Brian Lee CrowleyA swell of new research is trying to convince us that there’s a straightforward way government can make us happy. Don’t believe it, writes Brian Lee Crowley in the Ottawa Citizen – we don’t all feel happy in the same way or for the same reasons.

By Brian Lee Crowley, August 14, 2015

Happiness is generally regarded as a Good Thing, and far be it from me to disagree. Does that mean governments should try to promote happiness, in the way they try to promote, say, economic growth, investment and jobs?

Canada’s own John Helliwell, for instance, is a great exponent of happiness as an aim of public policy. He is thus one of the main authors of the World Happiness Report, now in its third year of publication. In the words of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network that publishes it, “The reports review the state of happiness in the world today and show how the new science of happiness explains personal and national variations in happiness. They reflect a new worldwide demand for more attention to happiness as a criteria for government policy.”

Note the invocation of one of the great power words of modernity: science.  We are now to believe that there is a “science of happiness” and that by scientific study we can know what makes people happy. And knowing this, who could possibly object to using this knowledge to guide policy?

After all, a lot of public policy is guided by the notion that more is better. That more income, more work, more investment, more development are all desirable and should be pursued. But, the happiness advocates argue, what if the rat race doesn’t make people happy? What if there is a level of income at which people are perfectly content and have access to all that they really need? Why wouldn’t it make sense to just make sure everybody had this income and thus increase the sum of human happiness?

One reason it doesn’t make sense is because happiness is a slippery and subjective thing and human beings don’t all feel happy in the same way or for the same reasons. That’s why governments tend to fall back on indirect measures of well-being like economic growth. They have the merit of being objective (we can measure pretty accurately whether we’ve got more or less of it), and most people’s definition of happiness involves more of things they value (child care, leisure time, hospitals, housing, income) most of which are made possible by more wealth, not less.

Or to put it in the Bard’s pithier language, “Oh! How bitter a thing it is to look into happiness through another man`s eyes.”

It is possible of course to put happiness maximization to the test. Apparently research shows that $70,000 is an annual income that makes people happy, and you can increase incomes above that level, but not get a corresponding increase in happiness.

This research convinced Seattle-based Gravity Payments CEO Dan Price to base his company’s pay policy on the happiness wage of $70,000. In a widely-lauded move, no one employed by the company is allowed to be paid less than that amount.

The first thing that happened, of course, was that a bunch of people were made unhappy.

For you see for many happiness depends not on the salary number, but what they think the number represents. It used to be that there was a good spread within the company between what untried and inexperienced new hires earned relative to the old hands who have proved their worth and were demonstrably the most productive members of the team. But the happiness salary pushed up everybody at the bottom, closing the gap between the two groups. Several of the best employees have quit, not because their salary went down, but because others got increases unwarranted by their work. The best people felt devalued and the company was abandoning the only fair policy: paying according to the economic value you create, not according to what makes your day. Shareholders too objected that the company had no right to pay more than the competitive wages established by the marketplace.

There’s just no making some people happy. And that’s exactly the point.

Brian Lee Crowley (twitter.com/brianleecrowley) is the Managing Director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an independent non-partisan public policy think tank in Ottawa: www.macdonaldlaurier.ca.