Happiness can now be accurately measured, says Assist. Prof. Elizabeth Dunn – photo by Todd Duncan
UBC Reports | Vol. 55 | No. 1 | Jan.
By Elizabeth W. Dunn, Assist. Prof.
Dept. of Psychology
Should gay marriage be legal? Should paid parental leave time be increased? Should a former industrial space be converted into high-end condos, or community park space? Going beyond economic analyses, moral arguments, and opinion polls, new cross-disciplinary research on happiness is poised to shed light on important policy issues such as these.
Indeed, at the end of a year when the words “hope” and “change” have resonated so deeply, I believe we are witnessing the beginning of a new era in policymaking. Traditionally, policymakers have relied heavily on economic indicators and other “objective” measures in formulating and evaluating new policies. But the time is now ripe for a “policy of happiness,” in which happiness becomes the explicit goal—and carefully measured endpoint—of public policy.
Although happiness has been deeply valued since ancient times, it was once seen as too soft and ethereal to be measured. But careful, systematic research has convincingly demonstrated that happiness can be accurately measured using brief, validated self-report instruments. With these reliable measures in place, researchers have been able to examine the factors—from marriage and unemployment, to television viewing and exercise—that consistently influence happiness in the population.
Research in this area stands to shape policy in positive new ways. For example, my own recent field studies have demonstrated that spending money on others may represent a more effective route to happiness than spending money on oneself (Dunn, Aknin, & Norton, 2008, Science). This work provides support for policies designed to encourage people to use their money in generous ways.
Recent changes to Canadian tax law have introduced enhanced incentives for individuals to make charitable donations. These changes have been heralded for providing a financial boon to charities, but my research suggests that these changes may hold not only economic benefits for the recipients, but also emotional benefits for the individuals who have responded to these new laws by giving generously.
As such, a purely economic analysis would overlook the full range of benefits provided by these policies. Incorporating insights from research on happiness can expand policymakers’ field of vision, potentially transforming hope into happiness.