Should the Government Make Us Happy?

In Europe and elsewhere, governments are using ideas from the new science of well-being to try to make citizens more content. Will America follow their lead?
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Tim Kasser wants to be happy. If you live in America, odds are, so do you.

There's a crucial difference between you and Kasser, though. After two decades of poring over and contributing to academic research on what makes people happy or unhappy, anxious or depressed, Kasser can predict what's likely to keep him content and what isn't. He makes life choices based on those studies; he thinks if you did the same, you might end up happier. And he thinks it's time the government helps you get happy.

The research tells Kasser that Americans are cash-wealthy, time-poor and not as happy as they could be. So he teaches two-thirds time at Knox College, where he's been a psychology professor since 1995, devoting the extra nonteaching hours to research, writing, personal projects and time with his wife and two sons. The studies say a sense of community is important to well-being, so he works at this tiny college bordering the small, western-Illinois town of Galesburg, where he knows people he passes on the street and where, when you have a new baby, staff and faculty deliver food to your house for the next two weeks. The literature suggests that living simply will probably increase his feelings of contentment. So he lives on a farm eight miles from the school, raising goats, growing fruit and vegetables and taking long hikes in the woods.

With longish hair and a patchy beard, an untucked shirt hanging over his jeans, Kasser looks less like a professor than a grad student or a gas station attendant or, for that matter, any what-you-see-is-what-you-get Midwesterner. He's the kind of guy who will readily acknowledge to the university president's wife that he hasn't cut his hair in months or combed it in years. It's no surprise he wrote a book that examines how materialism is hazardous to America's mental health.

A version of this story originally appeared in the June/July 2008 issue of Miller-McCune. Subscribe now to support journalism in the public interest.

A version of this story originally appeared in the June/July 2008 issue of Miller-McCune. Subscribe now to support journalism in the public interest.

Kasser doesn't want to be the exemplar of the perfect, blissful, anti-consumer life. He owns (and plays) an expensive piano, and he enjoys drinking orange juice, even though it travels from Florida to Illinois via methods he knows are ecologically damaging. Once in a while, a bitingly sarcastic comment does pop into his head and exit his mouth. Just the same, Kasser is well aware of the well-being consequences of his every action: Is coaching his son's soccer team a good way to bond with his child and volunteer for the community or another chore in a slammed schedule in need of breathing room? Should he fly to New York to give a speech promoting his ideas on making America happier, or would it be a huge mistake, depriving him of quality time with his family (and, again, impairing the environment)?

"This is the constant background hum of my life," he says. "There are days I wish I didn't pay attention to it all. But I'm built to ask these questions."

What was once an internal monologue has broadened far beyond Kasser's research subjects and daily affairs. He has haltingly begun to wonder aloud about what kinds of laws, and even what kinds of political systems, might make people happiest, venturing outside the laboratory and classroom to assume a role that once made him very uncomfortable: political activist.

Kasser is among the loudest in a growing chorus of academics who are boldly — and, some say, prematurely — asking governments to transform the conclusions of the maturing body of happiness science into real-world public policies. They're pushing targeted regulations like limits on advertising to children. They want welfare programs to emphasize mental health. More generally, they hope governments will begin to make decisions with an eye toward citizens' life satisfaction. Governments in Europe and elsewhere have already put these concepts into practice, but even as Americans embrace the research personally by scooping up self-help books, happiness-oriented government in the United States remains far from a reality.

Arguments over happiness and life satisfaction reach back to the dawn of Western moral philosophy. The Greek philosopher Epicurus believed in a happiness marked by the presence of pleasure and absence of pain, an early form of hedonism — though his version was far more reserved than the modern conception, with its sexual ecstasy and lavish meals. Aristotle wrote of the happy medium of eudaemonia (literally "having a good guardian spirit"), linking the good life with being a virtuous person and hypothesizing that life satisfaction is highest among those who balance momentary pleasures with meaningful work on behalf of others. The good works/good life view influenced the Romans and early Christians, permeating Western civilization until Enlightenment thinkers made the world safe for a more earthly happiness — and hedonism — once again, even among religious adherents.

