Arnold Kling

Happiness Police

PRINT
Support for Higher Education... Russia’s Hope...

I have an essay on Robert Frank's use of "happiness research" to justify paternalism.


Frank is fond of using thought experiments. I have one. Imagine that you could go back a few hundred years and ask people if they are "very happy," "fairly happy," or "not happy." Suppose that this survey showed that happiness was approximately the same back then as it is today. Would it be fair to conclude that the tangible goods that we have today contribute nothing to happiness? People a few hundred years ago had no idea what it was like to live with indoor plumbing, abundant food, and antibiotics. People today have no idea what it was like to live without them. How can a "happiness survey" provide a meaningful comparison of the two eras?

For Discussion. Which goods and services do you buy because other people buy them, not because they make you happy?


Comments and Sharing





TRACKBACKS (3 to date)
TrackBack URL: http://econlog.econlib.org/mt/mt-tb.cgi/101
The author at Obernews in a related article titled What do you really think, Arnold? writes:
    I love this blurb that goes with Arnold Kling's latest piece on TCS:"Happiness Research" amounts to a flimsy excuse for left-wing academics to claim that they should be given control over how the rest of us live. Suppose that you [Tracked on August 5, 2004 5:45 PM]
The author at ProfessorBainbridge.com in a related article titled Happiness will be the death of us writes:
    If Radley Balko is right about killer affluence, I bet Arnold Kling's happiness police will be on the job any minute now. Personally, however, they can have my wine and cigars when they pry them from my cold dead hands. [Tracked on August 6, 2004 11:45 PM]
The author at Different Opinion in a related article titled The Happiness Police - Really That Bad? writes:
    ...How bad would it really be to live in a country where the "happiness police" tells lorry drivers and airline pilots not to work until they fall asleep? Have the "happiness police" to keep people away from distributing and consuming illicit drugs? Th... [Tracked on August 12, 2004 2:51 PM]
COMMENTS (18 to date)
Lawrance George Lux writes:

Mainly and solely CDs, etc., for entertainment. Other outlets are fairly funded as desired, though I tend to eat out more than I desire. lgl

matt jones writes:

I wonder if the question is misleading. Everybody is asking "Are you more happy?" As if the goal of people is to simply be more happy.

According to Maslow's hiearchy of needs, we need in order physicological, safety, love, esteem, and self-actualization. Where self-actualization is the need to "become everything that one is capable of becoming".

I wonder how many people satisfied their need for self-actualization 300 years ago. You were stuck in situations you didn't choose and doing work that didn't use your abilities.

Mark I Lueck writes:

I think "self-actualization" would have been a fairly foreign concept to people 300 years ago. There was much less sense of self apart from a social context. Because of that, we tend to look at life 300 years ago--skewed through the lense of our modern, more dominantly self-centric (I don't mean selfish) worldview--and conclude that they lived unfulfilled and therefore unhappy lives. I am neither arguing that life was so simple and uncomplicated (and therfore happy) then nor am I arguing that life is more fulfilling (and therefore happy) now. I am simply saying that the rules of human existence and the means by which we become happy as humans have not really changed that much over the years if at all.

I think I would have to agree with the "findings" of the thought experiment and conclude that all our tangible goods DO, in fact, contribute little to our happiness. Of course, we have to remember that there would probably have been large demographics left out of such a survey taken 300 years ago because many people would have been considered by the pollsters (who would have simply been trying to capture prevailing attitudes) as less than human.

Tom writes:

Which goods and services do you buy because other people buy them, not because they make you happy?

Nothing I can think of. I've always been the "last on my block" to buy new gadgets: color TV, microwave, VCR, cell phone, etc. It's not a matter of penury, it's a matter of efficiency. New gadgets always improve and get cheaper in real terms, so why buy early and get less for the money? Being trendy is expensive, and it betrays a certain lack of self-confidence.

Paul N writes:

I think Lueck is right on. In Kling's essay, the question "Would it be fair to conclude that the tangible goods that we have today contribute nothing to happiness?" is supposed to be met with an "obviously not", but if happiness really hasn't improved over 300 years, I think the answer, to a first approximation, really is "yes". (I am personally confident that people 300 years ago would, in fact, be measured to be less happy than those today.)

Let's not forget that compared to 300 years ago, many times more people are alive today. The total amount of happiness is much higher, even if the average has increased only a little. To some this is a trivial argument, but I think it's crucial. For example, until the industrial revolution, essentially all growth in productivity was "spent" on higher population, not a higher material standard of living for the average person.

Of course, Robert Frank's conclusions that government should intervene to improve our collective happiness are ridiculous and (literally) sickening. But I don't think they're implied by his happiness research at all. In fact, people (without intervention) automatically make the sort of happiness-increasing changes Frank advocates in their life as their incomes increase.

