National Happiness

Our Declaration of Independence lists “the pursuit of happiness” as one of our unalienable rights and says government should function to effect the safety and happiness of the people. Our Constitution was established to “promote the general welfare.” Economist Richard Layard proposes that happiness for its citizens should be one of the missions of government. In his book, Happiness: Lessons From a New Science, he describes some principles that would contribute to the goal of optimizing the overall happiness of the nation.

Work relationships are very important. Unemployment causes misery far beyond any decrease in income because it breaks social ties, in addition to damaging personal identity and meaning in life.

Average happiness in countries is largely dependent on how much people can trust each other, what proportion belong to social organizations, the unemployment rate, and the amount of stability and security government provides. Crime and mental illness are higher in countries with highly mobile, transient populations. We live in a very complex, interconnected world that requires cooperation and common effort to maximize trust and security.

Scientific research shows that societies do not become happier as they become richer. People tend to measure their satisfaction with their income relative to others rather than in terms of absolute income. Income is addictive and has a diminishing positive effect as it increases. The more money we make, the more money we think we need. People feel more rivalry for income than for leisure time, so they sacrifice leisure to increase income and may decrease happiness in the process.

Since we now have methods for measuring happiness, governments should measure and value gross national happiness at least as much as they do gross national product (GNP). Removing misery does more good than augmenting happiness. Dollars spent on the poor have more beneficial effect than the cost to the wealthy. Taxes proportional to income help compensate for the decrease in happiness of those who earn less than the higher earner. Our national goals should include promoting community life, reducing unemployment, prohibiting advertising to children, supporting education (including moral education), and encouraging fewer hours watching TV.

These are some of the interesting and provocative ideas from Layard’s book. Now we need to discuss the details.

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