In the United States, the founders enshrined the "pursuit of happiness" among the inalienable rights in the Declaration of Independence, though Thomas Jefferson likely had a happiness of virtue, not merely pleasure, in mind. Until the past few decades, however, no simple way existed to measure happiness — pleasurable, virtuous or other — on a large scale. So America and other countries have turned to a readily available measure of prosperity: money.

The logic is simple: The more choice we have, the happier we are, and the more money we have, the more choice. The notion adheres to Adam Smith, who theorized that rational, self-interested actions promote the good of all, in the form of material wealth. Whether we're aware of or agree with the underlying theories matters little. In the U.S., the government and citizens use financial health as a proxy for well-being: We compare our country to others based on the size of our gross domestic product, or GDP; listen for the stock market's daily ebb and flow at the top of the newscast hour; feverishly check our bank balances online; and job-hop across the country for higher-salary work.

By most economic measures, we're far and away the world leader — in the case of GDP, triple the size of the next follower, Japan. We also work more hours and take fewer vacation days, however, than any industrialized country, and one in four Americans suffers from anxiety or depression, the highest such percentage in the world, though it may be inflated by our willingness to acknowledge mental illness.

Among critiques of the American government's obsession with GDP, a 1967 Robert Kennedy speech stands out. He noted that GDP rises when there is higher air pollution and more cigarette advertising yet neglects the strength of American marriages and the intelligence of public officials. That measure of economic activity accounts for, Kennedy said, "neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile."

At the time, psychologists were unknowingly planting the seeds of measures that might replace or modify GDP. During the Eisenhower years, Abraham Maslow expanded eudaemonistic ideas to describe a hierarchy of needs, from lower physical ones, such as food, to higher psychological desires, including the fruitful relationship. Among nations struggling to tackle famine, these higher desires might have seemed ridiculous. In booming, postwar America, they struck a chord.

The ideas of humanistic psychologists like Maslow were appropriated by a range of followers, including idealistic New Agers searching for self-actualizing transcendence. But an academic group incorporated them into a new branch of inquiry dubbed positive psychology. Instead of studying mental illness and its cures, the researchers measured and examined people at their psychological best, searching for insights into traits like creativity and resilience.

As positive psychology journeyed from academic backwater to best-seller lists, its proponents began tracking subjective well-being, a scientific term for what we call "happiness." They have produced a rich body of work describing the attributes and activities of people who say they're happiest.

This group certainly lives well: They're more likely to have stronger immune systems, live longer, earn more money and stay married. To be sure, much of the research shows only a correlation between happiness and the good life; these people's fortunes could be responsible for making them feel happy, instead of the other way around. Yet long-term studies have suggested the benefits of being content: The happiest quartile among a group of 22-year-old nuns went on to live about nine years longer than their peers, and cheery college freshmen generally earned higher incomes 19 years later. The well-being figures represent more than just meaningless, touchy-feely happiness scores. Those who say they're content are described by friends as happier, and the contented exhibit similar physical characteristics, including greater activity in their left prefrontal cortices, the part of the brain generally linked to positive emotion.

The research also describes contributors to happiness, such as the daily activities people enjoy most (sex) and least (commuting) and events that make them happy for years (marriage) and less happy for a lifetime (getting laid off). It also holds a litany of counterintuitive findings suggesting how people might live happier lives. For example, as expected, people who do good works often report higher subjective well-being. Yet even those pushed to "volunteer," such as in an experiment that required subjects to perform small acts of kindness like holding the door open for a stranger, have higher happiness levels months later.

Unfortunately, study after study shows that humans are terrible at predicting what will make them happy and at making decisions that will lead to their own contentment — especially when it comes to money.

Sometime around 1991, Kasser ran the regression that changed his life. Kasser, then a master's candidate in psychology at the University of Rochester in upstate New York, was studying people's goals, using a primitive tool he'd dubbed the "aspiration index." It asked subjects about their future lives and how important it was for them to be, for example, financially successful or involved in an intimate relationship.

After he'd collected the data, Kasser sat in front of the computer, searching for associations within the numbers. Several questions related to material goods, and a few asked subjects how they felt.

Wow, Kasser wondered, wouldn't it be cool if people who cared about money were less happy?

He assembled an equation, hit return and then waited.