To a large extent, human happiness is defined not by circumstances, but by genetic predisposition. There are serious holes in happiness research, which confuses correlation and causation over and over again. Just because people who spend more time with friends or work fewer hours are happier, it doesn't mean that if you force hard-working and anti-social people to work less and talk to more people, that they'll be happier - they'd probably be less happy.

And why is it implicit that we should want to maximize average happiness (as it's measured in these surveys) anyway? This seems obvious to everyone but me.

beakburke writes:

One of the problems with this is that it fails to take in to account changing expectations. Our material expectations are much higher now than 300 years ago. I think it would be more accurate to say that CHANGES in the level of material goods are the yardstick that should be used, not the absolute level of material goods.

rvman writes:

I think the fairer question is not "what do you buy because others buy them?" but rather "What is the effect of what you buy?". For example, I don't own a cell phone. I don't notice a particular need for one - and everyone did without 20 years ago. I have observed that folks who do buy one go through three stages:
Stage 1: They love it, and use it.
Stage 2: They get used to it.
Stage 3: They can't imagine how they lived without it, and feel out of touch without it.

If you were to assign "util" happiness values to these three states, using "0" as the "stage zero" pre-phone state, they would be, say, Stage 1 is 2 utils, Stage 2 is 1 util, and stage 3 is 0 utils. That is, they regress back to the original state, only with another expense - the monthly phone bill. The relevant model is drug addiction - you get acclimatized (or develop a "tolerance") and need something new, or "stronger" in drug terms, to get the happiness/high.

They do get a short run "kick" out of it, but at the cost of a long run expense. TV works the same way - before TV, then black and white, then color broadcast, then cable, then digital cable - each generation can't imagine living without "their" innovation, and show in surveys as no happier than the one before.

What to do? Nothing, in my opinion, at least by government. The temporary gains give positive social utility, the "fade" spurs innovation and productivity, to produce the next "hit". Regulation is likely to slow or stop the "hit" cycle, lowering total social utility. The environmental cost of this cycle is minimal - A modern TV with cable is, if anything, lighter and more efficient than its 50 year old counterpart.

In fact, environmental cleanliness may be one of the goods on this cycle - the air today is obviously cleaner and safer than it was in the 70s, when leaded gas still ruled, but it is PERCEIVED as needing to be cleaner, so we innovate, get a "hit" out of reducing emissions, cleaning a site, whatever, then get used to the change and need a new environmental good.

Alex writes:

Agree with Matt Jones.
The rest seem to use only academic polemic and blinders .

Brad Hutchings writes:

Which goods and services do you buy because other people buy them, not because they make you happy?

Social networking software and memberships. "Haha"

Rob Sperry writes:

Its been my firm conviction that anyone who thinks living in the past is suffering from some form of delusion. Just consider what it would be like to live with infant mortality rates between 20 and 50 percent.

I think surveys have very limited use in comparing across populations. Much better is to let people reveal their values through their behavior as they are presented with options.

“I think I would have to agree with the "findings" of the thought experiment and conclude that all our tangible goods DO, in fact, contribute little to our happiness.”

The number of people moving from high tech developed areas to the low tech outback is vanishingly small compared to the numbers migrating to the city and developed world. Show me the people that are really changing their lives to do without the material goods, and that they are happier.

Not folks that don't buy every latest gadget, but really do without like they did in the 1700's. Turn off the refrigerator, the AC, get rid of the ice, move the pluming to a hole in the back yard, turn off the water, health care ha!, shrink your living space, going out to eat means taking a hunting trip etc etc.

Rob Sperry writes:

...who thinks living in the past is preferable to the present...

wishes he lived in the future when he knew how to edit his own comments :(

Fred Boness writes:

A service I buy because others buy and not because it makes me happy: Lawyers.

p writes:

The fundemental error that Frank makes is to assume we all seek the same things from life (a sign of a true socialist). Life is not a zero sum game. We don't all aspire to attend the same universities, perform the same occupations, etc.

Finally, wealth is NOT distributed on the basis of IQ. As a matter of fact, one could argue with facts (can you believe that) that wealth and IQ are not highly correlated. Thus, the education example presented by Franks is just a contrived thought experiment better suited for a socialist love fests than for real thinkers.

lee writes:

Marketers have for the past 10 years moving away from "selling" tangible goods to selling experiences. Macro consumer trend data also strongly suggests that consumers today value intangible goods to tangible goods.

Grady writes:

I am afraid that "happiness research" amounts to nothing but a flimsy excuse for left-wing academics to claim that they should be given control over how the rest of us live.

