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The Politics of Happiness: What Government Can Learn from the New Research on Well-Being Hardcover – February 21, 2010

3.7 out of 5 stars 11 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


One of Fiscal Times Best Books for 2010

"Compelling."--David Brooks, New York Times

"With his clear analysis and outside-the-box ideas, Bok encourages thoughtful consideration of what we should want for ourselves and expect from our government."--Sarah Halzack, Washington Post

"Careful and cogent. . . . Bok believes . . . that the American government, which is in no danger of tranquilizing its citizens, can and should design policies to enhance their happiness."--Glenn C. Altschuler, Boston Globe

"Delving into the burgeoning field of happiness research, former president of Harvard University Bok (The State of the Nation) sifts through scientific studies on how societal well-being indications can and should be used to shape social and political policy. . . . Bok's arguments on how good government, access to education, and adequate child care make for a pleasanter society are incontrovertible, and he initiates an important, jargon-free discussion of American public policy, especially when its aims contradict or diminish the public weal."--Publisher's Weekly

"Bok addresses how happiness research could inform US policy. The first three chapters unpack the claims of happiness psychologists, evaluate reliability and discuss policy application. The remainder address happiness in relation to economic growth, inequality, financial hardship (retirement, healthcare and job loss), suffering (chronic pain, sleep disorder and depression), marriages and families, education and the quality of government. The debate on happiness, Bok concludes, 'will be an accomplishment of enduring importance to humankind'."--Paul Stenner, Times Higher Education

"Mr. Bok's rich, challenging, remarkable new book is remarkably solid. For it is based not on the empty aphorisms so beloved by lazy and second-rate pseudo-philosophers. There is a surprisingly massive quantity of serious statistical and sociological research that has been done on the subject of happiness in both prosperous and developing societies, and Mr. Bok draws liberally and impressively upon it. His conclusions are remarkable and well worth heeding. . . . This is a remarkable, original, provocative and brilliant book. Anyone who wants to be happy, or to share their happiness with others, should snap it up at once."--Martin Sieff, Washington Times

"Bok reviews a wide range of surveys that consistently associate levels of happiness or satisfaction with several demographic and social variables. . . . Bok concludes that the scientific evidence on well-being is now robust enough for politicians to start taking action."--Felicia Huppert, Nature

"[Bok asks] whether governments should really try to maker their citizens happier. Answer: yes, not through promoting economic growth, but through environmental policies, healthcare, and strengthening marriage and the family."--Glenda Cooper, Prospect Magazine

"Provides insights into the mysteries of happiness."--Phillip Longman, Washington Monthly

"Bok, former president of Harvard, outlines the work of 'happiness scholars' and suggests that their findings would be an 'eminently defensible way' of informing public policy, at least as valuable as opinion polls or economic indexes. Among the most significant findings he cites is that an increase in wealth does not correlate with an increase in happiness and that rising inequality has not caused a decrease. From these and other points, Bok argues for many general and specific policy measures that, he believes, would add to the sum of happiness in the United States. . . . Readers will find him in turn provocative and quixotic."--Bob Nardini, Library Journal

"[A] sweeping study of behavioural research and public policy. . . . This is a book that leaders of developing nations obsessed with economic growth will find puzzling and troubling, but not as much as market economists will."--Stephen Matchett, Australian

"Okay, I hear your protests, your gut telling you that Bok is a naïve professor with his head in the clouds. Skeptical myself, I found his book full of surprises. Example: The growing inequality of incomes in the United States has not made Americans more dissatisfied than in previous times. Only one group is upset by this growing disparity--wealthy Americans! See what I mean? Counterintuitive conclusions, like this one, abound."--Mandy Twaddell, Providence Journal

"Relatively light and accessible. . . . Although Bok is partisan, his is a good introduction to the subject. He accurately outlines the findings of the research while questioning its shortcomings."--Daniel Ben-Ami, Spiked Review of Books

"[This] is a careful, helpful book. It brings together the key findings in the area of happiness research--a relatively new discipline of the social sciences that uses surveys and polls to measure well-being. . . . The Politics of Happiness is not a complete answer. . . . It does however, add the methodology and reasoning of modern social science to the profound insights of ancient moral and political philosophy."--Nitin Pai, Pragati, Indian National Interest Review

"Bok explores a number of new studies related to the concept of happiness and then painstakingly asks whether and how government can do much to increase human happiness. . . . The Politics of Happiness raises a number of challenges to our assumptions."--Debbie Bruno, Roll Call

"This book is clear and nicely written and provides a fascinating overview of what does--and doesn't--contribute to the wellbeing of people in the Western world."--Miriam Cosic, Australian

"Bok's summary of the available research is skillful and to the point."--Tevi Troy, Claremont Review of Books

"A book policymakers and people in governance should read. So that there can be more happiness all around."--Vaidehi Nathan, Organiser

"This book offers a fresh look at the surprisingly not-so-elusive quality of happiness and why economic policy can make a difference where it counts. Bok has a smooth and convincing narrative style, and he weighs his arguments carefully."--Maureen Mackey, Fiscal Times

From the Back Cover

"Bok provides a lucid analysis of scientific research on human happiness, and shows how it can and should be used to shape social policy. The breadth of his knowledge is matched only by the depth of his insight. There is not a word in this book to be missed."--Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness

