Bryan Caplan  

Happiness Research: Get Used to It

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Arnold has curtly dismissed happiness research:

Books that are based on research designed to predict behavior belong in the Social Science section. Books that tell you how to be happy belong in the New Age/Self-Help section.

If we followed this advice, unfortunately, there would be no reason to read these books, because they would be written by low-quality authors for low-quality readers. The point of happiness research is to apply the careful methods of social science to a new subject.

If you think this is a pipe dream, check out one of the most eye-opening articles I've read in years: "Hedonic Adaptation" by Shane Frederick and George Loewenstein. The motivation:

Most of us are familiar with striking examples of people who seem to be adapting well to circumstances that are extremely adverse. We may have seen footage of malnourished children playing happily in garbage dumps or know of severely handicapped people who maintain a cheerful disposition in spite of their disabilities... This chapter examines both the extent and limits of hedonic adaptation - processes that attenutate the long-term emotional or hedonic impact of favorable and unfavorable circumstances.

Unlike a lot of people who work at the intersection of psychology and economics, F&L don't pretend that all the research points in the same direction. People get used to higher income, but not noise. Paraplegics and quadriplegics aren't miserable, but (contrary to a number of misleading summaries I've read) they don't fully adapt either - they report an average happiness score of 2.96/5, versus 3.82/5 for a control group.

F&L also provide a fascinating discussion of the forces that moderate hedonic adaptation. It helps the bereaved and the handicapped to socialize with people with similar problems. It helps to have advance notice: You get over the death of a loved one more easily if you have some time to get used to the idea. And - expected utility theory notwithstanding - people adapt more easily to 100% certain bad events than to 95% certain bad events.

If and who you blame for bad events matters too. In one study, "[V]ictims of severe accidents who blamed themselves for the accident were coping more successfully eight to twelve months afterward than those who did not, and... victims who blamed other people (as opposed to some nonspecific external cause) displayed especially low coping scores." This rings so true to me that my head is still spinning. Have I ever felt unhappy for long about something without blaming another person? I'm drawing a blank.

Arnold could point out a lot of flaws in this literature, but F&L have beaten him to the punch. They inventory a long list of inadequacies in existing research. But they diverge from Arnold in taking a constructive attitude toward happiness - separating the wheat from the chaff, noting areas with mixed results, and pointing out better approaches.

The bottom line is that I'm glad that smart, careful scholars like F&L are hard at work on this topic because I want the answers. Happiness is much too important to be left to the mush-heads in the New Age/Self-Help section.

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COMMENTS (14 to date)
kawika writes:

Without sounding too much like a cheerleader, way to go! The prospect of leaving something as ubiquitous as happiness out of the realm of scientific inquiry simply because it seems hard to quantify or because it "belongs" out side... to me that smacks of the commonly held position advocating leaving economics out of the sciences because it couldnt imediately show results as concrete as physics or biology... and without the scientific study of economics where would we be?

Adam writes:

Right. We all need a science of happiness, to tell us just how we can achieve it.

It will never happen. You might as well be asking for science to find a way to make your like fulfilling. Things like "Happiness" and "fulfillment" are concepts that have only a fleeting connection with reality, and certainly aren't measurable.

Why do you think this research is important? First of all, how do you propose it ever be conducted scientifically? Second of all, to what end do you see this as helping anyone?

Matt writes:

Amen to Adam.
I think a perfect breakdown of cerebral chemistry will ultimately prove the only thing that gives Caplan the "answers" he wants. Then we'll be trying to figure out how to get more of chemical A and B out of this or that gland. Indeed the usefulness of this research is suspect. If I'm a two on the happiness scale and paraplegic is a 2.96 does that mean that on average I'd be better off as a paraplegic? As you might imagine, the examples can go on like that forever and nobody will be able tell me how I can get happier. Can anyone tell me how I can switch from blaming an accident on someone else to blaming it on myself?

Why it is that smart people waste their time bothering at all with "happiness research" is an answer I'd like to have. (Lucky for me, I'm not smart, so my typings here have not been a waste of time.)

