Lighten Up on Happiness, Arnold!
By Bryan Caplan
My co-blogger continues to be unhappy with happiness research. Since no First World happiness researcher would willingly trade places with Third World tribesmen, and Third World tribesmen would willingly trade places with First World happiness researchers, happiness research is “fundamentally unsound.”
But Arnold’s prediction and the happiness literature are actually compatible. Key findings, which have been known since the days of Epicurus:
1. A lot of happiness arises simply from meeting whatever expectations you’ve set for yourself. If you’ve never had air conditioning, you don’t miss it, and it’s absence doesn’t make you unhappy. Once you get air conditioning, you soon take it for granted, and usually stop appreciating it.
2. A lot of happiness arises from comparing yourself to other people around you. If neither you nor anyone you know has air conditioning, you don’t feel very bad about not having it. If other people around you have it and you don’t, you might feel bad about it.
3. People don’t maximize their own happiness. Sometimes people do things that make them unhappy out of a sense of duty, or laziness, or pride, or to please others. Most people wouldn’t choose to connect to Nozick’s Experience Machine.
Application: First World happiness researchers wouldn’t choose to stay herding goats in the Third World because…
1. They are used to a much higher living standard. The gap between their expectations and their circumstances would make them unhappy, at least for a while. (One lesson we’d learn, I suspect, is that people are quicker to take progress for granted than decline).
2. They would compare themselves to other people in the First World, not the tribesmen, at least for a while.
3. Even if they knew they would be happier as tribesmen, First World researchers wouldn’t want to remain herding goats because it would conflict with their sense of duty to their families back home, their ambition, their pride, and so on.
Does all this mean that the pursuit of economic growth is pointless? Hardly. Holding happiness constant, progress is simply better than stagnation. But that doesn’t change the fact that getting a hundred times richer wouldn’t make us much happier than we already are.