back to article Happiness economics is bollocks. Oh, just adopted it? Er ...

As is ever the case, by the time squares have caught on to the value of whatever hipsters have been doing this week, the latter are off doing something else entirely. Much the same happens with economic fashions: it takes time for those not actually involved in the subject to grok to what the cool kids are saying and by the time …

  1. Rol Silver badge

    Measure for measure

    Call me cynical, but replacing a well defined metric with something that can be defined and redefined on a whim is just the kind of smoke and mirror governance that appeals to the likes of Dave the effing tory.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Measure for measure

      From a cynic to another... what you claim a "well defined" metric is only so by that metric is actually computed is something which has been defined and redefined at whim over the decades....

      Like most economic concepts may I add... (see the definition of "utility maximisation" in this article for another example)

  2. ewozza

    Too much of a good thing

    A recent study suggested gas fracking is bad, because the fall in energy prices will stimulate the economy too much, and encourage us to use more energy. But if you are not prioritising GDP, and happiness is a priority, you might be more concerned that fracking seems to make some people really upset - so its obviously a bad thing.

    1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      Re: Too much of a good thing

      Anything is better than GDP.

      When the best thing you can do to boost your per-capita GDP is have a car crash - people buy 2 new cars, have expensive medical treatment, sue each other, pay higher insurance premiums = all GDP.

      Or smoke all your life, get lung cancer and have a transplant, preferably at US healthcare hospital rates. Then you need to think of a better economic metric.

      1. Apdsmith

        Re: Too much of a good thing

        Yep, GDP is the worst form of measurement - except all those forms that have been tried from time to time. (Apologies to Churchill) - this is why it's called the "dismal science" - at least chemists and physicists get to measure what they're working with, can't do that in economics (or, at least, if you can come up with a concrete way of doing it you're probably due for a nobel or two...)


      2. T. F. M. Reader Silver badge

        Re: Too much of a good thing

        "the best thing you can do to boost your per-capita GDP is have a car crash"

        Might be the worst example of the broken window fallacy I have ever seen. Please re-read what Tim had to say about opportunity cost and then think what would have been bought with the many that was spent on newer cars and doctors and lawyers without the car crash.

    2. Anonymous Coward 101

      Re: Too much of a good thing

      The banks did more than any environmentalist dared dream in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, by buggering up the economy. Shouldn't they be given some credit for that?

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Too much choice definitely makes me less happy

    I find too much choice and too much information quite stressful. I find it harder and harder to be satisfied with what I've got, even though I've done ok and should be pleased.

    There's always too many new things vying for my attention and instead of applauding the ingenuity of the human race to create more, different, better, sooner, I just either end up with this irrational ache of want for the next shiny, or I punish myself for the wrong decision or indecision. Either way I end up spending more money and I'm no happier on the other side.

    I'm trying a small simplification - selling extraneous items that are starting to feel like dead weights on my shoulders - and it does help. Do I need four nice watches? No. And having just one feels a hell of a lot better for me.

    I understand these are all very much first world problems, and I'm very much in danger of sounding like a whiny git, and for those of you who are thinking 'just pull it the f**k together and get a life' - I agree, you needn't post!

    But it's difficult and I'm not as happy as I ought to be, given the life and opportunities I have. I suspect I'm not alone in this.

    1. Tim Worstal

      Re: Too much choice definitely makes me less happy

      That's very much the point that the economists are making about opportunity costs. And yet, while I suffer from it myself, I've also lived in a society with fewer choices. Which, given that the choices available were along the lines of "food today" or "no food today" wasn't notably better.

      It's a toughie, maybe there just isn't an answer.

  4. Tapeador

    animated gif at side of screen

    NO to the dancing Jesus animated gif!! Seriously harshing my mellow/diminishing my utility!

    1. ecofeco Silver badge

      Re: animated gif at side of screen

      Thank you!!!!!!

      1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

        Re: animated gif at side of screen

        Yep, kill it with fire!

  5. Mage Silver badge

    Declaration of Independence

    "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness" is a well-known phrase in the United States Declaration of Independence.

    It was stupidity to put "Happiness" in it.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Declaration of Independence

      I cannot agree more... "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of anyone who disagrees with us to smash them to pulp" would have been far more accurate !!!!

      1. Jack of Shadows Silver badge

        Re: Declaration of Independence

        Sadly this is an example of the drift that mars a very useful language: English. "The Persuit of Happiness" meant is your employment. No guilds, professions reserved by Class or Royal Writ, none by paid membership, the like. It's one of those definitional things, apparently.

