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5 Ways to Take Happiness Seriously

Editor’s Note: Welcome to our new Board of Directors member, Rob Moore, the author of this post. He brings a unique perspective to our work.

A lot of people I know scoff when I start bringing up “happiness” in a public policy context. Happiness doesn’t get the attention that other social goals like economic growth, unemployment, and national security get. For some reason, people don’t take happiness seriously.

I’m sure you could brainstorm dozens of reasons that people don’t take happiness seriously in public policy. One reason in particular, though, especially interests me: our lack of a method to measure happiness.

Economic growth has GDP. Unemployment has simple ratios for measurement. And national security? Well, let’s just say we know when national security becomes a public focus.

Happiness, on the other hand, is a more elusive concept. How do we know when a society is happy? How do we make this a serious, measurable concept?

I’ll put forth five ways that we try to measure happiness in society, five rigorous frameworks that show that happiness improvement is a serious and attainable social goals for governments.

  1. Preference maximization, or economic growth. This definition says that the more options people have in a society, the more likely they are able to choose happier lives. This framework is both liberal (focusing on the ability of individuals to choose their own lives) and utilitarian (focusing on maximization of happiness through quantification).

Economic growth is traditionally measured through Gross Domestic Product, or GDP, the total value of goods and services provided in a country every year. Benefit-cost analysis is the systematic public policy tool we have for measuring economic impacts of public policies.

An alternate measure of economic growth is the Genuine Progress Indicator, or GPI. GPI works to measure economic growth using what we know about the economic impacts of inequality, consumer good durability, environmental indicators, unemployment, and other social indicators. GPI is still a measure of preference maximization, but one that factors in more of what we know about economic growth.

  1. Poverty. Poverty is a barrier to happiness because people theoretically need a basic amount of income in order to achieve happiness. Measures of poverty like the official poverty measure, the supplemental poverty measure, relative poverty measures, as well as concepts of deep and extreme poverty help us understand the problem of poverty in the US rigorously.
  2. Inequality. In John Rawls’ 1972 landmark A Theory of Justice, the political philosopher lays out the reasoning that a society that is blind to individual circumstance (and thus treats every individual with dignity) is one that maximizes individual liberties and has a strong preference for equality. Measures like the Gini coefficient and percentages of income and wealth distributed to different quintiles of society give us a rigorous understanding of inequality in the country. In this framework, society supports happiness by giving each individual equal ability to succeed.
  3. Capabilities. Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum’s “capabilities approach” takes this logic one step further. By adopting a more broad conception of happiness as “flourishing” in Aristotle’s sense of the word, the capabilities approach says that people need at the basic level access to the “capabilities” such as income, education, and health. These then give individuals the basis they need to achieve happiness.

The capabilities approach has spawned measures such as the Human Development Index and an argument could be made that this framework is the closest to the Bhutanese Gross National Happiness measure.

  1. Self-assessed well-being. Some happiness economists have started to measure happiness by simply asking people how they feel about their lives. They do this by, for instance, asking people to assess how well their lives are going on a scale from one to ten. The Happiness Alliance offers one such self-assessment. A briefer one (take the survey here) has been used during our Happiness Walk and Happiness Dinners to elicit responses in more informal settings.

These sorts of surveys, if made more prevalent, could help policymakers and the public learn more about what sorts of people are living lives they themselves consider to be meaningful. We can then use these measures to get an idea of the impact of public policy changes on self-assessed well-being.

I am honored to have the opportunity to join the board of Gross National Happiness USA and join the effort of promoting these measures of happiness. Next month, I will publish a paper on Ohio’s genuine progress indicator from 2009 to 2016. I plan to use this paper as a starting point for a broader conversation about the measurement of economic growth and happiness in Ohio and in the states in general. If you would like to talk to me about this project, feel free to email me at

We have a lot of work to do, but with better measurement comes better ability for us to improve lives in the United States.

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