Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Those crazy French

The French have a reputation for pursuing the art of living. An appreciation of the finer things in life is a typically French quality. Their government reflects that pursuit back to the people through policies that reduce the hours of work of full time jobs, and that enable plentiful holidays. Their President, Nicolas Sarkosy, percieved as womaniser and playboy by some, embodies the French passion for life.

Sarkosy is now considering redirecting his government to use measures of happiness as a benchmark for progress; much like the quirky Kingdom of Bhutan, whose King Jigme Singye Wangchuck introduced Gross National Happiness as a measure of Bhutans progress in the 1970s.

It makes me wonder how subjective these measures might be, and how they will deal with the problem encountered by economists studying happiness - that after a shock to peoples happiness (death in the family, loss of job etc.), they return back to their equilibrium state rather quickly.  As a society, does this mean that this measure may lose validity, as the population has an equilibrium level of happiness that is not determined by external factors?  Poor government decisions would quickly drop from the radar as people returned to their previous happiness level. 

I can answer that one myself - no.  Because the measures being discussed are simply subjective weighted averages of external measures, such as air quality, income inequality etc.  The happiness measure therefore faces the problem of reconciling these subject external measurements with peoples actual self reported happiness.

Another interesting problem facing happiness researchers is that they can find very counterintuitive results.  For example, a new job actually decreases happiness, rather than increases it as would be expected.  An of course there is the Easterlin Paradox, which suggests that wealth is not an important factor in happiness.

But, in the end, what gets measured get managed.  If we as a society strive for progress of a kind that reflect our values of fairness, equality and our environmental concern, then maybe Gross Domestic Happiness is the tool for the job.  Maybe, it's simple another example of politicians playing politics.

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