Exploring Happiness by Sissela Bok, Yale University Press 2010

Ethical Markets Books and Reviews

Review by Hazel Henderson © 2010

This deeply researched and profoundly enjoyable book gets to the heart of the new intellectual fashions in studying human happiness. Sissela Bok’s breathtaking tour of history and cultures from antiquity to today’s brain science is quite the best grounding needed by any serious researcher into this tricky domain. Most efforts to define “happiness,” let alone measure its many expressions whether subjective or objective, still fall short.

I relished Exploring Happiness for another personal reason: I knew and admired Sissela Bok’s parents, the well-known and respected Swedish scholars Alva Myrdal and Gunnar Myrdal, who clearly nurtured their daughter’s wide-ranging, free-thinking mind. I also read Sissela Bok’s husband, Derek Bok’s study of the field of happiness research and measurement. These two books are complementary. Sissela’s approach is more philosophical while Derek’s is more instrumental and conventionally focused within mainstream policy paradigms.

I learned far more from Sissela Bok’s Exploring Happiness as a student, writer, researcher and practitioner for over 30 years of social measurements of “success,” “progress,” “satisfaction,” and quality of life. I became skeptical of the currently fashionable focus on happiness for many of the same reasons discussed in this book. Defining happiness is almost impossible, while measuring it both subjectively and objectively is fraught with intellectual traps and dire policy implications. As a co-organizer of the Beyond GDP Conference in the European Parliament in 2007, it was evident how the “happiness” focus could lead to regressive policies: if “happiness” is subjective and culturally conditioned, as much research suggests, then why should governments worry too much about social welfare? Shockingly, this profoundly conservative view of several influential economists was embraced by many officials.

Experts from many countries pointed out other traps: a Brazilian pointed out that “happiness” to a resident of Rio de Janeiro might simply mean a reduction in violence, while an Indian remarked that to a commuter in Mumbai, happiness might mean an uncrowded railway station and on-time trains. Others pointed to Bhutan and its developing Gross National Happiness Index (GNH) which has caught popular imagination and media attention worldwide. Critics point out that too much focus on GNH could ignore dire living conditions for many Bhutanese and the extent to which their sense of “happiness” might be linked to their ethnic identities and dislike of other ethnic groups in Bhutan.

My own work has focused on correcting the obvious errors in GDP about which I have elaborated in my Paradigms in Progress (1991, 1995) and many later books and articles, as well as my own Country Futures Indicators © which became the basis for the Calvert-Henderson Quality of Life Indicators I developed with the Calvert Group of socially responsible investment funds in 2000 and regularly update at www.calvert-henderson.com.

I agree with Sissela Bok that all such studies and measures of “happiness,” satisfaction and quality of life must be multi-disciplinary, multi-cultural, using a wide variety of metrics – far beyond the money-denominated indices such as GDP. This is why I have favored the “dashboard” approach, measuring a wide range of phenomena such as the 12 indicators: education, employment, energy, environment, health, human rights, income, infrastructure, national security, public safety, re-creation and shelter that we use in the Calvert-Henderson Quality of Life Indicators. I also welcome the new effort of the State of the USA, pioneered by Christopher Hoenig, and the support by Derek Bok for their multi-disciplinary “dashboard” approach. The intellectual partnership of Sissela and Derek Bok will enrich the search for measuring wellbeing and quality of life for years to come.