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Federal Government Spends Money Trying to Measure 'Happiness

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“The phrase ‘pursuit of happiness’ is in the Declaration of Independence, so it’s not a huge stretch to say we might want to measure life satisfaction."

It might be common sense that happiness is in the eye of the beholder, but don't let a little thing like that stand in the way of the Federal Government spending money to try to quantify it. A new study being undertaken by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is dedicated to trying to put a number to the amount of happiness any given person feels. Why the government wants to study topic has not been explained, though presumably, it could be applied to manipulating poll numbers.

One potential reason why the study is being done is due to widespread dissatisfaction among liberal social scientists with the prevailing idea that Gross National Product (GNP), or Gross Domestic Product (GDP), are good approximations for national happiness. The Washington Post, which caught this story, quotes a Robert Kennedy speech on this topic.

"Our gross national product, if we should judge America by that, counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage . . .it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile,” Robert Kennedy said in a 1968 speech.

In other words, GDP is just too objective and economics-focused for HHS, which wants to measure feelings. Certainly President Obama has welcomed the effort, to the point of naming a researcher on the concept of happiness, Alan Krueger, to be Chair of the Council of Economic Advisers.

The Post picks up the story from here:

According to proponents, a measure of happiness could help assess the success or failure of a range of government policies. It could gauge the virtues of a health benefit or establish whether education has more value than simply higher incomes. It might also detect extremes of inequality or imbalances in how people divide their time between work and leisure.

“The phrase ‘pursuit of happiness’ is in the Declaration of Independence, so it’s not a huge stretch to say we might want to measure life satisfaction,” said panel member Carol Graham, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of a book on the topic.[...]

In Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron has embraced the idea, and last year the government began asking survey respondents things like “Overall, how happy did you feel yesterday?” and “Overall, how satisfied are you with your life nowadays?” The U.K. Economic and Social Research Council is also funding the U.S. panel’s $370,000 budget. In France, President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2008 launched a commission including two Nobel winners, Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen, which opined that the “time is ripe for our measurement system to shift emphasis from measuring economic production to measuring people’s well-being.”

Reportedly, a number of methodological approaches have been proposed to try to measure "happiness." Most of them contain obvious methodological problems, but the government experts responsible for this study are presumably prepared to try to iron those out.

 
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