Understanding Happiness: A CAGE Policy Report


Karen Brandon, Independent; Thomas Hills, University of Warwick; Gus O'Donnell, Frontier Economics; Andrew Oswald, University of Warwick; Eugenio Proto, University of Warwick; Daniel Sgroi, University of Warwick


Everyone wants to be happy. Over the ages, tracts of the ancient moral philosophers – Plato, Aristotle, Confucius – have probed the question of happiness. The stirring words in the preamble to the Declaration of Independence that established ‘Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness’ as ‘unalienable Rights’ served as the inspiration that launched a nation, the United States of America. Yet, more than 240 years later, the relationship between government’s objectives and human happiness is not straightforward, even over the matters of whether it can and should be a government aim.

We approach this question not as philosophers, but as social scientists seeking to understand happiness through data. Our work in these pages is intended to enhance understanding of how the well-being of individuals and societies is affected by myriad forces, among them: income, inflation, governance, genes, inflation, inequality, bereavement, biology, aspirations, unemployment, recession, economic growth, life expectancies, infant mortality, war and conflict, family and social networks, and mental and physical health and health care. Our report suggests the ways in which this information might be brought to bear to rethink traditional aims and definitions of socioeconomic progress, and to create a better – and, yes, happier – world. We explain what the data say to us: our times demand new approaches.

Foreword by Richard Easterlin;  Introduced by Diane Coyle.

Author Biographies

Karen Brandon, Independent

Karen Brandon is an independent editor, writer and journalist. She hones and polishes academic and policy-oriented publications for economic researchers around the world. At the University of Warwick, she explored
ways for economic expertise to transcend academia - via traditional publications and new media. Prior to moving to the United Kingdom, she was a journalist for the Chicago Tribune. Her work covering politics, public
policy and social trends took her throughout the United States, Mexico and India. While at the Tribune, she was a member of reporter teams that produced two series that were named finalists for the Pulitzer Prize, and she received the Overseas Press Club award for best foreign reporting.

Thomas Hills, University of Warwick

Thomas Hills is Professor of Psychology and Behavioural Science at the University of Warwick. His research focuses on understanding psychological change through language. This encompasses work on historical changes in psychology around concepts such as risk and immigration, the evolution of language, changes in cognition across the lifespan and age-related cognitive decline. He has previously worked at the University of Basel, The University of Texas in Austin, and Indiana University. He holds a PhD in Biology.

Gus O'Donnell, Frontier Economics

Gus O’Donnell was Cabinet Secretary and Head of the British Civil Service from 2005-2011 and in 2010, he oversaw the introduction of the first coalition government since the Second World War. He was Permanent Secretary of the Treasury from 2002-2005 and served on the IMF and World Bank Boards. Gus is currently Chairman of Frontier Economics, Strategic Advisor to TD Bank, Executive Director and Strategic Advisor to Brookfield Asset Management, Chair of PwC’s Public Interest Body (PIB), President of the Council of the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) and Chair of the Board of Trustees for Pro Bono Economics. He is also a Visiting Professor at LSE and UCL, a member of the Economist Trust, and Chair of the Behavioural Insights Team Advisory Board at the Cabinet Office. He studied Economics at Warwick University and Nuffield College, Oxford, then lectured at Glasgow University. Knighted in 2005, Gus was appointed to the House of Lords in 2012, sitting as a crossbencher. Gus is an Honorary Fellow of the British Academy and Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences.

Andrew Oswald, University of Warwick

Andrew Oswald is Professor of Economics and Behavioural Science at the University of Warwick. His research has spanned various fields, across the social sciences, including research into the determinants of people’s wages and the causes of high unemployment. He may be best-known, however, for work he has been doing since the start of the 1990s into the statistical determinants of human well-being, job satisfaction, and mental health. Although 25 years ago that kind of research was rare, there is now a huge literature on ‘the economics of happiness’. He serves on the board of editors of the journal Science. He was previously at Oxford and the London School of Economics, with spells as Lecturer, Princeton University (1983-4); De Walt Ankeny Professor of Economics, Dartmouth College (1989-91); Jacob Wertheim Fellow, Harvard University (2005); Visiting Fellow, Cornell University (2008); Research Director, IZA Bonn (2011-12). He is an ISI Highly-Cited Researcher.

Eugenio Proto, University of Warwick

Eugenio Proto is Associate Professor at the University of Warwick and a research associate of the Centre for Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy (CAGE), the Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA) and the CESifo Group. He holds a PhD in Economics from Université libre de Bruxelles (ECARES) and he graduated from Bocconi University. His fields of interest are behavioural, experimental and development economics, and he has published on these topics in a number of leading economic journals. His current research is on how intelligence, personality, and subjective wellbeing affect economic decisions and labour productivity.

Daniel Sgroi, University of Warwick

Daniel Sgroi is Associate Professor at the University of Warwick and Leader of Theme 3 (on well-being and behaviour) at the Centre for Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy (CAGE). He is also currently a visiting professor at the Centre for Experimental Social Science (CESS) at Oxford. He holds a doctorate from Oxford (Nuffield College) and other degrees from Oxford and Cambridge and was based at Cambridge before moving to Warwick in 2007. His fields of interest are economic theory, experimental economics and behavioural economics, including applications to industrial organization, labour markets and finance. He has published widely in these areas in leading economic journals. He is currently attempting to develop microeconomic foundations to better our understanding of subjective wellbeing, as well as working at the intersection of economics and language.


January 2, 2017