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Good governance is essential for happiness, study finds

by Lindsay Jolivet Dec 8 / 14

Image above: Lindenhof Square in Zurich, Switzerland. Designing public spaces that facilitate social interaction is one part of governing for well-being. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

A reliable government, strong laws, trustworthy leaders and a voice: these are core ingredients for a happy life, finds a new paper published by the National Bureau of Economics Research.

The study, co-authored by CIFAR Senior Fellow John Helliwell (University of British Columbia), compares citizens’ assessments of their own well-being with a number of measures of government effectiveness, including law, checks against corruption, accountability and political stability. It found that in countries with good governments, citizens say they are happier overall.

The new study expands on typical measurements of government quality, which usually focus on how the government helps the economy and makes the country and its people richer. A higher GDP does increase happiness levels. But the new study finds good governance improves lives in ways that delve deeper than people’s pockets.

For example, corruption can be bad for a country because it hurts the economy. But corruption also undermines public trust. The study finds that increasing the public’s trust in institutions increases happiness more than the positive effect on the economy alone would account for.

Other key factors to well-being include the freedom to make life choices and a sense of belonging.

In addition, the researchers find that even short-term improvements to the quality of governance create a big boost to happiness levels. The 10 countries that increased their governments’ effectiveness the most between 2005 and 2012 bumped happiness upward by the equivalent of a 40 per cent increase in per capita incomes, relative to the 10 countries whose governance quality decreased most over the same time period. The most-improved countries were the Palestinian Territories, Rwanda, Georgia, Myanmar, Poland, Paraguay, Taiwan, Macedonia, Brazil and Peru.

“The analysis of government quality during the global recession has shown that meaningful changes of the quality of government are achievable within a few years, and that these improvements, where they have been achieved, have improved lives by more than any attainable rate of economic growth,” says Helliwell, co-director of the program in Social Interactions, Identity & Well-Being.

Based on this evidence, the authors recommend that governments revise their approaches to policy using a well-being perspective, shifting priorities in ways that put the happiness of their people first.

“If research shows that some policies enable people to make better lives for themselves, and for each other, according to people’s own judgments about the quality of their lives, then any good government should try to act accordingly,” Helliwell says.

Governing for happiness involves designing and managing public space to encourage social interaction and creating measures to reduce corruption and increase trust. The evidence also shows that effectively delivering policies is more important than having effective democratic institutions until a certain threshold, which suggests governments should tackle delivery first.

Governance is also about how decisions are made and who has a voice in the process. The authors cite the example of major prison reforms in Singapore at the end of the 1990s, which involved prisoners, guards, staff and local communities in projects to help convicts change their lives. Recidivism dropped by a third after the reforms.

Critics of the well-being approach to governance have argued that legislating for happiness would create a “nanny state,” or an Orwellian government instructing citizens on how to live happy lives.

“George Orwell’s 1984 was the reverse of what would be implied by a focus on well-being,” Helliwell says in response. He says well-being focused policies would empower people to improve their lives and the lives of those around them, “and to be happy while doing so.”

The other authors on the new NBER paper, and on a longer OECD working paper on the subject, are Haifang Huang, Shawn Grover and Shun Wang.