Tag Archives | Richard Layard

If You’re Happy and You Know It…

“What does happiness have to do with transportation?” you may ask. I will tell you but first bear with me for a description of a new paradigm for public policy outlined by London School of Economics professor in his new book entitled “Happiness.”

It may be hard to believe that there was a time when cost effectiveness and efficiency were not the underpinning and often smothering values in public policy debates. The radicals of the American and French Revolutions as well as town fathers and mothers throughout the world wouldn’t recognize these economic terms. They spoke in high flown language about “pursuit of happiness” and “self evident truths” or in more homely words of common good and taking care of each other. What these policy paradigms rested on was a shared value system–that community or public actions and investments derived from and were used to respond to conditions and trends affecting the well-being of citizens.

Their answer to the question of whether people would benefit, or be better off, as the result of communal action was based on whether people would consider themselves happier or more satisfied because of the public action.

Under the influence of the dismal science, economics, asking whether people would be happier as a result of a policy change, tax levy or project has disappeared from conversation. Even considered weird and immeasurable.

While cost benefit analysis offers reassuringly precise numbers, does measuring results solely in financial terms really lead to better policy making? If the aggregate income level of a country or city rises, are all its people necessarily better off? If the purpose of government is to meet the needs and desires of its citizens, shouldn’t we be asking them what makes them happy?

International studies on this subject show surprisingly high similarities among people worldwide as to what they care about and what makes them happy. Ranked from high to low, time with friends and family comes first, followed by economic security, meaningful work and health. Countries with extensive social welfare support and shorter workweeks have the happiest citizens (Scandinavia, Switzerland, etc) while countries with less social welfare and longer work weeks have less happy citizens, even if their incomes are much higher (US and UK). Layard lays out the development of new, statistically valid means of measuring the public’s levels of satisfaction that are surprisingly fine-grained and could be used to as guides for decision-making.

(This is a short summary of the thesis of the book. I recommend all policy wonks to read it for yourself.)

The implications for transportation planning (“finally,” you say) derive from the findings that what makes people happiest is time with friends and family and what makes them least happy is commuting (US study). In fact, what makes us happiest is sex, the most direct contact with another person, followed by being with friends and then by time with the family. Yet the survey respondents spent only 0.2 hours a day having sex while they spent 1.6 hours average doing what they disliked the most, commuting.

If we really want to meet the most basic of human values, enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, to increase satisfaction with our lives, then we should be designing our cities and making transportation investments in order to:

  • reduce the need to commute to work,
  • make those commutes as sociable as possible (mass transit and walkable streets increase our chance to interact with people: SOV’s are inherently isolating), and
  • give people more time in their day to do the things that make them happiest, which is spending time with family and friends.

We already know that these strategies help reduce travel and put more money in our pockets thereby addressing another major factor in happiness (economic security), “Happiness” argues that we should bring the discussion back to values and what furthers the public good as experienced by people in their lives and not rely on precise but not so meaningful economic indicators as measures of successful public policy.

(Northwest Environment Watch follows this issue as part of their obsession with measuring what counts. Intriguing posts on this blog.)