Bryan Caplan  

Is Arnold Getting Happy?

Dissident Economics and Though... Remembering '68...

I was surprised to hear Arnold say:

The way to make yourself really miserable is to compare your salary to that of the most overpaid, incompetent peer or superior. The way to make yourself feel really good is to compare your salary to others at the company who are even more undervalued than you are. 99% of people opt to make themselves miserable rather than feel good.
After all, Arnold recently re-affirmed his antipathy for happiness research:
As usual, I am unhappy with happiness research.

When people are asked "Are you happy?" they have to think in comparative terms (even Bruno Frey says this). X says he is happy because he looks at his situation compared with other people he knows (including himself in the past) and decides he is in relatively good shape.

I'd like to hear how Arnold reconciles his two statements. If all happiness is "comparative," then doesn't comparing yourself to under-valued people merely induce a change in how happy you call yourself, rather than a change in how happy you are? In other words, on Arnold's view, changing your comparison group can only change your nominal happiness, not your real happiness.

To put my cards on the table, my view is that happiness is only partially comparative. "Happy" is like "hungry" rather than "tall." An amnesiac on a desert island can't know if he's tall without anyone to compare himself to. But he can definitely know if he's hungry. And I say he can also know if he's happy.

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COMMENTS (7 to date)
Arnold Kling writes:

To me, happiness is not like hunger. Hunger pangs are hunger pangs, whether or not you can remember what food tastes like. But if you have no memory of being a college professor, there is no reason to feel unhappy if you wake up one day as a ditch-digger.

I'm not sure what I make of the concept "how happy you really are." That sounds like an unobservable. The observable is how happy someone says they are.

When I say that comparing yourself to the lucky office slouch makes you miserable, I am saying that you report yourself as miserable. That's all I know. I'm not sure that there is some other concept out there corresponding how you "really" feel.

Objectively, your life circumstances could be identical to those of the guy in the next cube, except that he compares himself to all the underpaid diligent workers. So he reports that he is happy.

I don't see the contradiction in what I'm saying. But maybe I'm missing something.

Heather writes:

I think that both of you are right, to a certain extent. Some people measure their happiness relative to what others have, however others just feel a sense of happiness as they feel a sense of hunger. Given that mood has been shown to be affected by daylight (think seasonal affective disorder, to list just one), I find it disingenuous to suggest that happiness is due only to comparative measures between yourself and someone else.

Brad Hutchings writes:

I gotta go with Arnold on this. Not only is he not inconsistent, he's pretty consistent. He is unhappy with happiness research because it relies on the comparative (i.e. inequities) to stir up anguish, and suggests that his readers pick and choose what to compare to so as to make themselves happy and likely more productive. Life isn't always fair. It's a tough lesson, but we all eventually learn it. For those that haven't, accepting it and moving on will almost always lead to better outcomes.

Jason Malloy writes:

Mood state is every bit as biological as "hunger pangs". In fact lower subjective mood states are probably an essential part of hunger pangs.

Depression, anxiety, stress, and related emotions are all human universals. And the moods needn't even be conscious (e.g. affective ignorance).

To some extent the issues you bring up are certainly empirical. The amnesiac ditch-digger may or may not believe he is "low status" without a direct reference group, but his body/mood probably would react to his situation as if there were status-related (and other) deficiencies.

The very lack of a reference group, of other people, might make him consciously or unconsciously feel low status. His lack of a woman might have low status physiological correlates. And given the polygamous orientation of humans, having even a single woman, instead of more, might result in low status physiological correlates! There are evolutionary reasons to think that all these universal physiological/psychological mood states are there to influence behavior like carrots and sticks.

Anyway Wolfers and Stevenson already debunked the Easterlin paradox. So the idea that happiness is all about relative comparison, instead of absolute biological desires, is a belief that I think requires evidence. Consistent with Wolfers and Stevenson, I suspect the latter is more important.

When you dissect the reasons people are happier across nations, you see things like avoidance of pain, access to social respect, and especially availability of quality foods. People don't need to look into the lives lived in far away lands to realize if they are meeting these needs or not. Either they are eating well or they aren't. Either they are practicing a skill they are getting rewarded for or they are not. I have no idea how much pain a foreigner or a rich man feels, but I know very well if and how much physical pain I feel.

Jason Malloy writes:

. And given the polygamous orientation of humans, having even a single woman, instead of more, might result in low status physiological correlates!

I thought it was funny that just a few hours after making this comment, I read a news report indicating just this:

"After accounting for socioeconomic differences, men aged over 60 from 140 countries that practice polygamy to varying degrees lived on average 12% longer than men from 49 mostly monogamous

Alex J. writes:

Envy makes you unhappy, but that's hardly the whole story.

David Jinkins writes:

Happiness also has a cultural context. In the United States, if you aren't happy there is something wrong with you. The opposite is true in Turkey. Because of this Turks and Americans with similar "true levels of happiness" will rate themselves differently on a happiness survey.

This is the biggest problem with large comparative happiness studies.

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