Skip to main content

LATEST UPDATES: Tracking COVID-19 | Vaccines | Racial Injustice

Should Governments Make Happiness A Priority?


One of the most famous lines from the United States Declaration of Independence states "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." Today we will focus on the "pursuit of Happiness" portion of the Declaration of Independence as we speak to the author of "The Politics of Happiness." Should governments focus as much on "gross national happiness" as they do on the gross domestic product? How can governments assess happiness? And, what can be gained from having a happier populace?

One of the most famous lines from the United States Declaration of Independence states "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." Today we will focus on the "pursuit of Happiness" portion of the Declaration of Independence as we speak to the author of "The Politics of Happiness." Should governments focus as much on "gross national happiness" as they do on the gross domestic product? How can governments assess happiness? And, what can be gained from having a happier populace?


Derek Bok, author of "The Politics of Happiness: What Government Can Learn from the New Research on Well-Being." Derek Bok is the 300th Anniversary Research Professor at Harvard University. From 1971 to 1991, he served as Harvard's 25th president.

Read Transcript

Transcript Disclaimer

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

ST. JOHN: What is the purpose of life, anyway? Well, perhaps we won't get the answer to that, anyway, but our guest, Doctor Derek Bok, is asking a related question. What makes people happy, and what can government do to make people happier? It's a relevant question when we discover that earning more money is acquiring more things isn't making us happier, and even more importantly, that model of progress is turning out to be unsustainable. So we'd love to hear from you, any ideas on how we can shift the focus away from having things, and toward being more. Is government improving our lives or focussing on the wrong things? Our number here is 1-888-895-5727. And Doctor Bok, who happens to have been the 25th president of Harvard university, and the seventh dean of Harvard law school, happens to also have written a book, which was published last year, called the politics of happy business, what government can learn from new research on wellbeing. And Dr. Bok, thank you for joining us.

BOK: Nice to be here.

ST. JOHN: So several countries have already started looking at what they're doing in this light. Can you tell us where that started?

BOK: Well, the first country to adopt happiness as an official goal of public policy, is the tiny little country of Bhutan in Asia near China and India. And they had a remarkable king who announced out of the blue that henceforth the principle goal of public policy in Bhutan would be to maximize gross domestic happiest instead of the gross domestic product. And the next thing he did which was very unusual, he declared that the one way to do this was to give up having a monarchy and create a democratic government, which he slowly over the years managed to do. And sure enough, his government has taken happiness very seriously, and as far as we know, from the statistics, it is a happier place, as a result of his efforts over the last 2 or 3†decades.

ST. JOHN: Okay. So now they did have some problems, I guess, dealing with happiness. Can you talk about where some of that perhaps might have misfire forward them 1234.

BOK: In Bhutan? Well, I think the biggest problem they have had is with the Nepal ease minority. And they have not been very kind to the substantial number of people from Nepal who lived in but know that. Actually, a number of them were excelled from the country. So that's a bit of a black mark.

ST. JOHN: So it does sort of raise the question, it's difficult, A, to did fine what makes people happier and B, to make it work for everybody.

BOK: Well, I think so, because government is limited in what it can do to make people happy. The essential reason being is probably the most important thing to people's happiness are their personal relations, and there isn't much that government can do to improve your personal relations to give you a happier marriage or bring you together with your children. I mean, these are all very personal things. So they have to -- the government has to sort of work around the margins, as it were, at some secondary things that help happiness but don't go to the core of these personal relations.

ST. JOHN: So it turns out there are a few more developed countries which are beginning to look at their policies in this light.

BOK: That's right. I think it's David Cameron, the prime minister of England.

ST. JOHN: David Cameron, uh-huh.

BOK: Who made the celebrated remark, we should pay less attention to putting money in people's pockets and more to putting joy in their hearts. So he announced, henceforth, great Britain is going to have statistics on happiness along with the other statistics that they compile and publish that regularly. And the same is true in France, president Sarkozy has announced an interest in charting people's happiness, and making that a matter of publish knowledge. So the whole subject is certainly picking up interest around the world.

ST. JOHN: And what about the United States? Is anybody in Washington talking in terms of happiness these days?

BOK: I don't think it's a high priority, as far as I can see.

ST. JOHN: Figure out.

BOK: No, we have not gotten on this particular band wagon.

ST. JOHN: But you suggest that it might be a valuable thing, and that there might be ways that government could actually improve the well being of a nation.