    2. Identity

      Re: Declaration of Independence

      It is not happiness which is offered but the freedom to pursue it. Still think it's stupid?

      1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

        Re: Declaration of Independence

        "Life, liberty and the pursuit of cheeseburgers" was the first attempt, but was blocked by a lobbyist from the booze industry

  6. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

    Econimics as a fashion item?

    Explains a lot!

    And is Dave still on the happiness stuff? I thought that was last year or maybe the year before. Surely he's flitted onto something else by now.

    1. ecofeco Silver badge

      Re: Econimics as a fashion item?

      Heh! Good way of looking at it. Upvoted.

      How many times have we heard the well-off say "money doesn't matter?" Only an idiot would ever say such a thing. The kind of idiot that thinks everything is just the fashion of the moment.

      1. Squander Two

        Re: Econimics as a fashion item?

        > Only an idiot would ever say such a thing.

        Like the Buddha, you mean?

        1. ecofeco Silver badge

          Re: Econimics as a fashion item?

          I worship no deity nor cult of personality. Yes, I know. I'm odd.

          Buddha was wrong. But if I remember Siddhartha correctly, wasn't he very, very rich at one time? Ah. So.

          But hey, if you think he was right, go ahead try to feed and shelter yourself relying solely on the generosity of your fellow humans for more than a few days or weeks. I dare you. It can be done, but you would still be a statistical outlier. A very FAR outlier.

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I think the issue of choice depends....

    Too much good telly to choose from, on my PVR, makes me a happy chappy. But what about the parents, sending their offspring to school for the first time. For many the choice is an agonising curse, leading to damaging financial decision (moving home, for example) when I'm sure they'd much rather depend on a local school both having places available and producing a consistently good standard of education (<Cough>FranceGermanyFinland</Cough>). Some sets of choices are good, while others are a pain in the arse.

  8. Gert Leboski


    I've recently had this one, hence why I'm sceptical about accepting a 50% rise to move from the charity sector to the financial sector.

    Life is too short to have artificial aspirations and what really matters to the individual, should always be happiness and contentment.

    On an economic slant, surely if the populus is happier, then their wallets might prove to be looser?

    Edit: These ToughBook keyboards are a bit crap.

  9. herman Silver badge

    Adblock took swift care of the damn dancing beejeesus...

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward


      What dancing jesus?

  10. itsallcrap

    I attempt to maximise the length time I get to spend lying on my arse.

    Having tried to relate this article to my own life and behaviour, this is the my honest response. Is there some way society can benefit from this?

    1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      Re: I attempt to maximise the length time I get to spend lying on my arse.

      Energy efficiency - lying on your arse is a minimum energy configuration.

      Any arse raising movement involves expenditure of energy, increase in entropy, waste heat into the environment, global warming and the eventual heat death of the universe.

      For your valiant fight to remain lying on your arse and saving the planet - we salute you.

  11. Stern Fenster

    And it only remains...

    So it's agreed that "happiness" is good, and now the only thing that remains is to define what it actually is.

    Is it lying on a sofa with a large box of chocs watching X-Factor, or rowing the Atlantic single-handed?

    Is it looking at the world as hard as possible, or blotting out the world in order to see as little as possible? Does it involve learning things or not learning things?

    Until we figure that out, the word isn't useful.

    1. Gert Leboski

      Re: And it only remains...

      "rowing the Atlantic single-handed"

      Wouldn't you just end up going around in circles? ;) /pedantry

      1. Anonymous Coward

        Re: And it only remains...

        Not if he knows how to row. I admit that a cross-body stroke every other time is going to give him something of a lopsided physique when he reaches North America, like a stone sculptor might have; only more pronounced.

      2. Tim99 Silver badge

        Re: And it only remains...

        @Gert Leboski

        Single oar sculling? Wikipedia Link

  12. Nick Kew Silver badge

    It can be done

    Many years back I lived for a time in Sheffield. Not one of our wealthier cities by conventional measures, but they're doing something right and - if it hasn't changed beyond recognition - I'd much rather return there than other big cities I've lived in like Bristol, let alone London!