The result: a significantly negative correlation. After taking into account all of a subject's aspiration scores, the more materialistic the person, the less likely he was to be happy.

Kasser hadn't exactly been searching for an experiment to undercut the American dream. He'd grown up in an upper-middle-class household that bounced around the Midwest and the South, and he attended Nashville's Vanderbilt University, hardly a bastion of anti-consumerism, where he voted to re-elect Ronald Reagan.

In fact, Kasser was more interested in the process of personal growth, so the materialism-happiness link was just one among several significant results he brought to his mentor, psychology professor Richard Ryan. The professor immediately seized on the finding, and they found similar effects in data from other experiments. Materialism and mental health formed the core of Kasser's graduate work and much of his research since (though he studies everything from dreaming to celebrity worship). He can now confidently state that people who buy into the American dream of pursuing wealth and material goods are more depressed, anxious and unhappy than those who don't.

Many researchers have come to similar conclusions. Although wealthier people are clearly happier than the poor, above a salary level of about $20,000 a year, the increase in well-being from higher income diminishes, and after a year of receiving a higher salary, two-thirds of its psychic benefits have worn off. This is especially true in rich nations, where citizens, riding on a metaphorical hedonic treadmill, increase their aspirations as their income rises. People in high-income areas of the United States actually report lower happiness than those in low-income ones (after statistically controlling for individual income). Even the image of money — such as Monopoly cash placed in a subject's view — makes people less likely to help or choose to spend time with others.

"Income doesn't matter as much as you think," says John Helliwell, an economist at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver. "People routinely overestimate what they'll get from material things and underestimate what they'll get from social interactions."

Some have criticized this happiness research as just quantifying ideas that seem obvious. Nevertheless, few Americans have incorporated the conclusions into their lives; if they had, our GDP per person wouldn't have tripled since World War II.
"One of the things I find most annoying is people saying, ‘Of course, that's common sense,'" Swarthmore College psychology professor Barry Schwartz says. "Well, it's common sense that stable family relationships, close ties to communities and friends and meaningful work are significant contributors to happiness. Fine. No earthshaking insights there. Then why are so many people doing everything they can to sacrifice close relationships and giving up the chance to do meaningful work, in order to have a house with another 2,000 square feet?"

Though there's disagreement over figures, subjective well-being levels have remained stagnant or declined slightly in the United States since the 1970s. Among Americans who reached 35 years of age in the 1950s, 2 percent had experienced depression. Of those who reached 35 in the 1990s, 14 percent had suffered the blues. The U.S. is an extreme case of the Easterlin Paradox, named for University of Southern California economist Richard Easterlin, who demonstrated in the early 1970s that citizens of rich countries are happier than poor ones, but as countries gain in wealth, happiness levels don't increase. We are richer than ever, but it doesn't seem to make us feel better.

In the fall of 2001, Kasser walked a picket line outside the Grand Hyatt hotel in New York City. Inside the building, the advertising industry was handing out Golden Marble Awards for marketing to kids. The Stop Commercial Exploitation of Children coalition was holding a counterconference and lunchtime protest.

Kasser, then a 35-year-old professor, held a sign and yelled chants lambasting ads aimed at kids. The young organization had asked Kasser to speak and offered to pay his way to New York. He didn't know the group's leaders, but he was passionate about the issue; he had little question that the more advertising and marketing messages children viewed, the more damage to their psychosocial growth and development, in the form of everything from body image problems to violent behavior to hyper-sexualization. It was his very first protest.

Kasser's actions that day violated an unwritten rule of his field. Psychology professors are to conduct experiments, publish their data widely and cautiously offer opinions when asked — not walk the streets shouting rebukes at major American corporations.

"As a scientist, I'm trained to be objective and hand over policy options to the policymakers. I'm trained not to get into this kind of stuff," Kasser says.

He had never planned to become an activist. As he was writing The High Price of Materialism the year before, he struggled through the final chapter, which offered solutions. Telling people what to do made him feel uncomfortable. Yet his research attracted countless calls and e-mails — from sustainability-oriented conference organizers, looking for someone with a Ph.D. after his name to lend gravitas to their ideas, or reporters, asking him what to do about the problems his research highlighted. Kasser had a choice: Tell them to go ask someone else or read and research enough to give thoughtful answers and talks. Gradually, he began to choose the latter. By 2007, he was publishing papers on the psychological costs of living under American capitalism.

