Dozens of economists, psychologists and other wellbeing and happiness scholars hit the Hill this week as Hamilton College hosted the second annual International Wellbeing and Public Policy Conference, sponsored by the International Journal of Wellbeing. The conference, from June 10-12, drew many of the world’s leading experts on happiness and wellbeing studies, including Hamilton alumnus Arthur Stone ’74, Ph.D. who delivered one of the keynote speeches.

The conference was facilitated by Hamilton Professor of Economics Stephen Wu.

The conference provided a platform to present recent work in the field as well as discuss many ongoing debates that the academic and policy worlds face as the body of research on wellbeing expands. Some of the key issues discussed included the best way to define wellbeing, the difference between day-to-day happiness and overall life satisfaction, the best means of measuring wellbeing, and the implications of the wellbeing research for policy-makers.

The study of happiness and wellbeing demands an interdisciplinary approach and as such grapples with, in particular, the cross-section between economics and psychology. In his keynote speech, Stone addressed this interplay of economics and psychology by noting the strengths each discipline brings to the table. He highlighted economists’ ability to tease out relationships from large observational data sets and psychologists’ aptitude for designing and conducting controlled experiments. Stone implied that this exchange of methodology between economics and psychology ultimately strengthens the quality of wellbeing research currently being conducted.

Stone concluded his speech by discussing many of the challenges the field still faces. One challenge he mentioned, which was reiterated throughout the course of the conference, is the difficulty of comparing happiness and wellbeing across cultures. As with much economic and psychological research, most of the participants in happiness and wellbeing studies tend to be North American or Western European. Thus, scholars cannot necessarily generalize these findings to humanity as a whole. Rather, the cultural components in wellbeing and happiness need to be further researched and then woven into the existing wellbeing paradigm. 

Carol Graham, another keynote speaker, raised the question of what the goal of policy ought to be with respect to wellbeing. Obviously policy should promote greater wellbeing, but for whom? Should governments focus on increasing the average level of happiness among their citizens or primarily focus on addressing those who report very low levels of wellbeing? This question leads to the even bigger issue of how to improve wellbeing.

Andrew Oswald, Ph.D., discussed in his keynote speech a fascinating study funded by the British government that tried to address the ”how” of advancing wellbeing. The study looked at whether providing financial incentives and job coaching for individuals who had been out of work for over a year would promote self-sufficiency and help these individuals get back on their feet. For two years, half of the participants received mentoring from job coaches and were given financial rewards for holding a job, while the other participants received no such benefits.

Three years after these benefits ended, the participants’ financial and wellbeing statuses were examined. As you might expect, the individuals who had received the benefits were richer, on average, than those who received no benefits. Surprisingly, however, the individuals who received the benefits tended to have lower wellbeing than the group who received no benefits. As Oswald stated, “we have bribed them into unhappiness.” One possible explanation for this finding, Oswald explains, is that providing the participants with mentoring and additional money could have changed their reference group (i.e. those with whom they compare their financial and career success); once the mentoring and government subsidies stopped, these individuals would then have lower incomes than their reference group, which could negatively impact their wellbeing.

This study highlights the importance of adopting a rigorous empirical and experimental approach to the study of wellbeing rather than making assumptions based on conventional wisdom. However, Oswald warned of placing too much value in this strict experimental approach since, as he said, “Randomized controlled trials only show that in those exact circumstances you get those results.”

Overall, the conference was a stage for lively debate and provided a glimpse at the future of wellbeing research. The presenters focused largely on what wellbeing research can do for governments and policy-makers as well as the areas in the field that are still lacking and hotly contested. The tone of the conference was summed up nicely by the final keynote speaker, John Helliwell, Ph.D, who frequently repeated the phrase, “that’s too simple.” The aim of that statement was to remind us not to take any findings at face value, but rather to further question and probe the assumptions humans so often make about happiness.


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