Bryan Caplan  

Gintis on Happiness

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Here's a great passage from Herb Gintis' review of Avner Offer's The Challenge of Affluence:

The great American vaudeville singer Sophie Tucker remarked, "I've been rich and I've been poor---and believe me, rich is better." This book... contrasts Sophie Tucker's widely shared sentiment with the carefully researched fact that people are getting richer, but they are not getting happier...

An earlier generation answered this question by noting that being richer involves both having more than before, and having more than others. If relative status is important but absolute wealth is not, argued Robert Frank (1985), then when everyone becomes richer, average well-being will not increase... While relative status is clearly important for some individuals, there is no convincing evidence that it of great importance to most individuals. Certainly many individuals are eager to become a smaller frog in a larger pond by moving to a richer community, and the rate of migration from poor to rich countries is hardly favorable to the relative status hypothesis. Moreover this "hedonic treadmill" explanation ran afoul of the data in a brilliant study by Brickman et al. (1978). They found that large exogenously-generated changes in material circumstances, such as winning the lottery or becoming handicapped through accident exhibit little difference in subjective well-being even several months thereafter. The general implication of this line of research is that some people are happy and some are unhappy, and changes in wealth position has little long run effect on their subjective well-being.

This review even contains a quote that I really wish I could have put in my book:
I recall my concern for such issues in writing my Ph.D. dissertation some forty years ago, the head quote of which was from the jazz pianist Mose Allison, who wrote "things are getting better and better. It's people I'm worried about."
The funny thing is that - at least to me - even people seem a lot better than they used to be - smarter, funnier, more decent, more creative. This could be an age effect (people improve with age), a selection effect (I've been able to track down people more to my liking), or a memory illusion (I think the grass was always browner in the past). But it could also be an honest-to-goodness change. What do you think?

P.S. Gintis has written over a hundred Amazon reviews. If you'll allow me to review a reviewer, most are quite good.


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COMMENTS (5 to date)
Troy Camplin writes:

As society becomes more complex, peoples' psychologies become more complex, and those more complex people tend, on average, to be better than those who think is less complex ways.

Dr. T writes:
...people seem a lot better than they used to be - smarter, funnier, more decent, more creative.
I think that in your environment and social circle you encounter a greater than average proportion of 'better' people. That is not true elsewhere. Since high school I have held the opinion that most people are jerks. After the passage of another thirty-five years, I see no reason to change that opinion. Certainly The Myth of the Rational Voter adds support to my belief that we live in a nation populated primarily by the irrational, superstitious, illogical, ignorant, and unethical.
Mason writes:

Would you rather be in same relative position today or 100 years ago?

I think most people would perfer to be alive today (have higher absolute wealth).

How much of a status gain would you require to live 100 years ago.

I remember from Hanson's health class that people value 1 yr of life at approximatly 2 yrs of income.

Assuming a life expentancy change from 70 to 60. and a current income of $50,000.

That would mean, I'd need to make an extra $1,000,000 (50K time 2 times 10).

So that's a big increase to my relative position (more money), and a decrees to my absolute (shorter life).

Rimfax writes:

Better, by a large margin. I meet and observe people from all strata and demographics. I see different races and economic strata communicating and doing business together with a fraction of the discomfort of 20 and 30 years ago. I see teenagers being the same shallow, insensitive jerks that they've always been, only far less jerks than at any other time that I can recall, even when I was one myself.

I know a number of misanthropes and codgers, but they can never support their opinion under any scrutiny. They always fall back on, "well, people just suck" without any real time dependency or basis for comparison. It's always a matter of how they feel about themselves and their place in the world rather than actually how they see the world. (See Gilbert, "Stumbling...")

On the question of projecting one's optimism, rather than pessimism, i.e. an anti-codger, I really don't think that is happening in that I am not particularly optimistic about my own status. My positive view of societal trends is in stark contrast to my views of my own status and to my static assessments of "the state of the world".

David Tufte writes:

One thing that I've noticed is that bullying among kids seems to be way down.

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