How can Happiness better Prioritize Government Objectives? class=

How can Happiness better Prioritize Government Objectives?

The notion that citizen well-being and happiness can be part of government policy, as described in my  blog entry last week, may sound indulgent. Like many ideas about improving government performance, there is some controversy about this kindler gentler approach to public policy.

What is the Criticism about Well-Being as Government Policy?

Critics claim that happiness and well-being should not play a role in government policy. Happiness should not be politicized according to skeptics. This criticism suggests that well-being as policy:

  • Lacks rigour with “crude and unsophisticated (De Vos, 2012)” measures
  • Lacks effectiveness because “the most robust determinants of happiness – trust and religiosity – are not affected by government policy (Bjørnskov, 2012)”
  • Lacks morality through “deeply flawed moral presumptions (De Vos, 2012)”
  • Lacks connection with government spending because this tends to reduce happiness (Bjørnskov, 2012)” and “you can’t buy happiness (Martin, 2014)”
  • Lacks grounding with real citizen needs because of “the belief that experts know better what is good for people (Ormerod, 2012)”

Much of the criticism comes from an assumption that happiness as government objective represents a paradigm shift. This is not the case. Governments who consider citizen well-being in public policy are improving on traditional mechanisms. Happiness as government objective provides a method of prioritization.

How and Where can Happiness and Well-Being Inform Government Policy?

The notion of happiness and well-being in government policy provides cultural context. Governments already address growth, environment, healthcare and inequality issues. Happiness and well-being concepts improve outcomes related to what is important to citizens.
The concept of “hierarchy of needs” as defined in 1943 by Abraham Maslow can provide some focus in government policy.
Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs
The hierarchy of needs can inform public policy based on citizen context beyond culture. The very poor and vulnerable have more basic needs. The economic environment in G7 countries differs from that in fragile states.
Concepts of personal happiness and well-being align with the hierarchy of needs:

  • Self-Actualization: self-acceptance, autonomy, purpose in life
  • Esteem: Career, occupational, personal growth, competence and personal mastery
  • Belongingness: Social, community and healthy relationships
  • Physiological and Safety: Physical and financial

Personal Well-being Categories
Concepts of national happiness and well-being also align:

  • Esteem and Self-Actualization: Freedom of life choices
  • Belongingness: Social support and cultural preservation
  • Safety: Justice and lack of corruption, environmental preservation
  • Physiological: Physical, life expectancy, health, growth

National Well-being Categories
Therefore, government policy can be enhanced through applying well-being concepts. The use of hierarchy of needs informs the type of well-being policy to advance citizens to a better state. When combined with the cultural context, the hierarchy of needs helps government prioritize for the most effective outcomes.


Baer, R. Mindfulness and Six Key Elements of Psychological Well-being. Web Psychology, 2014.
Bales, S. Happiness Matters: Measuring Happiness to Inform Government Policy. Prospect Journal of International Affairs, November 15, 2016.
Bjørnskov, C. Wellbeing and the Size of Government. Booth, P. (editor) … and the Pursuit of Happiness, Wellbeing and the Role of Government. The Institute of Economic Affairs, 2012.
De Vos, M. Saving Happiness from Politics. National Affairs, Winter 2012.
Helter, W. The Six Dimensions of Wellness. National Wellness Institute.
Martin, B. Government goals and policy get in the way of our happiness. The Conversation, March 19, 2014.
Ormerod, P. The folly of wellbeing in public policy. Booth, P. (editor) … and the Pursuit of Happiness, Wellbeing and the Role of Government. The Institute of Economic Affairs, 2012.
Rath, T; Harter, J. The Five Essential Elements of Wellbeing. Gallup, May 4, 2010.
Sze, D. Scientists Define the 6 Criteria of Well-Being. Huffington Post, June 8, 2015.