What if public policy measured happiness?

In an earlier post, I talked about France’s consideration of “happiness” measures in public policy. We talked about this at our last MAPP (Master of Applied Positive Psychology) class weekend, and the different takes on it are very interesting. I just thought I’d briefly highlight some of the conversation points…

First of all, it was pointed out that Sarkozy is taking advice from economists. Nobel-prize winning economists, to be sure, but they are economists. It was also noted that when President Obama sets up his advisory committees, they consist largely of economists. Not a single positive psychologist – or any type of psychologist – around! Now I’m taking this all on faith – I haven’t actually looked up the names of advisors to the G8 leaders, but I’m willing to believe that there are a lot of economists and no psychologists. This means that there is a certain bias for a certain type of thinking in the room when discussions are going on, and that’s not the same type of discussion that we are having in our MAPP classes.

Economists tend to think of things in terms of rationality and marginal utility. This isn’t always true from a psychological point of view. For example, there is a well-cited study where people were asked if they would rather earn $50,000 per year, when everyone else around them is earning $30,000 per year, or if they would rather earn $100,000 per year when everyone else around them is earning $150,000 per year. (I may have the details slightly off, but you get the gist.) Most people pick the $50k job – that is, they would rather have less absolute salary, but relatively more salary, as compared to their peers. This choice, from an economic point of view, is completely irrational, and doesn’t figure into economic models. But psychologically it makes a lot of sense.

So where are the positive psychologists in public policy discussions?

And would we even know what to measure at this point? There are several different models of “happiness” at play – the positive psychology movement hasn’t picked a gold standard yet.

What is the role of your personal happiness in public policy?
What is the role of your personal happiness in public policy?

The field is simply too young to have converged yet. So are we talking life satisfaction? Are we talking subjective well-being? Are we talking eudaimonia? We just don’t know. Current thinking seems to be based on a life satisfaction measure – you can test yours at this site. It is a good valid and reliable measure, but it may not be the best basis for public policy.

On the other hand, perhaps it’s best to just simply start somewhere? I’m sure that early democracy was flawed, and may still be an imperfect system, but we’re working with it, and it’s the best model of government that we have so far…

So what do you think? And how satisfied are you with your life? Would you want public policy to measure your life satisfaction and would you want politicians basing decisions taking that into account? Please post your comments. Thanks!

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Lisa Sansom

Lisa Sansom has her MBA from the Rotman School of Management, and over two decades of experience in teaching and training. Her years of work in the organizational development field have included projects on change management, employee engagement, leadership development, team coaching and employer of choice strategies.

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