The Public Policy of Happiness

Eduardo Porter suggests, in the New York Times, that changes in public policy could foster more civil happiness

[T]here may be ways to increase satisfaction over the long term. . . .  While the extra happiness derived from a raise or a winning lottery ticket might be fleeting, studies have found that the happiness people derive from free time or social interaction is less susceptible to comparisons with other people around them. Nonmonetary rewards — like more vacations, or more time with friends or family — are likely to produce more lasting changes in satisfaction.

This swings the door wide open for government intervention. On a small scale, congestion taxes to encourage people to carpool would reduce the distress of the solo morning commute, which apparently drives people nuts.

More broadly, if the object of public policy is to maximize society’s well-being, more attention should be placed on fostering social interactions and less on accumulating wealth.

If growing incomes are not increasing happiness, perhaps we should tax incomes more to force us to devote less time and energy to the endeavor and focus instead on the more satisfying pursuit of leisure. One thing seems certain, lining up every policy incentive to strive for higher and higher incomes is just going to make us all miserable. Happiness is one of the things that money just can’t buy.

"Free time?"  "Social interaction"?  "[W]e should tax incomes more to force us to devote less time and energy to the endeavor and focus instead on the more satisfying pursuit of leisure."  Sound like any parts of the world you know?*

* Not, of course, that all their free time actually makes Europeans happier than Americans.  Europeans’ baseline level of happiness is lower than that of many other nations.  One reason is that religion — which, whatever else you may think of it, is a proven and powerful happiness-inducer — plays so small a role in European societies.  So what we can say is that, ceteris paribus, Europeans’ level of happiness would go down if they had to work much more, but Americans’ would increase if they had more leisure time.

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