Arnold Kling  

Kahneman on Happiness

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He speaks here. He raises a number of issues with self-reported happiness. An example he gives is someone moving to California because he thinks he will be happier there. If you ask him if he is happier in California, he will immediately think of the better weather (compared to, say, Ohio) and say he is happier. However, in reality there could be all sorts of other things that make him worse off in California, and many measures other than self-reported happiness would indicate that he is unhappy.

At the end, prodded by the moderator, Kahneman says that policy makers should pay attention to happiness research. I think that we are not even close to being at that stage. Frankly, Kahneman strikes me as only just starting to grapple with some really difficult philosophical and methodological issues with happiness research. How can he start the talk by saying that the term "happiness" is ill-defined in the research and then end up by saying that policy makers need to pay attention?

The study of happiness strikes me as being in 2010 what Freudian psychology was in 1950 or Skinnerian psychology was in 1970 (I may have my dates somewhat wrong, but I am trying to remember when they were near their peak of acceptance by intellectuals in general.) In retrospect, those earlier fads were based on shaky philosophical foundations and an empirical strategy that was focused entirely on confirmation. We look back on Freudians and Skinnerians and find it hard to believe that they could have been so blind.

Perhaps happiness research will evolve in a more robust manner, so that the analogy with earlier fads will prove false. Until that happens, I would worry that if you implement a policy on the basis of happiness research today, then there is a very high probability that subsequent analysis will show that the policy was mistaken. Some day, we will look back on happiness researchers and find it hard to believe that they could have been so blind.


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COMMENTS (4 to date)
Tom Hickey writes:

As a philosopher, I have wondered about the way that economists use "happiness." As Aristotle showed in Book I of the Nichomachean Ethics, it is a disputed term, rife with connotations and no clear denotation (referent). Modern psychology has made no advance over the ancients in dealing with happiness, as far as I can tell. I can remember having to tell a psychology professor that she was conflating happiness with pleasure. She thought about it for a minute and replied that she had never considered that. I guess she never read Aristotle.

Economics holds itself out as a science, so it is expected to define key terms operationally. Does economics have an operational definition of happiness? I think not.

I suggest that economists find a more empirically tractable concept, such as material satisfaction. Whatever is settled on, it must be potentially measurable, e.g., through subjective reporting correlated with physiological parameters like brain functioning and biochemistry, if it is to be genuinely scientific.

Otherwise, come on over and discuss it with us philosophers. We’ve been gassing about this for millennia. :)

MernaMoose writes:

But Tom, how can the Left claim that European are "happier" than we are if you're right? When they just know it has to be true and we should let them do whatever they want in congress.

Snorri Godhi writes:

Sorry, but I beg to disagree about Skinnerians. Probably they went too far (though since I wasn't around, I cannot be sure), but their basic tenet is the same as that of economics:
People respond to incentives.

Where the Skinnerians went too far is in eliminating all hidden variables (mental states) between stimuli and behavior. Still, I think that sometime people spend too much time worrying about other people's mental states. I know that I did (sometime), until I came across a little-known book, Winning the Games People Play by Nathan Miron, which is based on Skinnerian principles.

If otoh your problem is not spending enough time thinking about other people's mental states, then How to Win Friends and Influence People is the book to read. Probably best to read both.

Arnold, I think you would agree that economic knowledge is limited as well but we all try to use that...

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