"I feel like I've been pushed into it, to be honest," he says. "Somebody needed to say it, and I'm in a position to say it."
Though few in the field are as outspoken as Kasser, many are calling for policies that emphasize happiness. They don't agree on a broad policy platform, but there are several common themes. Most important is the belief that subjective well-being research, though far from perfect, offers solid data on ways to help citizens. "We have a good idea about the things that matter," Schwartz says. "Even getting it a little wrong by going with what psychology currently knows is a lot better than what we're doing now, which is definitely getting it very wrong."

As a first step, many theorists favor tracking citizens' happiness. In a 2004 paper called "Beyond Money: Toward an Economy of Well-Being," positive psychology patriarchs Edward Diener of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign and Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania synthesized decades of research to argue that the time had come for the United States and other wealthy nations to stop concentrating solely on material wealth and to directly examine how happy their citizens are. It helped spark dozens of well-known professors worldwide to campaign for adding subjective well-being indicators to national accounts.

Using such information seems relatively uncontroversial: Targeted life-satisfaction polling might help local governments more accurately weigh the costs and benefits of siting airports or public parks. And economists have translated and adapted psychology research, making direct comparisons by putting dollar values on life events, activities and environmental factors. For example, one study estimated that the difference between happiness levels in Swiss municipalities with the most referenda, or local direct votes, and those with the least was roughly equivalent to that of doubling a person's salary level. Comprehensive, long-term research on individuals might also prove beneficial, helping people make decisions — such as accepting a higher-paying job with a longer commute — that might affect their happiness.

"We could make more informed choices if we knew how things have panned out for people like us who made the same choice 10 years ago," said Erasmus University, Rotterdam professor Ruut Veenhoven, editor of the Journal of Happiness Studies. "States that really care about the happiness of citizens should finance such research."

Over time, government officials may use the knowledge acquired through happiness research to make decisions of their own, in a more sophisticated version of poll-tested politics. If social relationships and working fewer hours per week actually make us happier — and many psychologists are willing to stake their reputations on that claim — mandatory vacation laws or investment in more efficient transportation might allow people more control of their time. If happy people are more productive, and if happiness is as much as 40 percent under our control, as University of Southern California professor Sonja Lyubomirsky argues in her book, The How of Happiness, cognitive behavioral therapy or emotional resilience programs might prove more than worth the investment in the long term.

Psychologists have little luck gaining the ears of government officials, who mistrust the fuzzy social science of what people think, sense and feel (except when it comes to campaigns and speeches). Economists, on the other hand, offer hard data on what people do — known as "revealed preferences" — and are more often welcome in the halls of power. The happiness economics subfield has already attracted major researchers, including Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman. Of 465 economic journal articles published between 1960 and 2006 with "happiness," "life satisfaction" or "well-being" in the title, 61 percent were published after 2000, according to an analysis by Andrew Clark of the Paris School of Economics.

Ironically, such money-focused research into well-being has helped convince governments and transnational bodies to take the psychologists' ideas to heart — in many rich countries but not in the United States.

Decades ago, when the tiny south Asian Kingdom of Bhutan announced a focus on "gross national happiness," it was dismissed as an odd scheme by a backward developing country. But similar ideas are edging into the mainstream in much of the world: Even the staid Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which includes most of the world's wealthiest states, hosted a "Beyond GDP" conference in November. Ireland and New Zealand have begun to take account of their citizens' social cohesion and stress, and in January, French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced that two Nobel Prize winners, Joseph Stiglitz and Armatya Sen, would lead a commission to develop a happiness indicator for his country.

In the Western world, the United Kingdom is doing more than any other country in the way of happiness policy, partly thanks to the efforts of Lord Richard Layard, a politician and economics professor who wrote Happiness: Lessons From a New Science, a virtual blueprint for happiness by government, and the New Economics Foundation, an activist think-tank focused on happiness and the environment. Some of Layard's more radical ideas, such as using government funds to train 10,000 cognitive behavioral therapists, have yet to gain traction. But England has spent millions of pounds on well-being advisory commissions, and while issues like health and ecology are part of the term "well-being," happiness is near the center of the well-being conversation. At least one prime ministerial adviser has spoken publicly in favor of Layard's proposal to raise taxes to encourage people to work less and spend more time with their families.