Cyberike writes:

I appreciate reading the research on happiness because it illustrates just how illogical we are. How logical is it that we judge our own happiness by comparing ourselves with others? As silly as it sounds, I know it is true from my own experience.

By thinking through the rational for unhappiness, I believe I can control it. I can consiously change the way I think, focusing on what I have rather than what I do not have. Even the concept of being able to control my happiness, if only slightly, makes me happier.

Logically, Adam is doing the same thing that unhappy people do: focus on things that are not happening instead of things that are. Let me give you an exapmle: I bought a car because I liked it. Later, I became unhappy when I found out I could have bought what may have been a better car for a lower price. Unhappy I was. But wait a minute: I like my car. How logical is it that I am unhappy because of something that might have happened?

Look at happiness research from another angle: it is shown we are unhappy when we blame others for our mis-fortune. Now that we know what the research shows, why would we do something that we know makes us unhappy? The lesson: Quit blaming others. Accept the reality that we have to live with the result. Become happier as a result.

Barkley Rosser writes:

Adam and Matt,

Well, this happiness research is not much less scientific than pretty much all of social science. It is all very soft, even experimental economics, even pure axiomatic economic theory (which has not much to do with the real world economy), not even high-powered time-series econometrics of tick-by-tick financial series. It is all ultimately pretty mushy.

So, no one, certainly not Lowenstein or Easterlin or Kahnemann or any of the other big cheese happiness researchers is so stupid as to make claims that they are finding the "true answer to how to be happy." People better go to church or the Dalai Lama or their therapist or a mountaintop or whatever or wherever to figure that one out (or maybe ask their mother).

What can be found are general trends and averages, and this is found by simply asking people, lots of people over long periods of time. Sure, one can say, people do not know what they are talking about; they lie, they are fools, blah blah. And certainly one must be careful about making cross country comparisons and even cross person comparisons for well known reasons. But comparisons for a given person over time may well be quite meaningful, and a lot of these generalizations are now coming from panel studies that do that. There is simply now a huge amount of data that is pretty usable, as long as one does not make too much of it.

Tom Anger writes:

What is the purpose of "happiness research"? Is it to help government make "better" policy? God forbid. Is it a plaything for economists? Sounds like it. The best gauge of happiness is what people actually do when confronted with choices in the real world -- it's called revealed preference (as you know). It works for me.

Timothy writes:

Happiness research, up to this point, hasn't seemed a playing for economists so much as a plaything for mediocre psychologists hell bent on PROVING that economics is worthless so we should all use their pet theories instead.

G.O. Chess writes:

For further research background regarding the topic of Happiness at the intersection of economics and psychometric psychology, see
-- and since it is a wiki, you are able to add your own findings.

Best regards,
G.O. Chess

Adam writes:

Barkley has a point, I think--any research/information is useful, so long as you don't make too much of it.

The problem is that it sounds like Brian WANTS some happiness research that you can make more of, and I don't think it's going to happen.

Jason Ligon writes:

I just can't shake the New Coke problem. Self reporting has a terrible record.

jon o writes:

As an outsider who got here from a google query - after perusing the comments, my blink-desicion is that in general the happier you are about happiness research, the happier you are. :)

Adam writes:

Ah yes, but can you say that ten times fast?

Alcibiades writes:

Consider that for most of us, who base our libertarian ethos on utilitarian grounds, happiness--achieving it, maximizing it, raising it across nations/groups/individuals--is THE most important thing we can do. (Longevity ties happiness I suppose.) That being said, we damn well ought to keep working on a metric to quantify happiness (fmris showing activity in the nucleus accumbens?), and on means (i suggest pharmacological) to up said happiness.

Adam writes:

So, let me see if I've got your logic here, Alcibiades:

The ideology that I have bought into requires the maximization of happiness. Therefore, there must be a way to quantify happiness.

Maybe I'm oversimplifying, but even giving your argument the benefit of the doubt, this hardly sounds like science.

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