I think that's an overly broad generalization. J. Bradford de Long, a "left-wing academic," writes:

Keynes's predictions have not come to pass. He expected society to undergo a profound change as attention shifted from working hard to keep the wolf from the door to living a good life. But we today do not feel that material acquisition is about to go out of style, we do not appear to be on the threshold of converting en masse from full-time to half-time or quarter-time work, and we have not begun to rank and applaud people by how they spend their leisure as opposed to what they do at work. The dividing line between useful necessity and pointless luxury always comes at roughly twice one's current standard of living. After all, Americans could subsist - healthily - off of wheat flour, evaporated milk, cabbage, spinach, and navy beans for less than fifty cents a day. But, as George Stigler wrote:

"such a diet would not be to the satisfaction of either the population or the students of nutrition.... Man insists upon luxuries such as meat, and should we somehow fully address his desire (despite his penchant for shifting from sow belly to pheasant), he will no doubt insist upon shifting to another and more expensive food.... [T]he economic system has as its purpose forcing people to find new scarcities... the alteration of a host of circumstances and policies that deprive large numbers of people of eminently desirable things that a more efficiently organized society could afford."
So there is no real reason to expect "satiation" at any level of per capita income that I can foresee. The level of luxury at which people imagine satiation is always three times the value of their current consumption.
It is significantly more pleasant to eat broiled sole at Chez Panisse than to munch on a tuna sandwich while sitting on the concrete wall by the North Gate to the Berkeley Campus. It is more fun to write on a powerful laptop PC, while sitting at a tile table in an air-conditioned cafe and drinking cappuccino, than to write on a manual typewriter in a small, hot office while drinking a combination of dishwater and sludge made from instant coffee--or to write with bad ink on parchment by the light of a single candle.
We cannot approach utopia in terms of material welfare because we can always imagine how increased resources could give us a more comfortable and rewarding life. Or perhaps it is better to say that from the standpoint of every previous century we have surpassed utopia, but failed to stop and properly appreciate the accomplishment.
An equally important answer, of course, is that Utopia does not require merely command over nature. It requires command over self, and command over society as well. Command over self is a matter of psychology. [W]e have not achieved utopia--in spite of immense material wealth--because we have approached it as a problem of engineering, and it is in fact a problem of psychology.
Be careful when painting with a broad brush, because the paternalism you accuse Frank of, can just as easily be be applied to you. Who are you to decide what falls wholesale into "left-wing" thought to be summarily dismissed, as if "right-wing" academics were the only ones capable of serious thought. Afterall, "right-wing" academics would never fall into the trap of selective sampling, whilst ignoring evidence that contradicts their arguments. That's called religion, not science; just ask the president's bioethics council.
Bernard Yomtov writes:

Fred Boness,

That is the best answer to one of Arnold's questions I have ever seen.

Rick Stewart writes:

I would prefer knowing the answer to the question, "Why are poor people so happy?" They should be miserable, dammit, but instead they keep enjoying life. Its unforgivable.

mark green writes:

Perhaps thinking in terms of a model proposed by educational psychologist Gardner can be useful in considering the above discussions and Maslows hierarchy of needs.
From what I recall of Gardner's model, it is a circular diagram, like a pye chart, equally divided into various intelligences such as mathematical intelligence, linguistic intelligence, kinaesthetic intelligence, interpersonal intelligence, intrapersonal intelligence, musical intelligence and so .on.

Gardner's model encourages people to think about themselves(or eachother) and either develope positive self esteem by recognising a variety of intelligences in themselves or perhaps see the necessity, beauty and utility of community and interelatedness.

If I imagine a variety of children with a bag of cookies, some of whom who consistently sit in the corner with a friend or two and overeat themselves into obesity,whilst simultaneously justifying their own overeating habits, jealously and anxiously defending their own behaviour and supply of cookies ; and make a mental comparison with some other children who perhaps have the ability to share with others who have few or no such cookies.

If I make an analysis of their repective levels of happiness, intelligence and capabilities using both Maslow's and Gardner's models I might conclude something that attributes very low intrapersonal intelligence and a low qualitative level of happiness to the cookie gluttons, but only if I make a value judgement that the feeling of love or satisfaction that both motivates and is generated by acts of compassion is somehow superior and intrinsically more worthy than the feeling of a bloated stomach and self satisfaction that could be felt by having more than others, more than we really need.

I don't have a mobile phone either, and I sometimes think or perhaps hope that my regular deductions to charity from my salary will as Bhuddist philosophy claims help my mind, and help me experience more of the compassion and fondness for fellow humans and less of the selfishness and loathing I may sometimes feel to fellow creatures.
Or in the words of another 'religion', about we should be wary of generalising, or we may end up sounding as stupid and silly as those right wing intrapersonal dummies,
'it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to get into heaven'

As for being poor and happy, as Maslow's model suggests, happiness is stifled by to severe a shortage of the basics for our physical and socio-intellectual needs such as self esteem and actualization, as much as too much material inequality between people, this necessitates and causes stunted human development for the cookie gluttons,
unable to realize the intrinsically more precious feelings of love or compassion because of their fixation with a bloated belly chakra.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top