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February 23, 2006

Happiness Wars

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

It's fun to take note of how strongly people in the economics world feel about happiness research. Why should such a subject create such a firestorm? (My hunch: Because it raises a fundamental question, namely, "What's the real point of doing economics anyway?") Should happiness research be mistrusted? Are the people behind it honest or politically-motivated? Should happiness research be turned to for policy guidance?

The theme of the current Forbes magazine cover package is money, and the issue's lead section is about money and happiness. One of the package's writers takes the tack that the rage for happiness research is, like, so yesterday. Over at EconLog, Arnold Kling wonders whether happiness researchers are measuring anything at all, while Bryan Caplan thinks they may be on to at least a little something. Will Wilkinson devotes an entire ongoing blog to his thoughts about and critiques of happiness research.

I posted on happiness here and supplied a bunch of links. FvB is less intrigued by happiness research than I am, and he raises a lot of objections to it here.

Here's an interview with the economist and happiness enthusiast Richard Layard. I've read Layard's book. Quick verdict: The first part, in which he surveys and summarizes happiness research, is terrifically informative, and a robust and accessible read to boot. (The field's basic finding: "Comparing countries confirms what history also shows -- that above $20,000 per head, higher average income is no guarantee of greater happiness.") In the book's second part, though, Layard attempts to translate happiness findings into political policies, and the result is a lot of sweet but naive social-engineering fantasies. How can someone as worldly and tough as Richard Layard also be such a starry-eyed do-gooding dope? But I'm still glad I spent time with his book.



posted by Michael at February 23, 2006


I think "happiness" is very loosely defined, which probably makes "happiness research" a rather slippery field. It's self defined, which means it obviously will and probably should vary from individual to individual. "The heart wants what it wants" as Woody Allen says. Too much time is spent telling others what they "should" want to be happy, and not enough time encouraging people that they really do know for themselves what "happiness" is--for them---all on their own. Economists are probably as stupid as therapists about this. It's like saying once you earn $20,000 per year on average you don't get happier from more money. But I'm sure some people--Donald Trump?---really do get happiness from each million over that he makes. So trying to encourage "happiness" behavior on a macro level, or perhaps even measuring it, is a task, that--for me---would not be "happiness" producing, and might not be terribly enlightening to humankind. But...who knows..economics might be exactly what someone's heart wants!

Posted by: annette on February 23, 2006 3:50 PM

I've found that people are happy or not and that doesn't change much with their financial situation. That said, it makes sense to me that happy people work better and therefore make more money, explaining the observation that people with more money tend to be happier, but reversing the causation.

Posted by: Robert Speirs on February 23, 2006 4:10 PM

This whole idea of happiness research sure is an interesting idea. I agree that much of the too-vituperative criticism coming from economists seems to be defending their turf. Also, I agree with everybody saying that there are tons of (possibly insurmountable) technical details.

What I'm unclear on is how happiness research is going to be useful. A basic part of neoclassical economics is that people act to make themselves happy (well, to maximise utility). If that's right, then isn't happiness research going to be neoclassical econ with different words?

Posted by: ptm on February 23, 2006 4:48 PM

Today's column from George Will on why conservatives are so damn happy (ignorance is bliss? ha) and why liberals won't stop whining. There's meat in this topic, but it's not chewed on in Will's column.

Posted by: the patriarch on February 23, 2006 4:55 PM

I believe Lincoln rather coldly took the position that "People are about as happy as they make up their mind to be." (N.B.--Our beloved Honest Abe was in many cases remarkably un-warm-or-fuzzy).

His remark (to my mind, accurately) suggests that happiness is merely one goal among many, to be achieved like other goals largely via self-discipline, if one does not have a 'natural talent' for the goal in question.

Whether or not happiness is the ur-goal of life (which happiness research rather underhandedly assumes) is something that needs to be argued about, not simply assumed. Of course, a very similar criticism has long been levied of the utilitarian/neoclassical economics assumption that utility is the ur-goal of life. Happiness research strikes me as the same old wine in a new bottle.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on February 23, 2006 5:13 PM

Check out the "Oslo Happiness Project" (which I never would have discovered but for being Norwegian!)

Posted by: winifer skattebol on February 23, 2006 5:23 PM

"You can't buy happiness" goes the saying. So happiness is priceless, if folk wisdom is true.

Economists, as best I can tell, deal with transactions, most of them involving money. That is a great strength of the discipline -- a whole lot of stuff can be measured using one variable.

For good or (likely) ill, economists have come under pressure from other social "sciences," environmental pressure groups and their own leftist brethren to move into areas not measured at all by money and tenuously measured by barter exchange (What is the value of clean air?).

I say leave happiness to the sociologists (who will politicize it) or, better yet, the poets.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on February 23, 2006 8:41 PM


You seem perpetually down on sociology. Is that just the modern variant, or are you equally contemptuous of guys like Max Weber?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on February 23, 2006 9:11 PM


You ask:

How can someone as worldly and tough as Richard Layard also be such a starry-eyed do-gooding dope?

I think I answered this back a few years ago when I discussed one of Layard's papers in my posting,
We Need a Sociobiological Economics. Short answer: his left-wing bias seems pretty clear. In fact, my question for you is: why do you think the is either "worldly" or "tough"? Is there something I'm missing?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on February 23, 2006 9:36 PM

So Donald, assuming ought to have some method of figuring out what's clean enough, how would you measure clean air?

I could see doing species conservation based on counting (make sure we have at least so many tons of fir trees in British Columbia, and so many blue whales, and so on), and you could do that based on ecological concerns. But it seems to me that air would be even harder.

