Arnold Kling  

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The Debaters: A Childishly Lon... Don't Stop, But Look Before Yo...

Will Wilkinson writes,


I just got Arthur Brooks’ new book Gross National Happiness in the mail. Brooks quite rightly points out that happiness research doesn’t really do much to support conventional liberal policies, and he gives it a right-wing spin, as far as the data allow. But the data don’t allow much celebration of the happiness-value of children:

...If two adults in 2004 were the same in age, sex, income, marital status, education, race, religion, and politics — but one had kids and the other did not — the parent would be about 7 percentage points less likely to report being very happy.


Brooks points out that...
researchers have collected data on how people — particularly women — experience life with their children. And what emerges is that the enjoy almost everything more than they enjoy taking care of their kids.

So now we are going to use "happiness research" to evaluate the decisions my wife and I made twenty years ago.

Or, think about going back in time. Suppose that you go back and measure my instantaneous happiness when I'm with my daughter and she is puking her guts out. My guess is that it would probably be pretty low. But I choose to be with her when that is going on, rather than do something else that would make me "happier." In the long run, I'll be happier that I tried to care for and comfort my daughter when she was sick than if I went out dancing instead.

I might even speculate that if none of our daughters had ever gotten sick or been troublesome to care for, we might be less happy today. Dealing with those problems makes us happier. Not in the sense of being happy because your headache has gone away, but happy in the sense of having pride in being able to overcome challenges and help others.

"Happiness research" is baloney sandwich to begin with. But the longer the time interval between the action and the emotional reaction, the more bogus it becomes. Which makes it particularly ludicrous to suggest using "happiness research" to evaluate whether having children is a good idea or not.

I honestly cannot think of a single positive contribution that happiness research has made that would justify all of the pathetically stupid articles, books, and blog posts that it has generated. It is painful watching otherwise intelligent people make fools of yourselves by invoking it. Please stop.


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COMMENTS (14 to date)
Unit writes:

Well said. And while we're at it why not do some grumpiness research too (I've known many people who thrive on grumpiness). In the country I grew up in the word "happiness" was hardly ever used or referred to. It's a very American thing.

Ouch.

While I wouldn't have taken such a harsh tone against happiness research, I tend to agree. Because happiness is such an individualistic and personal thing I don't see how attempts to measure it will ever be that useful except in the most general of ways.

Ajay writes:

Dimwit pseudo-intellectuals are always going to need some new intellectual fashion to bray about now that socialism is largely discredited. I think we might all be better off if you actively poked holes in happiness research, Arnold, rather than dismissing it as frippery only to see it grow into an unheeded movement. All idiotic ideas need to be actively demolished because there are plenty of idiots who will run with them if left unchecked.

Heather writes:

Are there any pointers to the happiness research that is referenced commonly? I would be interested to see if the happiness deficit for people with children changes with the age of the children. My expectation would be that happiness increases with the age of the children and if that is not controlled for, the results will be off.

Richard writes:

I don't understand Arnold here. Why does the fact that there's a difference between the short-term and long-term subjective experience of something mean that happiness research is baloney? Doesn't it just mean that snapshots in real time of people's subjective state are useful but incomplete in themselves? Incomplete doesn't mean false. Arnold's conclusion here seems grossly disproportionate to his analysis.

Patrick writes:

Arnold - disappointing response.

"So now we are going to use "happiness research" to evaluate the decisions my wife and I made twenty years ago."

It's unclear to me how Wilkinson's comments have anything to do with you or your wife.

Jason Malloy writes:

So now we are going to use "happiness research" to evaluate the decisions my wife and I made twenty years ago.


You appear to be taking that post much too personally! Wilkinson's post doesn't negatively judge you for the decision you and your wife made 20 years, nor does it say anything about how your children affected you as an individual.


Suppose that you go back and measure my instantaneous happiness when I'm with my daughter and she is puking her guts out. My guess is that it would probably be pretty low... In the long run, I'll be happier that I tried to care for and comfort my daughter when she was sick than if I went out dancing instead.

But happiness research examines the question from both of these vantage points as indicated in the very post you link. People experience significantly lower subjective states both in the specific moments they are taking care of their children (experience sampling), and in the general time their children are still dependent. Meanwhile there is no evidence that there is a compensation for all this missed happiness in older life. Older people who have had children are not happier.

but happy in the sense of having pride in being able to overcome challenges and help others.

This is a fully empirical speculation which is not supported by current evidence for the general population.

"Happiness research" is baloney sandwich to begin with.


A self-evidently fallacious assertion. Many criticisms you can think of have no doubt already been met with current research or, more importantly, are fully capable of being met with future research designs. In the end, interesting questions have been answered, and will continue to be answered by this research program. It is a young and very important science.

