that will not be played once you get out of school, like basketball and football. There's not much of that when you graduate. You have to get a lot of people together, and after a certain age they are not even appealing, no matter how many people you know whom you might get out for a game of touch football. If you have arthritis of the knees, the way I do, that's not a tempting prospect. So you are thrown back on other things.

But if you know how to swim or you are interested in running or mountain climbing or tennis or golf, those are things that you continue to enjoy for your whole life.

You have a very different agenda if you think of preparing people for a full life as opposed to preparing them to be productive workers. The arts is certainly an important part of that. That is one reason. We emphasize the arts at Harvard for that reason and we emphasize it because, even though we can't pretend to turn out a majority of students who will be really proficient artists themselves—whether it's music, sculpture, painting, photography, what have you—but we can turn out a lot more who are talented amateurs at it.

What's more, we can turn out a lot more who take pleasure from it, who know more about it, who are more interested in becoming trustees of artistic organizations and contributing to society in that way. So it really has multiple effects that are well worth the effort and time that you put into trying to inculcate those interests when people are still young enough to develop interests that they can enjoy for the rest of their lives.

Professor Bok, I thank you so much for such a wonderful morning. Thank you.

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