Bryan Caplan  

Lighten Up on Happiness, Arnold!

Lemons for Valentine's Day... Measurement Without Measuremen...

My co-blogger continues to be unhappy with happiness research. Since no First World happiness researcher would willingly trade places with Third World tribesmen, and Third World tribesmen would willingly trade places with First World happiness researchers, happiness research is "fundamentally unsound."

But Arnold's prediction and the happiness literature are actually compatible. Key findings, which have been known since the days of Epicurus:

1. A lot of happiness arises simply from meeting whatever expectations you've set for yourself. If you've never had air conditioning, you don't miss it, and it's absence doesn't make you unhappy. Once you get air conditioning, you soon take it for granted, and usually stop appreciating it.

2. A lot of happiness arises from comparing yourself to other people around you. If neither you nor anyone you know has air conditioning, you don't feel very bad about not having it. If other people around you have it and you don't, you might feel bad about it.

3. People don't maximize their own happiness. Sometimes people do things that make them unhappy out of a sense of duty, or laziness, or pride, or to please others. Most people wouldn't choose to connect to Nozick's Experience Machine.

Application: First World happiness researchers wouldn't choose to stay herding goats in the Third World because...

1. They are used to a much higher living standard. The gap between their expectations and their circumstances would make them unhappy, at least for a while. (One lesson we'd learn, I suspect, is that people are quicker to take progress for granted than decline).

2. They would compare themselves to other people in the First World, not the tribesmen, at least for a while.

3. Even if they knew they would be happier as tribesmen, First World researchers wouldn't want to remain herding goats because it would conflict with their sense of duty to their families back home, their ambition, their pride, and so on.

Does all this mean that the pursuit of economic growth is pointless? Hardly. Holding happiness constant, progress is simply better than stagnation. But that doesn't change the fact that getting a hundred times richer wouldn't make us much happier than we already are.

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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 10:21 AM]
COMMENTS (11 to date)
Randy writes:

The brain solves problems. Happiness is a chemical response that occurs when the brain solves a problem. So set achievable goals and avoid boredom at all cost.

Bill writes:

Well, I for one would be much happier if I were richer. Most of my unhappiness is related to not having enough money.

Robert writes:

The Maasai were an interesting tribe to choose for the comparison. In Africa, many Maasai men who go to live in the city later decide to give up on the modern-life thing and go back to the herds. In a city, they experience a mismatch between their skills and available employment opportunities, and the jobs that are available to the unskilled are often incompatible with their sense of esteem as tribal men (although an interesting exception seems to be private security: in the Dar-es-Salaam night scene, it's not uncommon to see a couple of Masaai men in traditional garb and armed with iron spears, acting as bouncers at the entrance to an establishment). So these particulary tribesmen, anyway, may not wish to be first-world happiness researchers any more than those researchers wish to be African herdsmen.

James D. Miller writes:

If you are going to give up your baby for adoption would you prefer the child be raised in a rich or poor country?

John P. writes:

As a corollary to Bryan's second proposition, I would suggest that a lot of happiness comes from comparing your current circumstances to what you have previously experienced. For example, I can cause myself to feel happy now by thinking about what things were like for my wife and me when we were first married -- living in a crummy apartment and together earning less than $50k (in 2006 dollars).

Matthew Cromer writes:
Well, I for one would be much happier if I were richer. Most of my unhappiness is related to not having enough money.

I suspect with some serious introspection and reflection you might discover some other reasons for your unhappiness.

Alcibiades writes:

As a fellow believer in the compatibility of libertarianism justified on utilitarian grounds with the fact that happiness tends to be referential and close-to-zero-sum, I'd like to point out that a) the free market gives us the best shot at lengthening our life. Assuming we are happier being alive than dead, this still gives us something to "shoot for," upon realizing that the joy of a new Benz will be ephemeral and won't change our long-run level of happiness. b) it is quite possible that we could raise our "happiness setpoint" by way of advancements in neuropharmacology(which the free market would provide the best nurturing ground for). Considering we can already manufacture short-term improvements of mood pharmacologically (think: drugs of abuse), and arguably can raise our baseline happiness levels long-term via antidepressants (very arguably, I emphasize), we are almost there... , as a utilitarian who accepts most of the implications of "happiness research," I will probably end up devoting my life to the study or facilitation of A or B. And, of course, I know that the pursuit of the twin goals of longevity and happiness are best facilitated by way of a free market...

Tom West writes:

It's pretty obvious that a lot of happiness related to our economic situation is relative rather than absolute (after a certain level). If we were interested in maximizing happiness, we'd have a society that minimized inequality even if it massively slowed economic growth. Very few people seriously pine for a lifestyle that *nobody* has.

However, all it takes is one society that chooses to maximize growth by increasing inequality. Then suddenly everybody's happiness plunges when they compare their economic stature to the high-growth nation.

This compels other societies to implement higher growth policies which increase unhappiness by increasing inequality.

In short, it ends up as a race to the top, with lots of people being unhappy about it :-).

On the other hand, it does explain why societies that had a culture where the wealthy were expected to give away their wealth were so stable. It may have minimized growth for thousands of years, but it certainly maximized happiness during the period.

carla writes:


You continue to play psychologist with an economics degree. I don't get it. Economics reduced to the individual is just axiomatic. Exchange of some form is a necessary condition to speak of economics.

Happiness theory is foolishness because it fails to define a true nomological network. A measure of happiness that rely on operational definitions of happiness is "C-" student psychology. The utterance suggest life but not critcial reasoning.

I must agree with Arnold that happiness research as it is currently practiced is not meaningful.

Wirtgen writes:

If you are going to give up your baby for adoption would you prefer the child be raised in a rich or poor country?


Daublin writes:

If we point this research towards psychology or spirituality, we might conclude that it's a good idea to keep people informed about both the rest of the world and about their past. In such a case, suddenly happiness research says that we should indeed try to get 100 times richer -- so long as we also keep people informed about where they came from.

For that matter, happiness researcher would also suggest that a constant, steady increase in overall material wealth is also good for public happiness.

I like happiness research as far as it goes. It's the frequent next step of happiness researchers that bother me. Happiness research has a lot to say about psychology and spirituality, but people keep applying it to public policy.

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