But the longer the time interval between the action and the emotional reaction, the more bogus it becomes.

Let's say we take two groups of entirely random and otherwise comparable 5 year olds: one group of children who had a car door accidentally slammed on their fingers and one group that didn't.

What if we ask both these groups how happy they are when they are 70 and find that the door slam group is 10% less happy. In this case it is obvious that the long term emotional state is much more interesting and relevant than the localized one. Not more "bogus".

I honestly cannot think of a single positive contribution that happiness research has made

The very post you link to contradicts this. Bryan Caplan made an all too common assertion in his recent post that having children is a reliable method of boosting subjective well-being. Thanks to happiness research we know this brand of claim is suspect.

And the only thing that can even debunk this debunking is ... more happiness research.

Jason Malloy writes:

In the country I grew up in the word "happiness" was hardly ever used or referred to. It's a very American thing.

So there is no concept of subjective well-being, or of subjective contentment or malcontentment in the country you grew up in?

People in your country have no moods or opinions about the preferred or existing state of their lives? They experience no pain or desire or shame or depression or elation? No sense of fulfillment or sense of unfulfillment? No sense of stress or relaxation?

C'mon, this is dubious stuff. When I see this kind of obscurantism directed at a science I know that someone's ox is getting gored. Just like liberals with IQ and sociobiology, conservatives with evolution and global warming, certain transsexuals and homosexuals with sexuality research, and many libertarians with happiness research (and global warming).

People need to be flexible enough in their ideologies to step up to the plate and play ball with research that threatens their beliefs.

Nathan Smith writes:

Both Arnold and Jason Malloy go too far. I don't see any reason to think Arnold is frustrated because "his ox is getting gored" rather than because the methodology is suspect. I see plenty of reasons to be dubious about answers to survey questions about something so subjective and matter-of-opinion as happiness as a source of evidence. But. Standard utility functions are not good enough either, because utility theory doesn't take adequate account of micro-externalities, and makes too-strong assumptions about rationality. So I'd say that it would be desirable to use happiness research to fill in utility theory's gaps and serve as a check on it, and if that doesn't work... well, I'm not sure.

Unit writes:

Jason,

I have to admit that I have only a superficial knowledge of happiness research. On the other hand, it's true that the first time I was confronted with the word happiness and was asked to determine if I was happy or not, was when I moved to the US. Since then I concluded that I'm a fairly happy person and my condition doesn't change even when I'm depressed.

Dan Weber writes:

What scares me about "happiness research" is the feeling that its inevitably going to be used to deny me choices and freedom.

"You don't really want to do that! You only think you want to do that! But, really, our research shows you will end up happier later if you do what we say today. So this is really for your own good."

Nacho Bizness writes:

If you don't have children, you'll never have grandchildren. Most of us who do have them would say that grandkids are a big plus. We don't have to do any of the less-than-fun chores like diaper-changing, but we still get to enjoy their company when they're being cute and cheerful. When they're not cheerful, it's the parents' problem. Heads I win, tails they lose!

Of course, it helps that my grandson is, bar none, the cutest little boy in the world.

Caliban Darklock writes:

Where exactly is the line between "taking care of" the children and "enjoying" the children?

My wife and I spent a delightful ten minutes quietly giggling in the kitchen this morning, while we watched our seventeen month old son studiously attempting to figure out how to wear a toy on his foot. It's not supposed to go on his foot, but our four year old had placed it in the closet among the boots, so the younger child had decided it was a type of boot and needed to go on his foot.

After several minutes of this, he decided that something was wrong, and carefully arranged all of the boots and shoes in the closet in pairs - discovering that the toy had no match, and apparently concluding that it was therefore not a boot. So he picked it up and stormed over to us with an offended look on his face, shook it at my wife, and complained very strenuously in his infant gibberish before trotting over and putting it away in the toy box. He then proceeded to go scold his brother (albeit incoherently), since he had evidently - and quite correctly - concluded his brother was responsible for the misfiling of a toy with the boots.

This is not, by any stretch of the imagination, "taking care of" the child... but I cannot think of a single thing I would rather have done instead. If you don't have kids of your own, you probably read through this account and think "what an absolutely pointless waste of time". If you do, however, you know exactly what I mean: every day spent with one's children is a source of boundless joy in surprising and unexpected ways.

Would I rather do the dishes than change a diaper? Sure. But would I rather spend fifteen minutes doing the dishes by myself, or three minutes changing a diaper and twelve minutes playing with my baby? Give me the baby. You can do the dishes.

conchis writes:

I can't think of a single valid criticism of happiness research that would justify all of the pathetically stupid blog posts you've written about it. It is painful watching an otherwise intelligent person make a fool of himself in this way. Please stop.

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