BOK: Yes, I think first of all, there are very good reasons for taking happiness into account. The first thing is that if you pole people on what they most want in- being happy is in all the surveys, the number one consideration. And in a democracy, it seems to be one should automatically be interested, as a government in the thing that people are most interested in. So the other thing that's interesting is that making people happier is not only good for them, happy people live longer, they're more healthy, they are more successful in their jobs. But it's also good for society because happy people turn out to be people who are more engaged in their communities, they do more things for other people, one of the interesting things that comes out of the research is giving things to other people is a way of making yourself happy. That's not the reason you do things for other people, but it does have that effect.

ST. JOHN: We're talking to Doctor Derek Bok, the author of the Politics of Happiness, what the Government can Learn from the new Research on Well Being. We'd love to have your thoughts on this issue of what can the government do to improve your well being? What do you think the government might be able to change in its focus that would actually improve well being as opposed to focussing on more economic prosperity? 1-888-895-5727. And speaking of economic prosperity, it's interesting because you make the point in your book that the disparity between rich and poor, which has been growing dramatically, I mean, currently we've got the top one percent has 42†percent of the wealth, financially speaks, but that gap is getting bigger and bigger, but it doesn't seem to be leading to more unhappiness, in other words, that isn't making us more unhappy.

BOK: No.

ST. JOHN: Were you surprised by that finding?

BOK: I think America is unusual in the respect. Greater inequality in Europe has made people less happy. But in the United States, if anything, the distribution of happiness has become more equal. During these decades when the distribution of income has become more unequal. So I think that really has to do with a very old question in America. Why socialism never took root in this country, why it was so hard to organize people into unions in this country. There just seems to be a kind of strong individualist streak here, which means that people instead of being angry at inequality tend to feel, well, those people must have done something right to deserve all that money. And that frustrates a lot of sociologists and other people who write about social welfare. But a whole succession of scholars have found to their surprise that being poor doesn't make people as unhappy as the writers think it ought to.

ST. JOHN: And you did a lot of research for this book, and you showed that people actually at the bottom end of the income spectrum, that more of them are unhappy than happy than at the top.

BOK: That's right.

ST. JOHN: It's just this disparity, this growing disparity which you would have thought would have made people feel jealous or hard done by, is not making people less happy. Is there a difference in the research between the way people in Europe and people in the United States feel about this?

BOK: Yes, people in Europe are more unhappy which incomes become unequal. In the United States , if anything, the reverse seems to be true. There certainly doesn't seem to be any downward etc. The only group of people who were found to be less happy because of growing inequality, strangely enough, were well to do liberals. And no one else seemed to --

ST. JOHN: Well-to-do liberals, but not the people at the bottom end of the spectrum.

DEFENDANT: No, not the people at the bottom end of the spectrum.

ST. JOHN: Isn't that interesting?

BOK: It's rather interesting.

ST. JOHN: So any advice you would give to governments could be generalized across the board, because different governments have different definitions.

BOK: That's right, that's right. No, I think you have to confine yourself to the United States and not assume that something that makes people happy in Bhutan is going to work equally well here.

ST. JOHN: Right. But you do suggest in your book certain things that you think the government could do, perhaps redistributing wealth is not one of the ways to increase happiness.

BOK: No, no. I think there are other forms of inequality where -- political inequality, equality of opportunity, which are very important. But not redistributing income. No, I think if I were the government, I would start by trying to improve some of the things that make people unhappy about government because the research does show that a lack of trust in the government, a lack of confidence in the effectiveness of government contributes to unhappiness. And that's one of the 4 or 5 things that does produce lasting unhappiness. And certainly in the United States, which is not the happiest country in the world, it usually is somewhere around twelfth to fifteenth, 1 of the leading reasons is that this isn't as much confidence in government in this country as there is in a number of other places.

ST. JOHN: Interesting. So one of the things that look at is what to do with the obstacles to happiness. And you identify pain as being one of the obstacles to enhance, a very obvious one.

BOK: Yes.

ST. JOHN: So how does government affect the way that we deal with pain in our society?

BOK: Well, there are several kinds of pain. One is just sheer physical pain, acute or chronic pain. There, the problem is that the effective pain killers also happen to be drugs.

ST. JOHN: Right.

DEFENDANT: And so the problem is, how do you encourage the proper, ample use of pain killers for people generally in pain without somehow getting pain killers into the hands of people who abuse them for the wrong purposes? I think we haven't done a very good job at that, and as a result there's a lot of under treatment of patients in genuine, and this seems to be something that public policy could find an effective way of solving so that you don't take pain killers away from people who really need them in order to keep them out of the hands of people who shouldn't have them. But another form of pain is psychological pain, is depression particularly, one out of six people in the country will suffer from a depressive episode, lasting some substantial period of time, and most of those have repeated episodes. And that is misery. If you can take a rule of thumb that people who studied this subject give, they would say for every six people who suffer from a clinical depression, one is treated correctly, two are treated incorrectly, and three aren't treated at all. And it does seem to me that even though one can never treat everybody who is suffering from depression in exactly the right way, we could certainly do a lot better than one out of six.

