Too Much Happiness?

Increasingly, the study of “happiness” is making its way into legal academic writing. In some analyses it is framed as an alternative to money as a measure of welfare; in others as a focus on addressing the recurring problem of law firm associates’ pessimism. It is applied to tax policy, the calculation of pain-and-suffering damages, democratic institutions, and more. And happiness is making its way into law schools—well, in a sense anyway—with seminars being offered at Yale and Temple Law Schools on, for instance, “Law, Happiness, and Subjective Well-Being.” The study of happiness, and the related research program in positive psychology, are becoming increasingly prominent in law and policy.

The connection to the also-burgeoning literature on paternalism is clear; to the extent different interventions might be able to increase people’s happiness and welfare, is government justified in promulgating such interventions (or even obligated to do so)? That’s a can-of-worms type of question that I won’t get into in this post, but it connects with an interesting new article that indirectly raises the question whether such intervention—even if justified—might in fact backfire. That article, “The Optimum Level of Well-Being: Can People Be Too Happy?,” suggests that even though higher happiness seems to correlate with higher success in other areas, simply continuing to increase happiness might not increase that success consistently. The abstract follows:

Psychologists, self-help gurus, and parents all work to make their clients, friends, and children happier. Recent research indicates that happiness is functional and generally leads to success. However, most people are already above neutral in happiness, which raises the question of whether higher levels of happiness facilitate more effective functioning than do lower levels. Our analyses of large survey data and longitudinal data show that people who experience the highest levels of happiness are the most successful in terms of close relationships and volunteer work, but that those who experience slightly lower levels of happiness are the most successful in terms of income, education, and political participation. Once people are moderately happy, the most effective level of happiness appears to depend on the specific outcomes used to define success, as well as the resources that are available.

We know that “money doesn’t buy happiness”—that simply increasing financial success doesn’t directly correlate with happiness above a certain (surprisingly low) point; here’s an interesting suggestion that above a certain point, happiness doesn’t “buy” success.

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2 Responses

  1. One possibility: success is better measured by the quality of close relationships than by income, education, and political participation. Not saying I agree with that, but it’s certainly plausible.

  2. Peter Huang says:


    You raise good points & the possibility that different people under diferent circumstances have different optimal levels of happiness. A recent book, Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Utility by father & son, Anthony Kenny & Charles Kenny nicely summarizes much of the literature about happiness from philosophy, economics, & psychology. It also introduces a trichotomy of elements of well-being, namely: contentment (happiness), welfare (material) & dignity (autonomy) that correspond to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”