Posted by: ptm on February 23, 2006 11:01 PM

Friedrich, I'm down on Sociology from 1970 onwards (for the most part). Pre-1950 is not so awful. The Classical sociologists were a different breed, but I haven't read them in nearly 40 years, so I can't remember as much as I should. Durkheim did get empirical (on a grand level) and Weber strikes me as more a social philisopher (but I'd need to re-read him to be more sure).

ptm, I don't think a lot of the things environmentalists want economists to "measure" can be quantified easily, or that's my impression anyway. I suspect the enviros are looking for grist for their fund-raising and obstruction efforts and are hoping economists can legitimize a pretty fuzzy set of "costs" of various activities. This is eye-of-the-beholder stuff and I think economists should avoid it. Maybe Lexington and other economic-oriented readers can chime in here: I'm an outsider.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on February 23, 2006 11:23 PM

Annette -- Hear hear to that!

Robert -- I think the causation arrows run in all kinds of different directions, don't you? It's like saying "married people are happier than unmarried people." What does that mean, really? Perhaps they were able to land mates because they were happy in the first place. At the same time, given some of the happiness-lit I've looked at, many of the people doing the research seem aware of these kinds of questions and are making efforts to control a bit for them.

PTM -- I'm not sure that all the happiness researchers are proposing that happiness be substituted in the place of utility. Some are, that's for sure, including Richard Layard. But a lot of them seem to be thinking more modest thoughts. I mean, why shouldn't economists look at the relationship between wealth and happiness? What anyone makes of what turns up is another question.

Patriarch -- I remember talking once with a guy -- intellectual, talented, perpetually whining and agonized (in a funny way) -- about a woman we both knew. He couldn't quite get her. I told him that she was a Republican and a big Reagan fan. He said, "That explains it!" "That explains what?" "Well ... She's always so damn happy. Republicans!" I confess I'm scratching my head over that still. But there it is. I guess maybe lefties are proud of their torments? And maybe identify with them? Anyway, it seems common for lefties to think of righties as self-satisfied greedheads who don't understand how much people suffer, while righties see lefties as anger-addicts and perpetual adolescents who can't stop with the narcissistic self-dramatizing. Funny.

FvB -- Layard *does* have a Blairish do-gooding disposition, as well as a striking confidence in government's ability to declare a clear goal and execute it cleanly. Bizarre - I've never seen government operate in such a way. That said, he isn't really a happiness researcher, he's a happiness-research popularizer, and a politico who wants to enlist the findings for his pet causes. (He's also a very accomplished public person, which is why I'm assuming he's a tough and polished guy.) Many of the actual researchers I've looked into seem to be pretty modest. "What's the relationship between wealth and happiness?" seems to have struck them as an interesting question, and they went out and looked into it, using the best available controls and being pretty frank about the fuzziness of the subject. My bullshit detectors may not be the best, but they don't go off when it came to the actual research. What gets made of it is another question!

Donald -- I could be all wet, but I think there's a kind of subtextual, long-simmering, never-to-be-resolved issue in economics that gets set off by the happiness topic. It's the squabble between those who think econ should do whatever it can to be a rock-solid, predictive science along the lines of physics, and those who think it should be more open than that. The hard/simple-rules crowd hates that happiness has been raised, and the open crowd tends to love it and pounce on it. Me, I sit back, enjoy the research, and enjoy the squabble too. One guy I know who follows econ professionally tells me that it's just a characteristic of the field that it's split between the hard-line fundamentalist/scientist-wannabes and the people who'd prefer that it be a more generalized discussion. In his view, there's no getting around the tension. Both sides have their virtues and their deficits. Fundamnetalists are clear, but they ignore a lot of what everyday people consider to be economic life. The general people are more open to a variety of influences (and Adam Smith himself was too). But they tend to be a lot more vulnerable to political programs. Fun to watch everyone get worked into a tizzy!

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 24, 2006 12:07 AM

Albert Camus, perhaps my favorite or near favorite philosopher put it nicely: "What matters - all that matters, really - is the will to happiness, a kind of enormous, ever-present consciousness. The rest - women, art, success - is nothing but excuses."

But he also knew that "It is a kind of spiritual snobbery that makes people think they can be happy without money."

Posted by: bit'snpieces on February 24, 2006 2:45 AM

Pursuing policies to increase the general happiness of the population is like plowing the sea. Once the new policies kick in, people will get used to the new status quo and be about as happy as they were before. The tiny fraction of people who will be sustainably happier will be the people with obvious external causes of their unhappiness -- "I'm unhappy because this wolverine is gnawing on my leg."

Honestly, do the people who want to turn happiness research into concrete policies somehow think that humans evolved with an inbuilt absolute register of happiness that would read at, say, a 2 if you lived in Haiti and a 7 if you lived in the US? Was the main cause of mortality in the Pleistocene suicide by Cro-Magnon men who were depressed because they inwardly knew they would never have access to a Kenmore washer-dryer?

There's a deep assumption in some happiness research that if the average American is no happier than an average Haitian, then there's no inherent reason to prefer the American system of life over the Haitian. And that's just absurd. It's much better to say that the difference between the American and Haitian systems can't be measured by current definitions of happiness, because the brain doesn't work that way.

Posted by: Zach on February 26, 2006 2:06 PM

Bryan Caplan makes a similar point along a different dimension: if you're trying to increase people's happiness, why try to do it with economics (which don't affect perceptions of happiness) instead of behavior/attitude modification (which does)?

Posted by: Zach on February 26, 2006 2:21 PM

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