UNC panel tackles happiness and public policy connection

CorrespondentDecember 10, 2013 

Paul Dolan

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— They say you can’t buy happiness, but can you scientifically measure it?

The question was the subject of a panel discussion at UNC last week called “Measuring Happiness & Well-Being,” where experts discussed what role good feelings should play in shaping public policy.

Paul Dolan, a professor of behavioral science at the London School of Economics, has focused his studies on just this question.

“I heard someone just outside ask, ‘How can you measure something so subjective (like happiness)?’” Dolan told the audience. “And I get that all the time. The whole point is that it is subjective!”

“When you go to the doctor with a pain in your leg, and he or she says to you, ‘Where’s the pain?’” Dolan said. “You say in your leg. The next question is, ‘How much does it hurt?’ And pain medication is based on your subjective expression of how much it hurts.

“Now actually, it would be nice to find out how happy you are without having to ask you,” he continued. “But I can’t actually think of a better way than to ask you. I think you’re actually a pretty good guide to how much pain you’re in.”

Dolan, who lives in the United Kingdom, said Americans are, on average, slightly happier than their British counterparts, but they are also more anxious.

“You’re a bit more neurotic than the Brits,” Dolan said. “But interestingly, on the positive measures, the life satisfaction and happiness question, it’s driven entirely by more people reporting a 10 out of 10 than we get in the U.K.

“Make of that what you will: you’re either genuinely happier or severely deluded.”

Happiness measures, Dolan said, could be used to form policy that seeks to find the largest components of happiness and use public money to increase them.

“We can use them as an indicator, alongside other indicators: Life expectancy rates, suicide rates, gross domestic product, to see how well we’re doing over time,” he said.

Dan Ariely, a psychology and behavioral economics professor at Duke University – and founder of the cleverly titled Center for Advanced Hindsight there, which researches human behaviors like cheating – said one problem with measuring happiness is that our biggest sources of it are not always easily to recognize.

Take a man climbing a mountain: Ask at any point in his climb, “Are you happy?” and the answer would probably be a resounding, “No!”

“If you think about this climbing, these are really challenging, painful experiences,” Ariely said. “And (yet) when people get down, all they want to do is go up again.”

Experiences like this show that sometimes difficult or challenging moments that might not be immediately pleasurable provide a different sense of happiness in our lives, he said.

The panel also included Matthew Adler, a professor of economics, philosophy and public policy at Duke University, and Carol Graham, a professor at the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland.

The crowd was standing-room-only, with almost 130 people packed tightly into UNC’s Hyde Hall.

Skye Westra, a sophomore from Wilmington, said hearing about the talk piqued her interest.

“Everybody wants to become happy,” she said. “But how do we become happier?”

Walker: memetwalker@gmail.com

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