A nascent program called the Local Wellbeing Project aims to put Layard's words into action. A partnership between the professor, the nonprofit Young Foundation and the British government's Improvement and Development Agency, the three-year project is a social welfare program with happiness as a main goal.

The project is working with three local authorities in the United Kingdom — Hertfordshire, Manchester and South Tyneside — to set up a series of interventions. Along with standard big-government fare like job-training programs, these include emotional resilience classes to help adolescents face psychological obstacles, befriending initiatives to reduce isolation and depression among seniors and programs that focus on recognizing acts of kindness in the community to create a sense of neighborhood and shared place.

Although Young Foundation leaders aren't nearly ready to claim success, some encouraging evidence is coming out of South Tyneside, a northern town that fell victim to harsh industrial decline in the 1980s and where the majority of residents live in neighborhoods among the most deprived in England. The Local Wellbeing Project there has made an impact: The number of participants in one of its "positive parenting" programs tripled last year. And an informal study measuring South Tyneside's progress quoted a young adult's verdict on the apprenticeship program: "Before youth choice, all I did was sit in the house and watch TV. Now I feel really good about myself and know that I can be the same as everybody else."

Despite its research prowess, the U.S. government hasn't done much to pursue happiness as a policy. A recent Senate subcommittee hearing on adding well-being indicators and other measures to the calculation of GDP was attended by one senator — North Dakota's Byron Dorgan, who had organized the event. J. Steven Landefeld, director of the Commerce Department's Bureau of Economic Analysis, supports adding happiness measurements as a satellite to the official economic and GDP measures — he just doesn't think his department is the place to do it. Federal, state and local entities already fund millions of dollars of programs aimed at non-economic well-being, from Fourth of July fireworks to biking trails. But serious attention to government programs promoting happiness seems nonexistent.

"Maybe in a decade," Diener says.

Everyone in the field, and every skeptical outsider, has a theory of why American research hasn't translated into policy. The critics cite one chief reason: There just isn't enough solid science available to support such programs. Darrin McMahon, the Florida State University professor who wrote Happiness: A History, questions whether 40-odd years of experiments have really turned up something more valuable than the last four millennia of philosophical inquiry. "There's no doubt that a good deal of research coming out of this is useful, and I know they've made every attempt to be rigorous," he says. "Yet they're all claiming objectivity, all claiming to have a single magical key to orchestrate all policies around, and that hasn't proven to be the case."

Some high-profile, pro-happiness publications have even undermined their own movement, such as when the New Economics Foundation's 2006 Happy Planet Index placed narco-state Colombia at No. 2 on its list. And for all of GDP's failings as a measure of prosperity, the populations of countries with the highest GDP, including the U.S., are among the healthiest and happiest in the world. A few recent studies have pointed to stronger links between national wealth and subjective well-being, undermining longstanding confidence in the Easterlin Paradox among some economists. Happiness policy skeptics like the Cato Institute's Will Wilkinson say Easterlin's logic is faulty — it's not that people aren't getting happier as they get wealthier but that they're adjusting their expectations upward.

Arguably the most knowledgeable nonscientist in the United States on happiness and public policy, Wilkinson has emerged as a cogent critic of the nascent movement. It's not hard to see why. His free-market beliefs clash directly with almost everything the mostly leftist happiness professors propose. "When people look at happiness data," Wilkinson says, "they're more likely to see their own ideology reflected back at them."

There aren't many happiness science professors focused on boosting church attendance, which correlates with subjective well-being, Wilkinson notes, or fewer worker protection laws (another correlate). And after controlling for other variables, he says, no correlation seems to exist between more generous social welfare systems and happiness levels.

Nevertheless, Wilkinson's most powerful arguments against the policies that have been enacted in Europe and proposed in the U.S. are less factual than philosophical. If scientists can prove that mindful meditation or marriage instruction makes people happier, he says, the proper response is to get the word out and let people choose — not to spend public money on tax breaks or government programs that encourage people to patronize meditation and marriage classes. "It offends my sensibility. Here's some expert working for the government who's going to tell you how to run your life and make you do certain things. I want to leave in people's own hands the decisions about their own happiness," he says.