    Furthermore, I can point to a completely hard-nosed economic measure of happiness there. When I came to take out household contents insurance, I found the heart-of-student-land premium to be the same as for a small Somerset village where I had lived immediately before. Intrigued by this I investigated further: just one Sheffield postcode (S4 - Attercliffe/Brightside) had a slightly-elevated premium, and even that was many levels below the cheapest postcode in London or Liverpool, and at the cheap end compared even to the more rural postcodes of other big cities such as Manchester, Leeds, or Bristol.

    You don't get more hard-nosed than the insurance industry. I *think* the major reason for Sheffield's success was the amount of open green space, and that this wasn't just ugly urban parkland (the Hampstead Heath phenomenon) but felt like a real spur of the Peak District on one's doorstep.

    1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      Re: It can be done

      Growing up in a less-than-picturesque mining village near Sheffield in the 80s I believe you - funnily enough the only place I have lived where the people were happier and friendlier was Belfast.

      I think it's the anywhere is better than London phenomena

  13. Sean OConnor


    I model human behaviour for computer games and I think there are two separate parameters here that get confused. I think "happiness" is largely genetic: you're either a happy person or you're not, and that's why piss-poor Anglo Saxons scrabbling round in the dirt would have been just as "happy" as we are today.

    The other parameter is "abject misery" such as when your daughter is raped and killed by a Viking, or you watch half your children die because of some hideous communicable disease.

    We've worked wonders to improve on our "abject misery" parameter but there's nothing much we can do about the "happiness" parameter and that's why it never really changes in these surveys, however rich we get.

    1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      Re: Misery

      "but there's nothing much we can do about the "happiness" parameter and that's why it never really changes".

      Religion, drugs, drink - the drop in the usage of these is the reason that happiness as fallen for the peasants in the last 1000years

  14. GordonD

    Credit Where Credit is Due

    It seems you're being a little hard on David.

    You've made a good case that the way to increase happiness is to reduce choice, and DC has just stated that the tories are going to prioritise happiness.

    Surely the story here is 'Politician tells truth about fascist dictatorship manifesto'?

  15. Identity

    What a confused mess!

    First, if utility has no more of a distinct definition than happiness, then either as an economic goal (or is that gaol?) is, in your quaint term, bollocks. "'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean-neither more nor less.' [Lewis Carroll]" Economics, as unscientific as it is, is an attempt to describe what people do and demonstrate their philosophy in action, rather than some stricture we should be guided by.

    Second, it's hardly one or the other. One may put oneself in a position where they will be 'unhappy' in order, say, to make money 'utilitarianly' to send back to the family, which will make them 'happy,' or certainly happier than knowing their family is starving...

    Lastly, though somewhat anecdotally, let's look at Detroit — that quintessentially rustbelt city — where one can buy a lovely house (architecturally speaking) for $500. Why are people not flocking in droves to move to Detroit? Because they'd be living in Detroit, where crime is rampant, so is unemployment and the city is cutting off people's water because they can't pay the bills and knocking down abandoned properties right and left. They are actively trying to shrink the city.

    You can mean your words to mean whatever you want, but the facts on the ground, apparently, don't have to agree...

    1. Tim Worstal

      Re: What a confused mess!

      "where one can buy a lovely house (architecturally speaking) for $500. Why are people not flocking in droves to move to Detroit?"

      I don't know if this is true but I offer it as an exp,anation that I've heard. That the City of Detroit charges you property taxes on what they think the house is worth, not the market transaction. So you might but a house for $500. But you'll be charged property taxes as if you paid $100,000, because that's what they *ought* to be worth. And at, so I'm told, 2-3 % pa of assessed value, that's quite a lot.

  16. Zog_but_not_the_first Silver badge

    The wit and wisdom of Fawlty towers

    Basil Fawlty: [with feigned reminiscence] Oh, happy. Yes, I remember that.

  17. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

    Old news?

    I'm pretty sure it's at least a few years since Govt. was talking about the "happiness index". It might even have been the last Labour Govt.

  18. ecofeco Silver badge


    It's all double-plus good!

  19. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

    Happiness maximization is such a stupid two-pence-guru idea...

    ... that anyone who consider it should be happy-slapped with a bat at least twice per hour for at least five months. With a jawbreaker water-soaked pillow.

    Seriously, it's something out Brave New World, I can see Ford cynically talk about great happiness for the higher castes while we bomb colored people in foreign lands that might interfere with our right to allocate the oil under their feet, because, you know, happy people are not wont to question the leadership or their edicts very much. Then everyone takes a tablet of Soma, has a mindless sex orgy with whomever is at hand (no AIDS please, we are happy), then goes home contented. THE END!!

