This Article provides a comprehensive, critical overview of proposals to use happiness surveys for steering public policy. Happiness or “subjective well-being” surveys ask individuals to rate their present happiness, life-satisfaction, affective state, etc. A massive literature now engages in such surveys or correlates survey responses with individual attributes. And, increasingly, scholars argue for the policy relevance of happiness data: in particular, as a basis for calculating aggregates such as “gross national happiness,” or for calculating monetary equivalents for non-market goods based on coefficients in a happiness equation.
But is individual well-being equivalent to happiness? The happiness literature tends to blur or conflate important concepts: well-being, subjective well-being, happiness, utility, satisfaction. A preference-realization account of well-being denies the equivalence of happiness and welfare, since someone can have preferences for non-mental attributes, such as health, autonomy, goal-fulfillment, knowledge or the quality of her relationships.
It is critical, therefore, to differentiate two potential policy roles for happiness surveys. First, the survey response may provide prima facie evidence of the respondent’s preference-utility: the extent to which her preferences are realized. Second, it may indicate her experience-utility: the quality of her mental states. The Article clarifies these two, very different, ideas. It then criticizes, in turn, the preference-utility and the experience-utility defenses of the policy relevance of happiness surveys. Enthusiasm about happiness is premature.
happiness, subjective well-being, SWB, surveys, satisfaction, preferences, preference-utility, experience-utility, social welfare, welfare economics, welfarism, wellbeing, cost-benefit analysis, welfare, hedonism, utility
Duke Law Journal
Adler, Matthew D., "Happiness Surveys and Public Policy: What’s the Use?" (2013). Faculty Scholarship at Penn Carey Law. 414.
Behavioral Economics Commons, Economic Theory Commons, Ethics and Political Philosophy Commons, Law and Economics Commons, Law and Politics Commons, Political Economy Commons, Public Economics Commons, Public Law and Legal Theory Commons, Social Welfare Law Commons
62 Duke L.J. 1509 (2013)