Arnold Kling  

On Happiness

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Johan Norberg writes,


A classic mystery in the happiness studies is that lottery winners are not much happier than the rest of the population. It’s not just the money that makes high-earners happier than low-earners—more important is their way of life—being active, being creative, and experiencing control of your life. So it’s one up for Aristotle, who explained that happiness is not a destination, but a way of travelling.

Norberg argues that doing useful work makes us happy. Therefore, welfare payments from the state make us less happy than money that we earn ourselves. He concludes,

A government that says it wants to make us happy misses the obvious fact that a government can’t give us happiness, it can only give us the right to pursue happiness—because happiness is what we get when we are in control and assume responsibility ourselves.

Thanks to Brian Micklethwait for the pointer.


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COMMENTS (5 to date)
Randy writes:

So perhaps a sense of control does lead to happiness. It makes sense, and matches my personal experience. But doesn't this just move the question down the line a bit? What then is to be done for those who for a variety of reasons do not, and never will, have control of their own lives? Welfare payments do not provide happiness - they provide control.

Ian Lewis writes:

Hey Randy,
I am having problems following the logic of your last statement:

Welfare payments do not provide happiness - they provide control.
If you are relying on some centralized power to give you resources, how are you in control? Do you mean that the welfare recipients are being empowered?

On another note, this topic reminded me of an interview with Daniel Pink, the author of Free Agent Nation. After spending time with many, many people who started to do more work for themselves, he found that they were working harder and longer hours than they ever did before, even though it was possible for them to work less (with more financial independence).

One last interesting note, after spending time as an advisor to Al Gore and then writing this book, he went from being a traditional Liberal to a "Bleeding Heart Libertarian".

Randy writes:

Ian,

Re; "Do you mean that the welfare recipients are being empowered?"

No. I am saying that welfare recipients are incapable of controlling their own lives, and that welfare payments are a means for society to take control so that the recipients can go on living. And that the happiness through control concept, while enlightening, is irrelevant to the need for welfare. People who are incapable of controlling their own lives aren't going to suddenly find that ability because welfare is removed - they are going to die. Though an "encouragement of the others" effect is likely.

Barkley Rosser writes:

Happiness studies are a hot topic right now, and a lot of research in economics is going on right now, with new findings in the works.

Probably the main stylized facts found by Richard Easterlin some time ago is that within a society richer people tend to be happier than poorer people, however as incomes overall rise, overall happiness tends not to change much. Indeed, measured happiness in the US has been drifting downwards gradually, with some fluctuations, since about 1956.

One wiggle on this, perhaps connected to the control argument, is that income may be at least partly endogenous to happiness. Happy people are more likely to get hired and in fact may be more productive than unhappy people of equal intelligence and general ability, for a variety of reasons. There is evidence of this.

Most people seem to have certain levels of happiness and tend to go to them after short term shocks, either positive or negative. So, the lottery winners usually have a short period, maybe up to six months, of being happier, but then return to their previous state, more or less (sometimes worse, if the greater money leads them to mess up their lives). Likewise, people will tend to get less happy when bad shocks happen like serious illness, death of a spouse, getting thrown in jail, or general political or economic represssion in their society (these latter can lead to longer term lower happiness overall), but then after awhile adjust, at least for the purely personal shocks.

It seems that people adjust to "expected levels of living standards." If there is an improvement they go up, but then they adjust the standard up and normalize. Likewise in reverse for declines in conditions. A worry here is that these standards are often relatively defined: how are people doing I identify with? This can in some cases lead to increased inequality leading to more unhappiness, as the richest do not get much happier, but the poorer may feel less happy seeing the richer moving farther and farther ahead of them. Of course, this can lead to the envy trap in the extreme.

Arek writes:

I think happiness can be achieved through being offered choice. If government provides more choice thorugh various schemes then citiznes can have more freedom to keep it real! Choice = freedom.

Keep up the inteligent articles proff's n doctors, keeps the public off stupidity...

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