Bryan Caplan  

A Fertile Criticism of Happiness Research?

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Here's the childless-by-choice Lionel Shriver, in Maybe Baby:

[A] recent New York Times Magazine article cited research documenting that while marriage makes people on average happier, parenthood makes them less so. And you'd think that someone like me would seize on that misery index with a smug Aha!, as a tool to fortify my self-satisfaction at not having saddled myself with all those happiness depriving kids. To the contrary: the statistic made me question the whole concept of self-reported "happiness" in such studies, whose definition for their subjects may be too narrow.

Everything that has meant something to me in a profound sense has come to me at great cost. I've taken more than one bicycle trip of several thousand miles, and en route I could hardly have called myself "happy" when getting rained on an buffeted by debilitating headwinds. Yet once a bicycle tour is over, one experiences a tremendous sense of mission-accomplished, and an abiding joy in having undertaken and completed the journey. The same goes for writing books... Especially through the composition of a fragile first draft, I could not honestly classify myself as "happy" in any consistent sense. Nevertheless, my little library of seven novels and counting, in its totality, makes me happy.

True accomplishment - and therefore, from my compulsively Protestant perspective - true happiness - usually entails suffering. Parenthood may be not only an example, but the premier one.

Initially I was tempted to say that Arnold would like this quote, but on reflection, perhaps he'll say that it's as empty as the research it criticizes. So what do you think, Arnold? And how about the rest of you? Is this a fertile criticism of happiness research, or a dead end?

P.S. At least for me, Lisa Simpsons hits the nail on the head:

Lisa: I can't do this, Bart. I'm not strong enough.

Bart: I thought you came here looking for a challenge.

Lisa: Duh! A challenge I could do!


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COMMENTS (7 to date)
conchis writes:

My take.

(a) The optimal measure should leave individuals free to decide whether their definition of happiness aligns with this or not. Maybe they value things that come at great cost; maybe they don't. We shouldn't be in the business of deciding that for them, unless there are very clear reasons to think their choice is compromised in some way. (And What I, or Shriver, or anyone else, happen to find fulfilling in ours lives doesn't constitute a very clear reason.)

(2) Questions focusing on "life-satisfaction" rather than "happiness", do, in general, allow individuals to make such choices about the values that are important to them (even if they're noisy measures).

Jim Clay writes:

I think Shriver nails it.

Jeff Hallman writes:

Revealed preferences. To believe the happiness researchers are correct, you have to believe that the majority of married couples who are not childless by choice are irrational and/or uninformed about the costs and rewards of having children. Even if you believe that a first-time parent may not know what he or she is getting into, how do you explain multi-child parents who make the same decision again?

Patri Friedman writes:

I originally read this post on my iPhone, and the formatting made it look as though it was Bryan who was the bicyclist and novelist. I was like "Wow, I never knew" :).

Anyway, I was definitely moved by the idea that great accomplishments often require hard and unpleasant work. It's wrong to take it too far and insist that work must not be fun. But as someone who avoids unpleasant work, yet seeks accomplishment, I found it valuable to have the contradiction between them pointed out.

Troy Camplin writes:

The problem is that people don't differentiate between two different states: happiness and joy. Happiness is a continuous state and is related to contentedness. What Shriver describes isn't happiness, but joy. Children bring joy. Accomplishment brings joy. Joy often requires suffering to achieve. If I had to choose between happiness and joy, I would choose joy. In fact, I often do.

Rob writes:

If Shriver is right, and my guess is that she is, then happiness research should show that 60+ year olds with children and grandchildren are happier than childless 60+ year olds. It is a fair point that asking a parent of a terrible two year old or a rebellious teen might not be the best data point. Another way to state Shriver’s point is that raising kids is an investment in your future happiness; the more children you have now, the more people to potentially visit you when you’re old.

Chris Collins writes:

I can not agree more with what you are saying. I can even go back to my church going days when they use to tell it always gets worse before it gets better. I always thought that to be true. The most happiness come after you have had to persevere though something.

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