The Trouble With Happiness
Volume 86, No. 4, Summer 2014
By Rick Swedloff [PDF]

The empirical study of happiness is all the rage. Scholars across disciplines are measuring, dissecting, and writing about happiness; trying to find the causes, correlates, and conditions of happiness; and trying to explain how people can be happier and sustain happiness. In recent years, legal scholars have relied on these findings to explain or justify changes to legal institutions as diverse as the tax code, the tort system, criminal punishment, and corporate governance.

The trouble is the data on happiness cannot inform public policy generally or transform legal institutions specifically without additional, significant theoretical undergirding. This Article shows that scholars cannot use the happiness data instrumentally without answering two foundational questions. Scholars must first figure out whether and how the data collected relate to more complete definitions of well-being. Second, scholars must determine whether, in light of other normative theories that animate substantive law, the apparent conflict between prediction, experience, and memory matters. These two foundational questions, in turn, raise important concerns about the importance of hedonic adaptation, a finding that a number of scholars have relied upon in recent articles.

In working through these questions, this Article provides an important roadmap for future scholars who wish to use empirical data on happiness to set public policy or transform legal institutions.