Public Policy & The Pursuit of Happiness

The annual World Happiness Report was released in March and we Americans are…not completely despondent. The US ranks 14th on the list and there are no points for guessing that the Nordic and Scandinavian countries came out on top.

Our Declaration of Independence asserts that the pursuit of happiness is an unalienable right. Shouldn’t our public policy support this belief?

There is a wealth of research on what makes humans happy. (“The Happiness Advantage” is a great place to start.) One of the tenets of this research is that people report greater happiness when they have more control over their lives. The more agency you feel over your circumstances, the happier you are. We see this in the World Happiness Report in which one of the six metrics is “freedom to make life choices.”

What are the ways that public policy can give Americans not just the sense of greater control, but the actual ability to make different choices? For example, when Obamacare started in 2010, it was theorized that by starting to delink health insurance from employment, people would have greater job mobility and particularly, the ability to leave employment. In 2020, one study found that 39% of persons surveyed said that they plan to retire “early”, before the age of 65 when Medicare becomes available. Whether this is the result of the ability to buy affordable health coverage or merely coincidental I cannot say, but it is an intriguing data point. Is it possible that the Affordable Care Act helped to inspire the FIRE movement?

There are other more obvious ways that public policy can put conditions in place that will allow Americans to exercise greater choice over where they live, where they work, and how they spend their time. Reducing the cost of higher education allows graduates to make different employment choices. Income safety net programs can allow for more risk-taking by creating space to pursue education or even entrepreneurship in the hope of a more rewarding future. Affordable childcare allows a parent to choose without constraint between staying at home or working. I suppose that policymakers could view almost any proposal through this lens. “How does this policy give citizens greater control over their lives?”

Let’s talk about libertarianism (of which I am not an adherent). Libertarians commonly assert that citizens should have the ability to make any choice they want, free of government constraint, so long as no one is injured in the doing. However, saying that every American is free to pursue X, Y or Z is completely meaningless if the majority cannot realistically ever afford to choose between these options. Government, the bane of libertarians, has the ability to create a set of circumstances where the majority can pursue their libertarian dream.

It is not the job of government to make us happy, would that it could. But it is the job of government to create a field of play where the pursuit of happiness is possible for everyone.

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