Happiness Research Still Makes Me Unhappy
By Arnold Kling
Unlike Arnold Kling, however, I do not reject the implications of happiness research altogether.
The ever-excellent Michael of 2Blowhards.com has now come forward and offered a good summary of what happiness research implies…
“Everyone seems to have a pre-programmed “set point” for happiness — a level of happiness they’re genetically programmed for, and to which they’ll always tend to return. There isn’t much that can be done to change this set point.
My view is that happiness research implies Nothing. Zero. Zilch. Nada. I believe that you do not learn about economic behavior by watching what people say in response to a survey.
When someone asks me how happy I am, what is the basis of my response? Am I looking at a “stock” of happiness (my cumulative happiness over my lifetime, sort of like wealth), a flow of happiness (how I have felt over the past year), or a snapshot of happiness (how I feel this minute)? Am I answering the question the same way as another respondent? Am I even using the same definition if you ask me at two different points in time?
People are not given clear instructions as to how to answer the question, “How happy are you?” In the absence of a precise definition, suppose that I answer the question by giving the ratio of how I feel this week to the average way that I have felt in the past 6 months. In that case, my happiness will always return to a “set point.” If I win the lottery, then 6 months later I feel great, but I have felt great for six months, so the ratio of how I feel to how I felt in the last six months is back to where it was, and my reported happiness goes back to where it was before I won the lottery.
Taking out the trash and mowing the lawn would make you very unhappy if yesterday you played golf with your buddies and they are going out on the links again today. But you would be delighted if you had just spent three weeks laid up with a painful injury and now you finally had the strength to do household chores.
My point is that reported happiness is all about comparisons. To report how happy I am, I have to make that report in comparison to something else–how I felt a month ago, or how I imagine someone else feels, how I imagine I’ll feel tomorrow, or something. Because the survey questions do not specify the comparison that the respondent is supposed to make, we have no idea what the answers mean.
You can attempt to read something into the data that is reported by “happiness research.” You can also read something into tea leaves or goat entrails. Scientifically, there is not much difference.
For Discussion. Why should I take happiness surveys more seriously than goat entrails?