Ben Bernanke should stop worrying about our happiness

Ben Bernanke thinks maybe the nation ought to begin measuring its prosperity in terms of happiness, rather than raw numbers dealing with employment and inflation.

That’s the sort of thing Federal Reserve chairmen say when the economy won’t kick into gear despite their best efforts. We didn’t stress about such things as happiness 10 years ago. But now we are reminded that money doesn’t buy happiness; that we should stop to smell the roses. Don’t worry, be happy.

Sounds great, and there is much truth to the idea that money and happiness don’t necessarily go hand in hand. There are perpetually smiling people living in huts in Africa, and few people seem more dour than a super wealthy person in a continuous snit over one or another of life’s little complications.

But you can be certain of one thing. When governments get into the business of happiness, misery can’t be too far behind.

Bernanke made his comments this week at a conference of the International Association for Research in Income and Wealth. Of course he invoked the Bhutanese, an obligatory reference ever since Bhutan’s prime minister addressed the United Nations last spring. For five years now, Bhutan has measured its progress through an index it calls Gross National Happiness, and it is seen as a quaint little kingdom that has resisted the stresses of the 21st century.

Few people seem to notice that prime ministers only talk this way when their people are stuck in poverty and lack basic freedoms. It diverts attention away from more pressing issues having to do with personal liberty.

Bhutan has only recently begun to allow television, the Internet and a basic form of the consumerism we take for granted. People there only recently were permitted to vote, and not too long before that the government stripped all rights from the Lhotshampas, a minority it felt threatened the nation’s cultural identity. They were forcibly expelled. About 30,000 of them came to the United States. That’s life in a quaint kingdom.

Happiness is, of course, a personal thing. Those who have seriously tried to measure it have drawn correlations between it and personal relationships and family. But living in a democracy that allows individual freedoms, choices and entrepreneurship are important, as well. So are sanitary conditions, access to health care and education.

The trouble with governments turning their attention from inflation and unemployment to happiness is that someone inevitably will begin deciding what would make everyone else happy. Once happiness becomes a measurement of national progress, it will become politicized. Your happiness may not necessarily begin where my nose ends.

That’s why Bernanke ought to stick to inflation and unemployment. We have enough to handle politically with those two.

Capitalism and liberty, even with all the government regulations we attach to them, don’t always lead to the best choices. But at least they let people pursue their own versions of paradise.

Even Bhutan, when its leader isn’t lecturing the rest of us, seems to be learning that.

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About the Author

Jay Evensen

Jay Evensen is the Senior Editorial Columnist for the Deseret News. He has 32 years of journalism experience covering politics and a variety of other assignments at news organizations ranging from United Press International in New York City to the Las Vegas Review-Journal and the Deseret News, where he has worked since 1986. During that time, he has won numerous local, regional and national awards. Most recently, he was given the Cameron Duncan Media Award, given annually in Washington, D.C., by the advocacy group RESULTS, to the journalist judged to have done the most to further the cause of the world's poorest people.

3 comments

  1. Butch

    Yeah, lots of people in high places probably wouldn’t like it if we measured national happiness. Profits are up and politicians are getting reelected, but those folks might be in for a shock if we followed Bhutan’s lead. And we couldn’t possibly want that, could we?

  2. Vivian

    The attitude about the economy directly effects the quality of our lives and our happiness. The pursuit of profit over happiness has destroyed the water, the air, the very food we eat. It is really difficult to be happy when you are afraid, ill, or grieving over the death of someone you love. It is difficult to be happy when you have to drive for several hours for a job, return to a family you hardly know, take pills for everything from high blood pressure to insomnia and depression, and then get up and do the same the next day. It is hard to be happy when you hardly know a mother’s love because she was scrambling too much to be a mother, or a father who you only see for an hour a day.

    It is time for the cultures of ancient Rome and Persia to be put to bed. The reason missionaries had to torture the natives is because the natives were too happy to be slaves and too happy to do their “work”. So they stole the resources and forced the natives into servitude. Our little planet can no longer take the strain of resource hoarding and destruction.

    The BEST way of determining the health of a society and economy IS happiness.

  3. Phoenix

    I don’t accept the premises this article assumes to make its case.
    “When governments get in the business of happiness, misery can’t be too far behind”- This is a generalizing, broad, over sweeping statement. A legitimate meritorious government run for the general good of its citizens can promote the arts and great education.
    I also don’t accept the premise that happiness is entirely relative. The only relativity apparently inherent in happiness is the degree to which people value superficial or real happiness. It’s no secret that healthcare, education, and a nurturing community are better ‘real’ causal factors of happiness then the fleeting pleasures of materialism. These not only don’t create happiness, but actually depend on a value system of perpetual growth-and therefore perpetual need for continuous consumption, which like a value-system parasite replaces true indicators of happiness with a Sisyphian desire for perpetual consumption.

    The military-industrial complex breeds higher profit through war. This increases GDP.
    The Medical-industrial complex breeds higher profit through sickness. This increases GDP.

    Now, all that aside, there’s a more pressing matter at hand- that this idea that Bernanke ‘succeeds’ if he keeps inflation at bay and increases employment. That’s a pretty myopic and narrow understanding of what’s truly going on, as Bernanke WELL knows of and is one of the major contributors of the biggest depression to ever hit the world in the next 6 months to a year. We are in the middle of a DEBT BUBBLE, 16 trillion in debt with a 15 trillion GDP, that number rising, the problem compounded with Europe’s inevitable collapse. Also, events like JP Morgan’s spontaneous 2B$ loss, LIBOR scandal, not to mention the fraudulent bailout are indicative of a financial system ripping at the seams. The house of cards is about to tumble folks and Bernanke KNOWS it. So, to Mr. Evenson’s credit, in the context of Bernanke in particular saying it- yes, it is NOT from altruism, it is a strategic PR move to curb the inevitable insurrections in the wake of the next crash.

    Please wake up people.

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