Free New Book on Happiness Research and Public Policy

Free New Book on Happiness Research and Public Policy

The Institution for Economic Affairs, a free-market British think-tank, has released a freely-downloadable edited volume titled ... and the Pursuit of Happiness, packed with papers summarizing the public-policy implications of recent work in happiness research.

Here are a few highlights gleaned from a quick browse.

Christian Bjørnskov, a professor of economics at Aarhus University in Demark, reports on the relationship between subjective well-being and size of government:

What appears to be the unequivocal conclusion to be drawn from the sober, scientific part of the wellbeing literature is that larger government does not imply a happier population. Indeed, when a growing battalion of social scientists sympathetic to government interventions engage in wellbeing research and fail to find empirical evidence in favour of such interventions, it seems safe to conclude that more or larger government is not associated with better wellbeing. As Ruud Veenhoven honestly concluded againsthis own political preferences more than a decade ago, the characteristics of welfare states neither create wellbeing, nor do they make the distribution of such wellbeing more equal (Veenhoven, 2000). A further decade of research has confirmed this conclusion despite popular claims that government interventions can and do create happiness.

On the contrary, the large and growing literature finds either no consequences of government policies or direct negative effects of large government (cf. Bjørnskov et al., 2008a, 2008b). Yet even if there are no direct effects, there is reason to worry that increasing the size of the government sector and its active role in society could cause losses of happiness in the long run. As documented by Sacks, Stevenson and Wolfers in this volume, economic growth leads to happiness in the long run. Likewise, economic globalisation also tends to contribute to subjective wellbeing (see Tsai, 2009). Activist government policies and a growing public sector are likely to undermine both growth and globalisation (e.g. Fölster and Henrekson, 2001; Bergh and Henrekson,2011), and thus slow down what is already a slow trend towards more wellbeing that may be difficult to track in rich countries.

As such, the apparently popular case for an active government that creates happiness rests on very shaky foundations.

Christopher Snowdon, author of The Spirit Level Delusion, tackles happiness and inequality:

In summary, there is no empirical evidence that people in more egalitarian countries enjoy happier lives, nor is there any credible reason to think they should. Scholars of happiness have identified many factors which improve life satisfaction scores but income equality is not one of them. Furthermore, since none of the factors which have been shown to boost happiness is more abundant in the ‘more equal’ nations, it is unlikely that those societies would be happier even by chance.

Devoid of support in the academic literature, the myth that ‘more equal’ countries are happier is the creation of a political faction Niemietz (2011) terms über-relativists, who have taken the modest observation that some people raise their aspirations in line with people they know as evidence that anxiety about income inequality is the main determinant of happiness in the Western world. Having taken this position, it makes sense to them that countries with the lowest levels of income inequality should be the happiest. The über-relativists have to navigate so many obstacles of logic to arrive at this position that the mere fact that ‘more equal’ societies are not happier by any empirical measure is not enough to make them turn back.

Insofar as ‘happiness studies’ is a ‘new science’ at all, it is not one that offers sustenance to those who pursue an egalitarian agenda. If one is looking for a sound basis for a happier life, one might heed the words of Diener and Biswas Diener (2009), who conclude: ‘Thus: our advice is to avoid poverty, live in a rich country, and focus on goals other than material wealth.’ This might be stating the obvious, but happiness research rarely does otherwise.

There's plenty more good stuff in the volume, including papers by Paul Ormerod, Pete Boettke & Chris Coyne, and Betsy Stevenson, Justin Wolfers & Daniel Sacks.

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Urban foxes self-evolve, exhibiting Darwin’s domestication syndrome

A new study finds surprising evidence of the self-evolution of urban foxes.

A fox at the door of 10 Downing Street on Janurary 13, 2015.

Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images
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How much can living in the city change you? If you were an urban fox, you could be evolving yourself to a whole new stage and becoming more like a dog, according to a fascinating new study.

Researchers compared skulls from rural foxes around London with foxes who lived inside the city and found important variations. Rural foxes showed adaptation for speed and hunting after quick, small prey, while urban fox skulls exhibited changes that made it easier for them to scavenge, looking through human refuse for food, rather than chasing it. Their snouts were shorter and stronger, making it easier to open packages and chew up leftovers. They also have smaller brains, not meant for hunting but for interacting with stationary food sources, reports Science magazine.

Interestingly, there was much similarity found between the male and female skulls of the urban foxes.

The observed changes correspond to what Charles Darwin called the "domestication syndrome," comprised of traits that go along with an animal's transition from being wild, to tamed, to domesticated.

The study was led by Kevin Parsons, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Glasgow.

"What's really fascinating here is that the foxes are doing this to themselves," Parsons told the BBC. "This is the result of foxes that have decided to live near people, showing these traits that make them look more like domesticated animals."

The researchers are not suggesting you should go out and get a fox as a house-pet just yet. But they are seeing the evolutionary process taking place that's moving the urban foxes along the path towards becoming more like dogs and cats, explained the study's co-author Dr. Andrew Kitchener from National Museums Scotland.

A fox beneath a tree in Greenwich park, south east London

A fox beneath a tree in Greenwich park, south east London on May 14, 2020.

Photo by Glyn KIRK / AFP

"Some of the basic environmental aspects that may have occurred during the initial phases of domestication for our current pets, like dogs and cats, were probably similar to the conditions in which our urban foxes and other urban animals are living today," said Kitchener. "So, adapting to life around humans actually primes some animals for domestication."

The specimen came from the National Museum Scotland's collection of around 1,500 fox skulls.

You can read the study in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

fox sleeping beneath stadium seats

A fox at the LV County Championship, Division two match between Surrey and Derbyshire at The Brit Oval on April 9, 2010 in London, England.

Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images

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