If you want to understand how far the craze for measuring happiness has spread, look no further than that venerable U.S. institution, the Girl Scouts. Last week they rolled out a new badge for excellence in understanding "the science of happiness." And that should help the aspiring statisticians in their ranks, at least -- politicians have taken to happiness polls like kids after another package of Thin Mints. French President Nicolas Sarkozy recently suggested adjusting traditional economic indicators with a measure for happiness. Charles Seaford of Britain's New Economics Foundation notes that government officials in Australia, Britain, China, Ecuador, Germany, Italy, Spain, and the United States are joining France in moving toward tracking measures of the subjective quality of life. In Britain, the Office for National Statistics' Integrated Household Survey now asks how satisfied people are with their lives; Labour Party advisor Richard Layard has called for subjective well-being polls to replace GDP altogether as the measure of a country's progress.
Happiness polls certainly measure something that matters -- and results regarding "what makes you happy" are consistent across countries. Those who say they are happy smile more than average; they sleep better and are seen as happier by friends, family, and psychologists. People who say they are happier go on to live longer, healthier lives. Not least, the polls suggest the value to happiness of short commutes and long holidays -- two things we can all get behind. But wonderful though it may be to imagine calculating the costs and benefits of government action in giga-smiles per minute, there are real problems with using measures of happiness as the basis for policymaking.
Consider the much discussed link between happiness and income. We know with a fair degree of certainty that recessions make people unhappy, unemployment makes them even more so, and unusually rapid growth can lead to a temporary boost in reported well-being in a country. But while more money makes people happier in the short term, they may not stay that way: The link between long-term income growth and happiness is hotly debated. A 2002 study by economists Ada Ferrer-i-Carbonell and Paul Frijters looked at changes in the happiness of Germans over time, asking subjects about both income changes and how satisfied with life they were on a scale of zero to 10. The results suggested that it would take an 800,000 percent increase in income to raise the average German's reported satisfaction by one point on that 10-point scale. (In fact, happy people earn more as a result of their good humor -- who would you rather hire: Eeyore or Tigger? So governments might want to encourage happiness to improve economic performance, rather than the other way around.)