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BOOK REVIEW: The Politics of Happiness


Derek Bok, The Politics of Happiness: What Government Can Learn from the New Research on Well-Being (Princeton University Press, 2010).  

Neighborhoods already struggling to recover from decades of disinvestment are now overwhelmed by the effects of the recent economic downturn. In communities where unemployment has topped 30 percent and every block includes empty, boarded-up homes, the need for economic development — specifically job creation — cannot be overstated. But neighborhoods are complex systems that require many elements to work well, from decent housing and safe streets to good schools, shopping, health care and other services. Ultimately the goal of community development is not limited to meeting basic human needs; our work is about improving the quality-of-life and the well-being of residents within these communities.

But how do we define well-being? What factors most impact the quality of a person’s life? What can be done to strengthen factors that are most likely to promote well-being and result in lasting happiness?

In his new book, The Politics of Happiness, former Harvard President Derek Bok makes a compelling case that public policy in the U.S. has been so dominated by the drive for economic growth that we have neglected to explore and enact policies that could promote the well-being and happiness of Americans.

This is not a new concept for practitioners of comprehensive community development which, by definition, addresses a broad range of factors that contribute to a healthy community. For years researchers in the field have gone far beyond economic indicators to measure quality of life and the wellbeing of community residents. The data-driven strategies Bok proposes can reinforce and strengthen the practice of comprehensive community development, as well as advance public policies to promote well-being.

Bok reviews several decades of research on human happiness, then asks two key questions. First, what factors have the greatest impact on happiness? Apart from inherited temperament, Bok’s review points to marriage, social relationships, employment, perceived health, religion, and the quality of government. Second, what changes should be made in public education, public health, and other public policies in order to promote these factors and help people live happier lives? He then methodically examines each factor and the obstacles and opportunities for policymakers seeking to enact public policies to promote them.

The actions he recommends — vigorous campaigns to alleviate mental illness and chronic pain, a comprehensive effort to strengthen marriage and family, a series of measures to enhance people’s peace of mind by giving them greater protection from the financial risks related to illness or job loss—are straightforward and pragmatic, not innovative or groundbreaking. In fact, it is Bok’s commonsense approach that makes his recommendations so compelling. Furthermore, his emphasis on civic engagement reinforces a core principle of comprehensive community development.

The timing of this book’s release is not ideal. When so many people are struggling to find a job or hold on to a home threatened by foreclosure, it is difficult to focus on other elements of well-being. Unlike the tiny nation of Bhutan, the U.S. is not likely to have a “gross national happiness index” anytime soon. But we can begin to look beyond measures of economic growth and give more serious consideration to formulating public policies that help people live happier lives. Derek Bok has made a strong argument for doing so.

Eileen Figel is Director of the Institute for Comprehensive Community Development. For more than twenty years she has provided community planning, development, and public policy services to community organizations, municipalities, and developers across the United States.  

This article appeared in the inaugural issue of The Journal of the Institute for Comprehensive Community Development, December 2010. Download the full issue.

Keywords: Derek Bok, happiness, policy

Posted in Journal Inaugural Issue: December 2010

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