Happiness index is key, Ben Bernanke says

Fostering wellbeing is “the ultimate objective of our policy decisions,” Ben Bernanke says.
Alex Brandon/Associated Press
Fostering wellbeing is “the ultimate objective of our policy decisions,” Ben Bernanke says.

WASHINGTON — Ben Bernanke wants to know if you’re happy.

The Federal Reserve chairman on Monday said that gauging happiness can be as important for measuring economic progress as determining whether inflation is low or unemployment is high. Economics isn’t just about money and material benefits, he said; it is also about promoting ‘‘the enhancement of well-being.’’

Bernanke and Fed policy makers rely on reports about hiring, consumer spending, and other economic data when making high-stakes decisions about the $15 trillion US economy. The Fed’s dual mandate is to maintain low inflation and full employment.


‘‘We should seek better and more-direct measurements of economic well-being,’’ Bernanke said Monday in a videotaped speech shown to a conference of economists and statisticians in Cambridge, Mass. After all, promoting well-being is ‘‘the ultimate objective of our policy decisions.’’

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Bernanke acknowledged that many people aren’t happy right now. Unemployment rose in July to 8.3 percent, and economic growth has slowed sharply from the start of the year. He has called the recovery ‘‘frustratingly slow.’’

Aggregate statistics can mask important information about how individual Americans are faring, Bernanke said.

His speech was the latest foray into a relatively new specialty in economics known as ‘‘happiness studies.’’ Bernanke attracted notice when he spoke about the economics of happiness in a 2010 commencement address in South Carolina. He said research has found that once basic material needs are met, more wealth doesn’t necessarily make people happier.

‘‘Or, as your parents always said, money doesn’t buy happiness,’’ Bernanke said then. ‘‘Well, an economist might reply, at least not by itself.’’


On Monday, Bernanke turned to the more practical and difficult task of measuring a subjective emotion. So far, most efforts have involved surveys. They have found some consistent answers: Physical and mental health, the strength of family and community ties, a sense of control over one’s life, and opportunities for leisure activity bring happiness.

Bernanke on Monday sketched out other questions: How secure do Americans feel in their jobs? How confident are they in their future job prospects? How prepared are families for financial shocks?

These indicators ‘‘could be useful in measuring economic progress or setbacks,” Bernanke said.

Bernanke’s own definition of happiness might baffle some. He called it a ‘‘short-term state of awareness that depends on a person’s perceptions of one’s immediate reality, as well as on immediate external circumstances and outcomes.’’