If you’re happy and you know it, vote for me

TheGlobeandMail.com – News/National/Focus
Published Monday, Dec. 06, 2010.   Sarah Hampson, Ottawa

It was in the 1970s that American economist Richard Easterlin identified what became known as the Easterlin Paradox – the fact that there is a “satiation point,” a level of income beyond which more money would not produce more happiness. Since then, research floodgates have opened.

“Happiness is mostly about opportunity, good health, relationships and freedom to choose who you want to be,” Eric Noel of Oxford Analytica said when discussing determinants of happiness at the international level.

From theory to practice?

Some research projects provide clues to how “social capital” can be increased in communities, but they still do not provide evidence of long-term economic outcomes.

Such was the case with an experimental intervention, Community Employment Innovation Project, in Cape Breton in 1999. It was designed to measure the effects of providing community-based employment to the long-term unemployed. Funded by Human Resources Development Canada, the project offered participants a wage for volunteering on community projects as an alternative to employment insurance or income assistance.

The project lasted three years, and although participants were no better off from an employment perspective – the jobs were often not sustainable – there was a significant positive effect on social capital a year after they had participated in the program, compared with a control group. They reported better networks, a greater sense of belonging to the community, better skills, and heightened expectations that they would find work in the future.

“Something’s going on” despite the lack of employment gains, said David Gyarmati, the lead researcher on the project at Social Research and Demonstration Corporation, a non-profit organization that specializes in innovative social programs. “But we need more trials to really get into the black box here.”

Few would argue that governments should not be interested in investing in preventive policies. What’s missing, however, are longer-term studies and, perhaps most significantly, the “development of rigorous analytical frameworks” that would shed light on how and where government policy can intervene to bring about desired economic outcomes, said Mel Cappe, president of the Institute for Research on Public Policy and former Canadian High Commissioner in Britain.

Partly that’s because the problem with happiness, despite all its decoding, is that it remains a fragile and elusive concept.

What is its durability? How long does improved education augment happiness? Why is it that some people with disabilities who don’t live a “good life” as others might define it, decide not to change their condition when given the choice? (Many deaf people prefer to remain grounded in deaf culture, for example.) Does the term “good life” mean different things to different people? And then there’s the tricky question of whether perfect stability, happiness and predictability are hindrances to progress as a society. Don’t you have to be uncomfortable or dissatisfied in order to make positive change?

“We’re a long way off from having a framework for guiding public policy,” Mr. Cappe pronounced, echoing the conclusions of other former public servants.

The British happiness initiative can be seen as taking a stab at creating such a framework. It is experimental, however, and a long way from morphing into policy, Aileen Simkins, director of operations in the Office of National Statistics, acknowledged in an interview.

“When politicians say to you, ‘I’m wonderful. Vote for me,’ you know what that noise is like and you’re used to it,” Ms. Simkins said. “But when National Statistics says, ‘These are numbers that tell us something important about society,’ and I develop the numbers in a way which asked a lot of people what they thought was needed and went to a lot of different academics in other countries and said, ‘What are you doing?’ we want that to be a different noise.”

Mr. Cameron’s overture to happiness – a no-cost way of way of appearing socially progressive – is just a wink of acknowledgment across the ballroom. He is flirting with the possibility of a partnership, and while that is commendable and interesting, for now, and probably many years to come, happiness as a policy initiative will have to be content with life on the political margins.

Sarah Hampson is a columnist with Globe Life.

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