Handbook on the Economics of Happiness, by Luigino Brunl and Pier Luigi Porta (eds)

Edward Elgar, 2007,xxxvii + 596 pp, hbk, 978 1 84376 826 7, £150

Start with chapter 2. This will introduce you to a wide variety of definitions of happiness: from Genovesi’s happiness as social relations (an idea connected to Aristotle’s vision of the virtuous man ‘living well’ by serving his city), to Adam Smith’s understanding that wealth and happiness are by no means directly correlated, to Alfred Marshall’s compromise (extreme poverty makes happiness difficult to achieve), to Bentham’s utilitarianism and happiness as psychological hedonism, and to rational choice theory and the question of the relationship between happiness and indifference curves. This chapter, which started life as an article in the Journal of the History of Economic Thought, concludes with a series of vital questions, the most important of which is: ‘The whole theoretical building of modern economics has been grounded on the key idea that an increase in wealth will lead to an increase in wellbeing, or happiness …. If, instead, having more economic goods does not lead to well-being but to bad-being, if ‘goods’ become ‘bads’ (because they make living unhappy ….), then the very philosophical and social bases of the job of the political economist are called into question’ (p.45). This chapter raises all sorts of interesting questions about the definition of ‘happiness’ and the definition of ‘economics’, as does the book as a whole – which is why this chapter is a good place to start.

Clearly I can’t treat each of the twenty-four very different contributions to this book with the same degree of detail as that. Of the book as a whole I would say that it really is a treasure-store of good things, and at the same time it is a deconstruction of the boundaries we often assume between disciplines. There is ethics, political economy, history, philosophy, social science, and theology (‘God, 115’ ought to be in the index). There is much discussion of the meaning of ‘happiness’ and of its relationship to ‘choice’, ‘preference’, ‘pleasure’, etc. (and maybe there should have been more discussion of the meaning of ‘economics’), and there is debate of various paradoxes of happiness (e.g., pp.233ff) and particularly of the finding that in developed countries increased income does not result in increased happiness. On why this might be the case chapter 13 argues that technological innovation makes nonrelational goods cheaper in relation to relational goods – and if, as many of the chapters suggest, it is such relational goods as time with friends, places to meet, the arts, etc. which generate happiness (understood as social and public happiness) then happiness will decline and individual hedonism will increase.
Whether you’re looking for economic realities expressed through mathematical formulae, classical history, Immanuel Kant’s ethics, or sustainable development, there’s something here for you.
No short book review can do justice to this wide-ranging and thought-provoking collection. I suggest that you read it. I wouldn’t recommend that you buy it: you can probably see why. Ask your library to obtain it, and then borrow it.