ST. JOHN: Well, peeking of pain, the subject of healthcare, we're getting -- the phones are lighting up with people, and most of them seem to be talking about headache. Soap let's take a call from Greg in Oceanside. Thanks for joining us, go ahead with your question or your comment, Greg.

NEW SPEAKER: Good morning, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness I would contend is an absolute priority, and it's virtually impossible if you aren't healthy. If you're in pain. And when you mention European countries, they basically got healthcare for everybody. Universal coverage. And I believe that this country cannot be a strong country unless it's a healthy country, and when you talk about mental health issues, a lot of the people that need mental healthcare simply can't afford it.

ST. JOHN: Thanks for that comment, Greg. Now, you know, Doctor Bok, you've done a lot of research in this. Do you take a position on whether universal healthcare might accomplish that goal of better happiness? 'Cause it turns out, you know, sometimes it's not intuitively a direct result of government policies. What do you think?

BOK: Well, I think one thing that does cause unhappiness is protracted anxiety and worry. And there's no question that there -- we are the only country among advanced countries that leaves a large fraction of its population essentially uncovered by healthcare. And if you know that you're missing prescriptions, 'cause you can't afford to fill them, or you know you're not going to see the doctor because you have no way of paying for it, or even worse, if you know -- if your children get sick, you don't know quite what you're going to do about it, that certainly eats at you and creates, I'm sure, added unhappiness. So kind of basic security about things that are really important, like basic healthcare, have to be an ingredient of happiness that the government could do something about. At least the government has managed to do something about it in just about every other advanced country except ours.

ST. JOHN: 1-888-895-5727 is the number if you'd like to make a comment or ask Derek Bok, the author of the politics of happiness, what the government can learn on the research of well being. And we have Joe from university city, who would like to join the conversation. Thanks for calling, Joe, go ahead.

NEW SPEAKER: Yeah, I just wanted to main postulate why you could have a situation like your guest described where you get a growing income or wealth gap and yet people still don't seem to be unhappy as a result of that. I think on the lower end of the income scale, if you have your basic needs taken care of, in other words a roof over your head, food in your mouth, clothes on your back, then, you know, it's --- isn't necessarily miserable. And then on the upper end of the scale, for everybody else below a certain threshold, just having their needs taken care of, if you see somebody else, like bill gates getting richer, and it's not really coming at your expense, in other words, he's contribute to society, he's made his wealth because of his contributions to society, not as a result of any kind of government policy where government takes from one group of people and redistributes money to another, then you just say, he got what he got, he worked for it, and it didn't make me any worse off in the process. So why would I be unhappy? Just because some people --

ST. JOHN: So the improving economy is floating all boats, you mean, Joe.

NEW SPEAKER: Yeah, as long as people are doing it because of their contributions to society, as opposed to just redistributing some -- a basket of income or a basket of wealth.

ST. JOHN: Ask do you think that that's --

NEW SPEAKER: Nobody really minds.

ST. JOHN: And could you think that's the case in the current situation where we watch how wealth has been redistributed over the last ten years, and it really is increasingly being sucked to the top? Do you still think that that is because those people are contributing more?

NEW SPEAKER: Well, for the -- contributing more, yeah, for the most part. Let me just say with the exception of this time period between 2001 and 2006 or 7 or 8 or say, when incomes remained largely flat. Incomes for everybody, in the postwar period, up until about 2000, was going up, including the people at the bottom. The problem was, the incomes of the people at the top were going up at a much, much faster rate, so they were accumulating a bigger percentage of income, and a bigger percentage of wealth, but that didn't mean that the people at the bottom were necessarily worse off.

ST. JOHN: Thank you, Joe. Yes, thank you. Doctor Bok, what would you stay to Joe's comment about why people are not getting unhappy about the basic redistribution of wealth?

BOK: Oh, I think the basic reason is, this is a much more individualistic society. That in Europe, people believe that it's immoral to have too much inequality, and that the government somehow has a responsibility to see that doesn't happen. I think in this country, one's much more likely to conclude, if there are large disparities in wealth, it's because some people work harder, and they're smarter and deserve it more. So they are not offended when inequality grows greater, and they certainly don't think somehow that the government is responsible for changing it.

ST. JOHN: Right. However you do make some pretty practical suggestions in your book about things that the government could do to improve well being, even if it's not redistribution of wealth. And one of the issues you addresses unemployment, which of course in today's economy is a big issue.

