Saturday, October 5, 2013

Happiness is a Side Effect, Not an Outcome to Pursue

Adbusters Magazine must be spinning in its grave vegan-powered washing machine. That was my first reaction when I saw that the tiny country of Bhutan is scrapping its emphasis on "gross national happiness" as an alternative to GDP. Bhutan has gained a strange notoriety in various leftist circles for fully embracing this weird and subjective measure, but it never quite lived up to its intellectual appeal.

The idea that GDP doesn't measure everything a country (and its citizens) cares about is self evident. Measures of environmental quality, capabilities, inequality, and the millennium development goals are all attempts correct for this basic fact. And clearly happiness is good and countries should want their citizens to be happy. But focusing on happiness is a bit like cheating: it ignores a lot of necessary complexity by trying to skip directly to the end of the game.

For one, making interpersonal comparisons of happiness is tricky. For example, the conventional wisdom that the richer people get the more leisure they enjoy is not always what we observe. As incomes go up, the opportunity cost of not working increases, making leisure more costly. Decisions individuals make about how best to pursue a good life are often idiosyncratic and counter-intuitive.

Most generally, actively pursuing end goals is often not the most effective way of achieving them. In situations with high causal density, simple intermediate goals inform decisions about process much better. A nice example might be the values caring parents try to instill in their children. Constantly emphasizing happiness or "doing what you love" is very likely less effective at promoting long-run flourishing than an intermediate process goal like "try your absolute hardest at whatever you do" or "never give up". Nobody would suggest that "grit" should be the goal of life, yet those who have it in spades invariably have better life outcomes.

Similarly, GDP seems to work pretty well as this sort of intermediate process goal for countries. Nobody truly believes GDP is an end in itself, but because it sits at a nexus of many causal factors, it's a natural concept for public policy to prioritize.

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