Arlo on Happiness Research
By Arnold Kling
Inspired by Marginal Revolution’s Axel and Tyrone, my evil twin Arlo has a post on happiness research:
It’s obvious why we need happiness research. Think of the problem of getting from resources to happiness as taking two steps. First, you need to allocate resources to satisfy wants. Second, you need to correlate satisfying wants with producing happiness.
The first problem, the traditional economic problem, is going away. We can satisfy wants really easily. In fact, if we were to define “wants” as the basic wants of someone living in, say, 1850, then it is incredibly cheap to satisfy them.
Now, we are just making up “wants.” Fifty years ago, who wanted an Ipod? Who wanted a cell phone? Who wanted to sit inside a coffee shop drinking a latte and checking email?
Virginia Postrel says that we’ve entered the Age of Aesthetics, epitomized by designer toilet brushes. But if we’ve reached the point where we are satisfying a “want” for designer toilet brushes, then the economic problem is over.
So the really interesting problem is how to correlate satisfying wants with creating human happiness. And that’s where happiness research comes in.
Happiness research tells us how to correlate our wants with what really makes people happy. Figure out what makes people happy, so that they can choose sensible “wants.” We used to rely on spiritual guidance or new-age self-help books for this. But now we can use a discipline with all the trappings of science–surveys based on random samples, measures of statistical significance, brain scans, experiments.
Economic research traditionally was geared toward helping policymakers tinker with markets in order to enable them to better satisfy wants. Similarly, happiness research will enable policymakers to tinker with people’s wants in order to make them happier.
It’s Opposite Day.