Though most Americans are not as conservative as Wilkinson, attitudes about government intervention are likely at the root of the split between America and Europe on happiness-by-government. Even in the EU, happiness-oriented policy is in its infancy, often a secondary conversation alongside issues like unemployment. And the U.S. government does make paternalistic, values-oriented decisions, such as giving tax breaks to religious groups and homeowners. Yet people living in, or governing, countries with nationalized health care and massive welfare systems seem more open to happiness policy interventions than the free-market-leaning United States.

Kasser and many allies offer a more cynical analysis, asserting that government institutions and corporations are preventing change. There's no anti-happiness conspiracy, per se — it's just that policies focused on social goods at the expense of consumption would be damaging to those in power, and powerful entities are unlikely to cede their turf.

Take Kasser's campaign to ban marketing to children, one of the U.S. happiness policy battles he views as winnable. When he visited Illinois' congressional staffers in 2005 to plead his case, they told him it was a noble but politically untenable idea. There was little grassroots support to overcome potential lobbying pressure from a $15 billion-plus industry looking to protect its bottom line.

The research was clear. But so were the politics.

Kasser tells the story of his legislative adventure while eating a veggie dog, sitting at the lunch counter of Coney Island, a straight-out-of-the-1950s soda fountain up the street from his office. Behind him is a pinball machine you can play for a nickel, and vintage Coca-Cola signs, clocks and promotional materials line the walls. But the community feeling Kasser craves isn't found only in small towns like Galesburg.

As he has traveled the country, visiting conferences and making speeches, he's met many kindred spirits and discovered pockets of passionate grassroots interest. Several cities, including Boston, keep track of well-being indicators on frequent contributors to happiness, such as civic engagement and commuting times. Nonprofits like the Templeton Foundation have funded positive psychology research, and corporations, including the clothing retailer Patagonia, have brought in happiness researchers as advisers to help boost performance. Many companies, Microsoft among them, have tried to increase worker efficiency by getting employees into "flow," the condition of intense happiness, focus and productivity studied by positive psychology researcher Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. The Center for a New American Dream, a Washington, D.C., organization focused on such issues as sustainable consumption, is in discussions with the New Economics Foundation about integrating happiness into its advocacy programs.

Still, there is no real U.S. hub for happiness policy.

"Most of the people I know are an issue away from happiness," Kasser said in a telephone interview. "They're pushing on things I think could potentially increase happiness but not taking happiness as the main mover." To Kasser, that's not necessarily a bad thing. Though most Americans want to be happy, he's well aware of their aversion to a Big Brother figure mandating policies to increase personal happiness.

In fact, Kasser doesn't really see himself as a "happiness" researcher. He's still interested, he says, in what's he's been studying since graduate school: personal growth and development, which, the data just happen to tell him, are hindered by both overconsumption and time poverty. His other political passions, such as an emphasis on ecological sustainability, can be seen in the context of allowing future generations and other species to thrive.

"I don't believe governments can make people happy, but I do believe governments can remove institutions which make it difficult for people to pursue happiness," he says.

Those institutions range from marketers who make Americans more materialistic to workplaces that discourage flexible hours. Kasser doesn't favor fiats that force people to live a certain way, just regulations and programs that give them more time with their families and let them live less stressed-out lives.

What Kasser is hoping for, eventually, is a revolution of values about what is important in life, from Main Street to Wall Street to K Street. His views may contradict everything many Americans believe in and the choices most of us make. Yet vast cultural change on issues from civil rights to child labor laws has occurred in the past, and Kasser has seen mini-breakthroughs on his pet issues, such as America's recent, rapid adoption of compact fluorescent light bulbs to save energy.

He alternates between pessimism and optimism, worry about where the country is headed and hope in our capacity to adapt. But he will sacrifice his time — and a bit of happiness — to keep pushing his message out. "I believe my work has social importance — maybe I'm kidding myself," he says. "There's a part of me that believes if a politician came forth with this core set of ideas and presented them, they'd have some legs."

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