New Research: The Link Between Private and Public Happiness

Policy makers and economic scholars are increasingly searching for measures of national success that go beyond gross domestic product, and many are looking at measures of happiness and well-being.

The problem is defining “happiness.” The standard approach so far has been to simply ask people how good they feel about their lives. The answers tell you something, but they don’t reveal much about why people do or do not feel happy — or what might make things better.

A new survey by five economists, led by Daniel J. Benjamin of Cornell University and the University of Southern California, offers surprising insights on that. You can read their summary of the study here at Voxeu.org.

What the survey reveals is that the public and policy elements, such as how well a society takes care of others, rank surprisingly high in people’s evaluation of their own well-being.

The survey asked people to indicate the value they placed a long list of potential elements to their well-being. These included standard “private” components, such as personal health and financial security, but also “public” elements such as freedom from corruption and injustice or a society’s willingness to help the poor.

The researchers began by asking respondents to rank the importance of both the personal and public aspects of issues such as health.  For example, people were asked to rank the importance of their own health to their happiness, but also the importance of policies that promote public health. In addition, they were asked to rank the importance to their well-being of purely public policies, such as freedom of speech or the ability to participate in the political process.

As you might expect, respondents put a high importance on indicators of their own personal well-being.  But they also put a high value on policies to support the well-being of others. Some of the public-good elements had some of the highest ties to well-being. Among the most highly valued indicators of happiness were freedom from corruption and injustice; being in a society that is willing to help poor people; and having freedom of speech.

In other words, the paper suggests that happiness and well-being stem from much more than individual health and wealth. It turns out that people also want to feel good about the society in which they live. A big part of a person’s sense of well-being is tied to the feeling of living in a just and caring society.

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