"Derek Bok asks the right question, 'What policies would produce the greatest happiness?' and he gives great and often startling answers, combining his deep knowledge of politics with the new findings of happiness research."--Richard Layard, author of Happiness: Lessons from a New Science

"Consistently fair-minded, pragmatic, and insightful, this is the single best book on its subject to date. Derek Bok confronts the findings of happiness research head-on and does not shy away from pursuing its implications."--Darrin M. McMahon, author of Happiness: A History

"This strong and timely book should have a major impact on how policymakers think."--Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less

"Happiness research has principally focused on the factors affecting happiness, while policy implications remain an afterthought. There needs to be a more thoughtful and thorough consideration of these policy implications, and this excellent book is a significant contribution to the subject."--Richard Easterlin, University of Southern California


Product Details

  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press; F First Edition edition (February 21, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691144893
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691144894
  • Product Dimensions: 6.6 x 0.9 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,196,624 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
This book analyzes the potential of social science research (SSR) on happiness to find practical application in the United States via legislation, regulation or other political processes. It's thorough, judicious, and written with a balance of pragmatism and idealism. It has a large "depth of field," i.e. issues at many different levels come within its focus, ranging from whether it's appropriate for governments to care about citizens' happiness at all to regulations pertinent to care for chronic pain.

That said, it also has a narrow field of view, which I've tried to delimit in my opening sentence. The focus is squarely on the US and the American political context. The author (DB) doesn't go into detail about different philosophical notions of what constitutes happiness. Indeed, he has a "realist" skepticism about the potential of philosophy to influence politics when the philosophers can't agree among themselves about an issue (see discussion of income redistribution in Chap. 5). Happiness is whatever SSR measures it to be, via "experiential reporting" or "retrospective evaluation" survey techniques. (These terms are explained in the book.) And despite describing possible shortcomings of those SSR techniques and particular studies (esp. Chap. 2), DB has faith in their relevance. E.g., he says that by relying on SSR to inform their decisions legislators would be "relying on persuasive evidence of what *will* make constituents happy instead of accepting what people mistakenly *think* will promote their well-being" (@59; emphasis in original).
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Derek Bok, long-time President of and now Research Professor at Harvard University, is among the most prominent of contemporary American intellectuals. The scientific enterprise upon which this book is predicated began decades ago with the evidence presented by Richard Easterlin in 1974 that subjective measures of happiness are not much affected by decades of strong economic growth. Since this time several eminent researchers have continued the investigation of the sources of happiness by asking people how happy they are, on a numerical scale of one to seven (or ten, or whatever), or by asking them to pick themselves out of a series of pictures of faces of people varying from the depressed and miserable to the joyously happy.

There are four major findings in this area. First, a country can double its per capita income without experiencing a noticeable change in the average level of happiness of its citizens. Second, people seem to be poor predictors of what will make them happy. In particular, people generally think that more money will make them happier, whereas the evidence is that even very large changes in income (e.g., by winning a national lottery) do not affect personal happiness. Third, increasing income inequality does not lower the happiness of the less-well-off. This is surprising because many had thought that it is the fact that happiness is based on relative, not absolute, income that explains the failure of higher average incomes to entail higher average happiness. Finally, there is no correlation between the fraction of gross national income that governments devote to help the poor and other vulnerable groups, and the happiness of the target groups.
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Format: Hardcover
Bok barely bothers with the actual research on happiness, except to mention the lack of consensus in the emerging field. One might consider this something of a problem in a book purporting to explain 'What Government Can Learn from the New Research on Well-Being'. Bok does provide an answer, of sorts, to this question - government can't learn much from this research, at least not yet. But that doesn't stop him from trotting out the same old center-left policy proposals. That's not to say that there's anything wrong with these policy proposals - but they're so very clearly NOT based on 'the new research on well-being'. If you want to read something that actually engages with the research on happiness and its public policy implications, you'd be far, far better served by Carol Graham's Happiness Around the World: The paradox of happy peasants and miserable millionaires. Graham is an actual researcher, as opposed to Bok, whose C.V., impressive though it is, in no way qualifies him to write a book on politics and happiness. (But as 'Derek Bok', Harvard President, his name probably moves a lot more books than Graham's ever will.)
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First off, I'm back. After three months integrating into a field position with a prominent international organization, with three days off the whole time, I am finally able to get back to reading, and have about fifteen books on water I was going to read for UNESCO but will now read and review for myself. Look for two reviews a week from this point on, absent another tri-fecta (volcano, storm, minor coup).

This book is the first of three books that I am reviewing this week, the other two are The Hidden Wealth of Nations, which will be a five, and Identity Economics: How Our Identities Shape Our Work, Wages, and Well-Being, probably a five as well, but I continue to be stunned as how people limit their references to the last 10 years when so much has been done that is relevant in the last 50.

This book is not about the politics of happiness. It is more about the possibilities of public administration of happiness.

This will be a long review--apart from the author being one of a handful to truly top-notch minds with a historical memory, the topic is important--much more important than I realized until I starting following unconventional economics (ecological economics, true cost, bio-mimicry, sustainable design, human development and non-financial wealth).

The author opens with Bhutan and its Gross National Happiness (GNH) concept, with four pillars (good governance, stable-equitable social development, environmental protection, preservation of culture).
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