BOK: Yes.

ST. JOHN: You say that the U.S. does less than virtually any other industrialized nation to cushion the shock of unemployment. Do you have any suggestions how that could be changed?

BOK: Well, I think it's hard. Obviously there are public works programs that put people to work. There are ways of providing better unemployment benefits, which are particularly low in this country. There are things that you can do. The most important thing is to have sufficiently enlightened public policy that you don't have as large and deep recessions as we do. And some countries are more successful at doing that than we are. I don't want to get into all the reasons why we have the current economic crisis came about, but there certainly is room to smooth out these economic fluctuations more effectively than -- in one country than in other, and the government has something to do with that. So -- but I would want to stress the point that although many forms of unhappiness are quite fleeting, you get over them very quickly, unemployment is one of the few forms of unhappiness that persists for a long period of time. Not so much because of the loss of money but because of the loss of dignity, and the feeling that you're not need said, the feeling that you've lost face with your family and your friends and your neighbor, and those effects linger on sometimes for some years after you lose your job.

ST. JOHN: You mentioned even when you get a new job sometimes the effects --

BOK: THAT'S right. Sometimes you get a new job at the same rate of pay that you had before, but your level of happiness still does not return to its former level for quite some period of time.

ST. JOHN: Which suggests that trying to create an economy where you don't lose your job would be a major contributor.

BOK: It would be. Though it's difficult that you could achieve perfection, but you might be able to do better than we have been doing lately.

ST. JOHN: Camille is calling from San Diego with a question. Camille, thanks for joining us. Go ahead.

NEW SPEAKER: Hi, good morning. My question is, I guess in regards to the lower class, and them not being more unhappy than the upper class. And I was wondering, does that -- does the amount of information that you have about how the society is structured affect your happiness? What I mean, is it because they're maybe uneducated or unaware of how maybe the rich have gotten rich or how the system is structured, they're kind of unaware of how unhappy they should be, and so they're kind of cob tent. And so you see them being happy?

ST. JOHN: So you're suggesting it's blissful ignorance, Camille?


NEW SPEAKER: Yeah, pretty much on that line.

ST. JOHN: What would you say to that, Doctor Bok?

BOK: Well, that's a matter of debate. I don't think we're going to solve that this morning, to what extent people are wealthier because they have achieved at a higher level, and to what extent is it because they cheated or because of government subsidies of some questionable nature or political influence in Congress. But I just think in this country, people are more likely to assume that you got more money because you deserved it, and that is less true in other countries of the world.

ST. JOHN: The assumptions are that it's to do with your own entrepreneur yell spirit.

BOK: That's right.

ST. JOHN: Well, in relation to that, what about education in general? Is there research showing us that education makes people happier?

BOK: Education, and I regret to say this, as an educator, but there's no indication that education has a direct effect on happiness.

ST. JOHN: Interesting.

BOK: And I think the reason for that is, you know, that education perhaps makes you sort of more informed about how to live your life, but it also raises your aspirations, and probably happiness is a as a result of how you're -- the reality of your life compares with your aspiration. So if both go up, you may be still unhappy. But education does have indirect effects. People with more education tend to take better care of themselves, so their health is better, they tend to get better jobs so that their income is higher. So on the whole, more educated people are happier than less educated people.

ST. JOHN: They are?

BOK: But it's not the education.

ST. JOHN: That did it.

BOK: It's the things that education helps to make possible.

ST. JOHN: Interesting. Okay, well, we've come to the end of our time. So I'd like to thank you very much for introducing us to some very interesting concepts and questions.

BOK: My pleasure, and I hope all of your listeners live extremely happy lives.

ST. JOHN: Well, thank you for that wish. We wish you were the government. And Doctor Derek Bok, who is the author of the politics of happiness is also speaking tonight at UCSD, the council of provost's and Helen Edison lecture series. The title of his lecture is can under graduate education meet the challenges of the 21st century? So that's at 7†o'clock tonight at UCSD's press center ballroom. Thanks so much for joining us. And by the way, if you want to find out what's coming up on each show here on These Days, you can sign up for your These Days e-mail news letter.


San Diego News Now podcast branding

San Diego news; when you want it, where you want it. Get local stories on politics, education, health, environment, the border and more. New episodes are ready weekday mornings. Hosted by Anica Colbert and produced by KPBS, San Diego and the Imperial County's NPR and PBS station.

  • Need help keeping up with the news that matters most? Get the day's top news — ranging from local to international — straight to your inbox each weekday morning.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

Curious San Diego banner

Want more KPBS news?
Find us on Twitter and Facebook, or sign up for our newsletters.

To view PDF documents, Download Acrobat Reader.