    Yeah, how is happiness maximization going to bring the capital infrastructure that brings you through the winter, saves you from (fear!) EBOLA or gives you adequate medical care? It won't. Be happy, die crappy.

    Moreover, the idea that the government is in charge of maximizing anything, be it happiness or GDP (which it currently tries to nuke hard), is right up the alley of that intellectual shitter Krugman, who isn't exactly against have a war to "up the GDP" (and of course destroy everything of worth except the number). That he now whores out with happiness is a new low.

    1. chris 48

      Re: Happiness maximization is such a stupid two-pence-guru idea...

      I think that you misunderstand what is meant by happiness maximisation. The idea isn't to make everyone deliriously happy for 5 minutes, it's to maximise long term happiness. So if adequate medical care would make you happy (which it would for me) then that's what a happiness maximising society would provide.

      It's very like the difference between the original anceient Greek hedonists (who decided that Happiness was the only good could be best achieved by a simple monastic lifestyle) and the modern hedonists who think it is best acheived by drinking lots. The later are wrong (as they will admit themselves when the hangover hits) but that doesn't mean that hedonism is wrong.

  20. chris 48

    Happiness vs utility

    Defining utility as whatever it is that humans act to maximise is daft. You can't say what it is even after some careful thought, what are the chances that everyone else is defining it sensibly and acting to maximise it? Nil. And that's easy to prove because there are plenty of psycological experiments which show that people make contradictory and incoherent choices. "Thinking Fast and Slow" has loads of examples of this.

    It seems far more reasonable to me that utility and happiness are the same thing and that people are just bad at maximising them. They move to Burnley for more money because they think that will make them happier. When the extra happiness doesn't materialise they either fail to notice, assume it is due to something else, or stay out of inertia and embarassement at having made a wrong decision.

    Perhaps a focus on happiness economics at a national level will encourage people to take a more rigorous look at what is making them happy or unhappy and act to correct it. Even if it doesn't, it must be a sensible goal.

    Of course the problem is that it's like communism, a lovely idea but really hard to implement without some difficult side effects (in this case the firebombing of Burnley).

  21. Tim Almond


    The problem is that whatever the academics say, the politicians aren't interested in the academia, just using it as a cloak to reduce choice.

    What's dangerous is what we define by happiness. Julie Andrews might have liked whiskers on kittens, but for some people they kick off allergies. Bright copper kettles? Thanks, but I'd rather cook with non-stick stainless steel as it's a bugger to clean copper kettles afterwards. And my Christmas list probably would include the Blu-Ray of Edge of Tomorrow rather than a pair of mittens.

    It's like when people talk about work-life balance. Some people actually like working a lot. Money makes them feel more secure. Work gives them purpose.

    What we really need is for government to generally get out of the way, to leave us with more of the fruits of our labours to allow us to make the choices that we want to make.

  22. Infernoz Bronze badge

    GDP sucks, and happiness is a reward for doing right.

    The GDP includes significant unproductive spending like excessive wasteful consumerist purchasing and massively wasteful government tax funded (which hurts the economy in multiples) interference in the market, like the NHS, an excessive social safety net, wasteful and harmful education, and an excessive military, so the P in GDP is very dubious indeed.

    As I see it, happiness is firstly a side benefit of doing the right things to survive (e.g. being productive enough), then having the luxury of resources to do what you want to do, possibly socially; this does not necessarily require paying for stuff, so linking this to the GDP is stupid.

    Also a significant proportion of people have abnormal 'happiness' triggers (e.g. people with malfunctioning brains like sociopaths and psychopaths, and other mentally ill people) and these people can be destructive and diminish other peoples happiness so corrupt measures of happiness.

  23. tony2heads

    4 yorkshiremen

    "But you know, we were happy in those days, though we were poor."

    So the government has an easy fix to increase happiness - make everyone poor!

    ... oh that explains everything

  24. Magnus_Pym

    Ignorance is bliss?

    That's what this articles logic seems to lead to. We were happier when we didn't know what we were missing. Or perhaps 'we were all better off when people knew there place and stuck to it'. No wonder the millionaire Dave 'bring back Victorian values' Cameron endorses it.

    The problem here is that at first 'happiness' is used as a label for a definition of the thing the we all want and pursue and then, later, it is found that we don't necessarily want or pursue that thing. So then the conclusion is not that the definition is wrong but that we don't want that thing we all want.

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