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43 of 46 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Thoughtful, pragmatic, very American analysis (4.5 stars), April 23, 2010
This review is from: The Politics of Happiness: What Government Can Learn from the New Research on Well-Being (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). Since DB is careful to point out often that the correlations between [fill in the blank] and happiness discovered by SSR don't imply causation, it seems like wishful thinking to say legislators will have evidence of what "will" make people happy.

Within these limitations, the book is excellent, and its realism is sometimes tonic for people like me who tend to be more idealistic about the possibility of social change. Two chapters are especially outstanding: Chapter 10, which examines why Americans have an unusually low confidence in government; and Chapter 4, which questions whether economic growth should be the top priority of US policy. Not only is that a question worth asking (also in Japan and other developed countries), but it's very unusual to see it asked by an American author -- especially one who's such a high-profile, Establishment figure.

There are a couple of things I'd have liked to have seen mentioned in the book that weren't. One is minor: Some critics of happiness SSR have argued against its application in politics, claiming, among other things, that using finite scales for reporting happiness makes an "Easterlin paradox" (stagnation of happiness with GDP growth) inevitable. I.e., GDP can go up without limit, but happiness can never be higher than "10". See, e.g. "The Unhappy Thing About Happiness Economics" by Helen Johns and Paul Ormerod in issue 46 (2008) of the real-world economic review, and the subsequent debate in the same online journal. This point doesn't seem to be addressed.

The other omission is more significant: the idea of "civil happiness," i.e., happiness as a public good, not just something belonging to individuals in society. This idea has a tradition in Europe going back to the 15th Century, and flourished in the 18th Century Neapolitan and Milanese schools of law and philosophy. See several recent books and articles by Luigino Bruni, Stefano Zamagni and others, including their "Civil Economy" (Peter Lang 2007; "Economia civile", Il Mulino 2004), Bruni's "Civil Happiness" (Routledge 2006), and Zamagni's contribution to "Economics and Happiness: Framing the Analysis" (Oxford UP 2006), edited by Bruni and Pierluigi Porta. Civil happiness stands in opposition to the methodological individualism that underlies the SSR that, in turn, is the foundation of this book. Even though DB avoids dwelling on philosophy, some attention to what happiness means for a society as a collectivity seems pertinent to the theme of happiness and politics.

Some disclosure: I'm an alumnus of the university whose president DB has been from time to time; my years there were very early in his first tour of duty. It took a lot of self-control for me not to refer to him as "President Bok" throughout this review, but I thought that might confuse some readers. For me, he exemplifies what a university president should be, both while in office and afterward; this book is an instantiation of that. So I'll make Princeton U Press the scapegoat for some shortcomings, such as occasional editorial nodding (e.g., repetitions in Chaps. 9 & 10) and the currently fashionable, but actually rude, decision to include only footnotes without a bibliography. In sum: a thoughtful book about the usefulness (or not) of happiness research, maybe best read after you already have some familiarity with the "happiness" issue.
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Showing 1-8 of 8 posts in this discussion
Initial post: May 19, 2010 6:25:37 PM PDT
Don King says:
This reviewer seems well informed and, similarly, very informative about the book. Don King

In reply to an earlier post on May 19, 2010 7:29:48 PM PDT
A. J. Sutter says:
Thanks for the kind words, Don.

Posted on Jun 2, 2010 6:27:51 PM PDT
I too have noticed this non-bibliography style and it leaves me gritting my teeth and very frustrated. For a university president to write a non-bibliography book which is based on science seems to be terribly deficient.

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 2, 2010 8:24:55 PM PDT
A. J. Sutter says:
The non-bibliography style is the norm in legal scholarship. That's all the more the perverse, since law journal articles (which BTW are not peer-reviewed) contain innumerable and lengthy footnotes. DB is a former law professor, though he now has the title "Research Professor," so you'd think he'd know better than to choose such a style, if indeed he chose it. But university presses these days aren't laissez-faire about the title and content of books, so I don't expect they are about the cost of another signature of paper, either. Maybe this trend began as "cost-cutting" and then got so entrenched that some younger editors think it's acceptable -- just a guess. But if readers don't call publishers (and authors, if need be) to task for it, it will never change back. Thanks for your support!

In reply to an earlier post on Oct 17, 2010 7:44:22 PM PDT
Thanks A.J. for your detailed review of DB's book. May I ask what your major was while at Harvard, and, if you're a law graduate?

In reply to an earlier post on Oct 17, 2010 8:57:25 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Oct 17, 2010 9:08:05 PM PDT
A. J. Sutter says:
Thanks for your comment, Nathaniel. I concentrated in physics. I went to law school in California, several years after finishing college, not at Harvard. I was at the college during the Watergate hearings and Nixon's "Saturday Night Massacre," when Nixon caused Harvard Law prof. Archibald Cox to be fired as special prosecutor. DB was in his early days as president of the university at the time, and set an example of leadership and dignity in the face of what, in the then-contemporary perspective, seemed like tyranny.

In reply to an earlier post on Oct 17, 2010 9:25:41 PM PDT
Thanks A.J. for your response (and haha at your edit; Nathan is actually what I go by -- so good guess!) Interesting historical information, I was previously unaware that Nixon caused the firing of a law professor/prosecutor. I'm actually an undergrad right now (concentrating in sociology), and found this book to be eye-opening, and your review interesting (and definitely accurate). I was wondering, since you are a law graduate, if you could tell me what kind(s) of work you do now (or once did), and whether you find the field as satisfying as you may have thought it'd be before graduating from law school. Thanks for your time.

In reply to an earlier post on Oct 18, 2010 6:58:17 AM PDT
A. J. Sutter says:
I'm happy to answer your question, but it's off-topic for this forum. My Amazon profile includes an email address, so why don't you write me there, and we can avoid distracting people from this book.
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