Arnold Kling  

A Happiness Experiment

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In an issue that's repetitive, pompous, and boring, Forbes touts happiness research. The best tidbit is in this article.


Researchers from the University of Illinois and the University of Pennsylvania proclaim with totemic authority that, in a 1985 survey, respondents from the Forbes list of the 400 richest Americans and the Maasai of East Africa were almost equally satisfied and ranked relatively high in well-being. The Maasai are a traditional herding people who have no electricity or running water and live in huts made of dung.

This suggests an obvious experiment. Send the researchers from Illinois and Pennsylvania, along with Richard Layard and the rest of the happiness contingent, to live in Maasai for three years. If they choose to remain there afterwards, consider the experiment a success.

If some of the Maasaians want to trade places with Layard and come to the west, that's fine. But they shouldn't be forced to. They're not the ones trying to jerk my chain with these so-called "findings" based on research that is fundamentally unsound.

Of course, Will Wilkinson has a delightful blog that's All Happiness, All the Time. In one recent post, he refers to a study showing that Republicans report being happier than Democrats. Of course, if support for heavy-handed government intervention in the economy leads you to be an unhappy person (or, more likely, vice-versa), then it's a fair guess that the happiness-research crowd is a rather miserable lot.


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TRACKBACKS (9 to date)
TrackBack URL: http://econlog.econlib.org/mt/mt-tb.cgi/457
The author at Innovation Online in a related article titled May You Get What You Want writes:
    Kling and Caplan have an interesting exchange about happiness. In particular Kling criticizes happiness research, which shows that poor Tribesman are just as happy as the richest people in America. He asks for this thought experiment: Would you trade p... [Tracked on February 16, 2006 10:22 AM]
The author at New Economist in a related article titled Forbes on happiness research writes:
    Forbes magazine has just published several short pieces on happiness research. Nothing especially rigorous, but a pleasant enough read:* Money Doesn't Make People Happy by Tim HarfordBut marriage, sex, socializing and even middle age do. * Shall I Comp... [Tracked on February 20, 2006 4:20 PM]
The author at Newmark's Door in a related article titled Kling on happiness research again writes:
    In a few words Arnold Kling dismisses a Forbes report on happiness research and wickedly challenges happiness researchers to personally back up their findings. [Tracked on February 23, 2006 5:30 AM]
COMMENTS (11 to date)
Collin writes:

jerk my chain -- priceless.

You should consider doing a series of entries on this very subject!

Brad Hutchings writes:

Conjecture time... It is often said (among friends of course) that people who get into psychiatry are generally pretty screwed up. Strong anecdotal evidence supporting that observation confronts me on a weekly basis. It would be fun to come up with some measurable proxy (e.g. Prozac use among psychiatric professionals vs. the general public or other doctors) and see if it might support the claim more.

Similarly, I'd bet people who get into happiness research tend to be profoundly unhappy. Reading Wilkinson's latest entries, I cannot for the life of me figure out who would tune in every day to read that stuff except someone who is profoundly unhappy and looking for tips. But Wilkinson concedes that becoming a Republican isn't going to make you happy. I just don't see a person coming to Wilkinson's blog or happiness research in general wondering why he is so damned happy and what he can do to fix it.

Adam writes:

I certainly wouldn't base any conclusion on survey results, but this question can be solved with a small thought-problem.

First, consider your overall present level of happiness. Second, consider the level of happiness the average researcher in 3000 will estimate you had, given that you lived in a time when AIDS, cancer, and aging still existed, where travel was controlled by the speed of light and most everyone lived with the ridiculous notion that there were only four dimensions. Third, project back the inaccuracy of that future researcher on all assumptions you make about the happiness of those who are poorer or less developed.

Nor does the fact that we would not choose to live in Africa, and that they might want to live here, prove anything, as the information available to both sides is woefully incomplete. More humorously, I enjoyed that you posted this bit on the accuracy of revealed preference just before the piece on the inaccuracy of revealed preferences with regard to love affairs. Could it just be that humans don't know what will make them happy?

Vorn writes:

Since when did being Republican mean you aren't for government intervention? Libertarians are only a small wing of the Republican party. I am part of the George W. Bush wing of the Republican party, which happens to be dominant. I am for No Child Left Behind and I am for the prescription drug benefit. I am also for the war in Iraq. I am also incredibly optimistic and happy and would thus support the study results in question.

Is there a correlation between support for government action and unhappiness? That would be an interesting question, obviously not answered by my anecdotal point.

You would think that, if anything, those who want spending restraint and more limited government should be unhappy. If they can't even get it with a Republican majority and a Republican President, it seems likely they will NEVER be able to get it.

John P. writes:

Apologies in advance for nit-picking.

Arnold wrote, "If they choose to remain there afterwards, consider the experiment a success." Needless to say, getting a particular result is not what makes an experiment successful. Getting a clear and reliable result (regardless of which way it points) is what counts.

Jim Glass writes:

All this "happiness" stuff in economics is nonsense. Economic activity is about improving welfare, a different thing.

There's no reason at all why human beings in primitive societies -- today, or back throughout all human history -- shouldn't be as happy on a nice day as any human being today. But we'd all choose to live here and now instead because, oh, e.g., our life expectancy is 50 years longer than the average 25 of all pre-industrial societies thru all time.

It's the jump that increasing welfare = (or should =) increasing happiness that is total illogical nonsense.

This is contradicted everywhere by the evidence.

E.g.: A new study just came out showing that parents -- all parents, in all kinds of parental situations, children young, old, etc. -- are much more prone to depression throughout life than non-parents.

But shouldn't having children bring us "happiness"? Or why would parents continue to have children -- throughout all time? Can we think of a reason?

Another very basic point all the "happiness/economics" business ignores is all the evidence that everybody has a biologically determined, basically inherited, "set point" for happiness that we all return to. You can win the lottery or have your legs amputated, the evidence literally says that after a temporary up or down your happiness level will end up what it was before.

This is biological, adaptive behavior, selected for over the ages. Saying that increasing economic welfare should change it is like saying that increasing economic welfare should enable us to grow third arms out of our backs.

It doesn't mean that that there's no point in pursuing increasing economic welfare -- which is why the pursuit remains near universal nonetheless.

Zubon writes:

So Jim, you're saying that third arm is out? I feel cheated. I'm reducing my hours at work.

theCoach writes:

"fundamentally unsound" is a perfect link to Tech Central Station. If you could sneak 'corrupt' in there as well, it may even be better.

Johan Richter writes:

I think the point is that the people who are born and live in poor societies are as happy as those who are born and live in rich socities.

That you, after getting used to western life, would not want to move to Africa says nothing.

Jim Glass writes:
So Jim, you're saying that third arm is out?

Not at all. But it will come as a result of genetic engineering that changes our genetic makeup (rather than as an expression of our [current] genetic makeup) which in turn will be the result of further economic development.

And personally I want that genetic engineering's first priority to be to get me a 1,000 year life span, not a third arm.

I feel cheated. I'm reducing my hours at work.

No! Don't!! That won't get me a 1,000 year life span or you a third arm!

Jim Glass writes:
a study showing that Republicans report being happier than Democrats.

How can one omit the study that says Republicans have better sex lives than Democrats?

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