Arnold Kling  

Scientific Self-help

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Tyler Cowen seems quite smitten with psychologist Daniel Gilbert. Tyler justifiably recommends this article about Gilbert, which is from the New York Times three years ago.

While walking in Pittsburgh one afternoon, [economist George] Loewenstein tells me that he doesn't see how anybody could study happiness and not find himself leaning left politically; the data make it all too clear that boosting the living standards of those already comfortable, such as through lower taxes, does little to improve their levels of well-being, whereas raising the living standards of the impoverished makes an enormous difference. Nevertheless, he and Gilbert (who once declared in an academic paper, ''Windfalls are better than pratfalls, A's are better than C's, December 25 is better than April 15, and everything is better than a Republican administration'') seem to lean libertarian in regard to pushing any kind of prescriptive agenda. ''We're very, very nervous about overapplying the research,'' Loewenstein says. ''Just because we figure out that X makes people happy and they're choosing Y, we don't want to impose X on them. I have a discomfort with paternalism and with using the results coming out of our field to impose decisions on people.''

I would add that one reason to continue to lean libertarian rather than left is that for the purpose of improving the standard of living of the poor, left-wing redistribution ideas tend to fail, while the emergence of libertarian institutions seems to work. See William Easterly's latest book, which I mentioned in my essay on Group Power.

The article on Gilbert continues,

He admits that he has taken some of his research to heart; for instance, his work on what he calls the psychological immune system has led him to believe that he would be able to adapt to even the worst turn of events. In addition, he says that he now takes more chances in life, a fact corroborated in at least one aspect by his research partner Tim Wilson, who says that driving with Gilbert in Boston is a terrifying, white-knuckle experience. ''But I should have learned many more lessons from my research than I actually have,'' Gilbert admits. ''I'm getting married in the spring because this woman is going to make me happy forever, and I know it.'' At this, Gilbert laughs, a sudden, booming laugh that fills his Cambridge office. He seems to find it funny not because it's untrue, but because nothing could be more true. This is how he feels. ''I don't think I want to give up all these motivations,'' he says, ''that belief that there's the good and there's the bad and that this is a contest to try to get one and avoid the other. I don't think I want to learn too much from my research in that sense.''

All of this strikes me as quite sketchy research. For the most part, it seems to lead in the direction of saying that we could use more self-control. Don't buy things on impulse, because they will not bring you as much happiness as you expect. But then here comes Gilbert saying that it justifies driving like a maniac.

Earlier in the article, it is mentioned that the research shows that we over-estimate how happy we will be with children. But do the researchers bother to ask how people feel at, say, age 60, when they either do or do not have grown children?

Maybe in another 5 or 10 years, and if they are really good at it, these researchers will have some scientifically useful self-help advice. Meanwhile, the ratio of press coverage to quality of work is way too high.

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COMMENTS (4 to date)
John Thacker writes:

For example, the research does show that the happiness loss from having no job is much worse than the happiness loss from making less money, even at the poor end. Therefore, it seems that happiness research would strongly argue against, say, minimum wage laws, since the risk of increasing unemployment is so severe.
Of course, at the same time, it could be said to argue for make-work programs.

PrestoPundit writes:

I would trade all the "happiness" in the world for the little bit of joy I get from my kids.

Fit that into your economic "science".

You can't, and it ain't.

-- presto

[Replicated posts removed, with regrets to pontus's cleverly dry next remark.--Econlib Ed.]

pontus writes:


I think you made your point.

Barkley Rosser writes:

The happiness studies show that there are two events that consistently will make someone more unhappy than involuntarily losing their job. The worst is having a spouse or a child die. The second is being arrested and thrown in jail. These seem pretty reasonable to me.

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