How Can Governments Create Happiness?

My entry last week summarized the policy recommendations from the World Happiness Report, summarized in the graphic above. Public policy is complex and messy. Happiness and wellbeing as public policy is not a magic bullet. It does provide a framework to more effectively prioritize policy.
“Our health, our family and relationships, the quality and nature of our work, the environment and education are all-important contributors to our sense of satisfaction with our lives. If we are to measure what really matters to people, then we need to measure these factors, too. (Kinderman, 2015)” These measurements can help government adapt policy as long “cultural factors” are considered (Bales, 2016).
“The extra happiness which that policy generates per dollar of expenditure provides the critical ratio which all other projects must exceed if they are to pass the test of value for money. (Layard and O’Donnell, 2015)”

Why is citizen participation critical to happiness and wellbeing public policy?

It is very difficult to design public policy for happiness and wellbeing without a strong understanding of “the factors contributing to people’s happiness and how they interact with policies. (Bales, 2016)” This is not to say that citizen happiness is a complete mystery to policy-makers. “Education policy, taxation rates, rules on benefits, and investment decisions by government all determine the quality of our employment, and therefore our well-being. Then add to this long list crime and justice matters, working hours, transport policies and city planning—all of these involve decisions at a state level, and have an impact on our well-being. (KInderman, 2015)”
Wellbeing policy is a “multi-dimensional challenge (Sachs, 2016)” meaning that any individual initiative has consequences that can affect happiness in other areas. Therefore, citizen participation in policy design and outcomes feedback is critical to achieve optimal outcomes at the lowest costs.
Complexity in Policy
What policy sectors can benefit from happiness and wellbeing measurements?

  • Policies that increase employment and help workers find jobs improves national wellbeing because the “long-lasting effect unemployment…the unhappiness from being laid off, the sense of being useless, tends to linger on in some cases for years afterwards (Miners, 2010)”
  • Working hours and employment flexibility can improve national happiness because  “most people would be happier earning less and spending more time with friends and family (Martin, 2014)”
  • “public policies that attempt to insulate citizens from the ups and downs of the market economy appear to promote greater human happiness for all citizens in a nation. (Flavin and Radcliff, 2014)”

Poverty and Inequality

  • Policies to increase income for the poor is considered effective but “for those above poverty level, increased income doesn’t improve average happiness levels very much. (Martin, 2014)” This requires a focus on pro-poor economic policies because “the relationship between wealth and well-being is complex: put simply, poverty makes people miserable, but wealth doesn’t necessarily make people happy (Kinderman, 2015)”
  • Notion of inequity in public policy depends on the country context. Inequality does not necessarily reduce happiness. “This may be because they are unaware of the scale of inequality in their country or because they do not view inequality as inherently unfair. (Snowden, 2012)”
  • Policies to reduce inequity and income inequality can have positive effects when combined with other efforts because “reducing income inequality is an important step to improving overall well being, though it misses several variables whose profound effects are necessary to understanding what determines happiness (Bales, 2016)”


  • Health services improve physical and mental health (Kinderman, 2015) that improves wellbeing.
  • Happiness and health are strongly related because”  happy people live longer; they commit suicide less; and they are less inclined to abuse alcohol or drugs. And third, happiness turns out to be quite good for society. (Miners, 2010)”


  • Traditional policies to improve growth often “ leads to higher subjective wellbeing in the long run (Sacks et al, 2012)”, but not necessarily in the short-term. (This is validated by the inclusion of GDP in the World Happiness Report as a statistically significant element when combined with others.

World Happiness Index 2


Bales, S. Happiness Matters: Measuring Happiness to Inform Government Policy. Prospect Journal of International Affairs, November 15, 2016.
Flavin, P; Radcliff, B; What Kinds of Public Policies Promote Human Happiness? Scholars Strategy Network, August, 2014.
Kinderman, P. Should Governments Measure Happiness? Greater Good, September 25, 2015.
Layard, R. Government’s role should be to increase happiness and reduce misery. Policy analysis must be recast to reflect outcomes in terms of changes to happiness. London School of Economics, 2011.
Layard, R; O’Donnell, G. How to Make Policy When Happiness is the Goal. World Happiness Report, September 2015.
Martin, B. Government goals and policy get in the way of our happiness. The Conversation, March 19, 2014.
Miners, Z. How Government Can Make the American Public Happy. USNews and World Report, April 30, 2010. 
Sachs, J. Happiness and Sustainable Development: Concepts and Evidence. World Happiness Report, December, 2016.
Sacks, D; Stevenson, B; Wolfers, J. Subjective wellbeing, income, economic development and growth Booth, P. (editor) … and the Pursuit of Happiness, Wellbeing and the Role of Government. The Institute of Economic Affairs, 2012.
Snowden, C. Are More Equal Countries Happier? Booth, P. (editor) … and the Pursuit of Happiness, Wellbeing and the Role of Government. The Institute of Economic Affairs, 2012.


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