Arnold Kling  

Arlo on Happiness Research

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Inspired by Marginal Revolution's Axel and Tyrone, my evil twin Arlo has a post on happiness research:

It's obvious why we need happiness research. Think of the problem of getting from resources to happiness as taking two steps. First, you need to allocate resources to satisfy wants. Second, you need to correlate satisfying wants with producing happiness.

The first problem, the traditional economic problem, is going away. We can satisfy wants really easily. In fact, if we were to define "wants" as the basic wants of someone living in, say, 1850, then it is incredibly cheap to satisfy them.

Now, we are just making up "wants." Fifty years ago, who wanted an Ipod? Who wanted a cell phone? Who wanted to sit inside a coffee shop drinking a latte and checking email?

Virginia Postrel says that we've entered the Age of Aesthetics, epitomized by designer toilet brushes. But if we've reached the point where we are satisfying a "want" for designer toilet brushes, then the economic problem is over.

So the really interesting problem is how to correlate satisfying wants with creating human happiness. And that's where happiness research comes in.

Happiness research tells us how to correlate our wants with what really makes people happy. Figure out what makes people happy, so that they can choose sensible "wants." We used to rely on spiritual guidance or new-age self-help books for this. But now we can use a discipline with all the trappings of science--surveys based on random samples, measures of statistical significance, brain scans, experiments.

Economic research traditionally was geared toward helping policymakers tinker with markets in order to enable them to better satisfy wants. Similarly, happiness research will enable policymakers to tinker with people's wants in order to make them happier.

It's Opposite Day.

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COMMENTS (7 to date)
NN writes:

Too much straw on this man. Tyrone wouldn't even have lunch with Arlo.

Maria writes:

On the contrary, I think this is far from being a straw man. I think it's pretty much the spirit of this opposite day thing.

Dan Landau writes:

Happiness research is an empty box. Is there more total happiness in India or the US? We don’t know and we have no way to measure aggregate happiness and find out. Until we have the ability to objectively measure happiness and aggregate it for large populations, happiness research is just playing with assumptions.

Brad Hutchings writes:

Dan, Obviously, there is more hapiness in the USA. Looking at the current ledger, we have Dipak Chopra and Mother Therasa is dead. QED.

knzn writes:

I’d have to agree with NN on the straw question. Why does Arlo boast about the trappings of science as if trappings were an inherently good thing? There are good general reasons to expect scientific methods to be successful. Whether those reasons apply to happiness research I’m not sure, but it’s worth a try.

And of course, the economic problem isn’t over, for a couple of reasons. First of all, a lot of people still can’t afford to worry about the aesthetics of their toilet brushes. Arlo talks as if you could produce like a market economy but then have the output distributed in a way that satisfies everyone’s wants. I think the production goals and the distribution goals are incompatible. Second, both wants and the potential for happiness are unlimited, so the economic problem is always there.

Arlo’s real argument should be not that economics has succeeded but that economics (and everything else, for that matter) has failed. People still aren’t much happier than they were during [pick a time in the past when production was much less than it is today]. There is at least a little bit of reason to be optimistic that happiness research will be the thing that finally doesn’t fail.

JT writes:

The basics for measuring heterogeneity of achieved utils per dollar of income are falling into place (see, e.g., Csikszentmihalyi's and/or Seligman's serious work). Why shouldn't that be an empirical project? Economics is a social science.

Arlo lost me with "happiness research will enable policymakers to tinker with people's wants." No. Happiness research could identify market *and* government failures in util production.

Patri Friedman writes:

Up until the last paragraph, Arlo wasn't particularly disagreeable.

Does Arnold disagree with anything in the penultimate paragraph?

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