A Fertile Criticism of Happiness Research?
By Bryan Caplan
Here’s the childless-by-choice Lionel Shriver, in Maybe Baby:
[A] recent New York Times Magazine article cited research documenting that while marriage makes people on average happier, parenthood makes them less so. And you’d think that someone like me would seize on that misery index with a smug Aha!, as a tool to fortify my self-satisfaction at not having saddled myself with all those happiness depriving kids. To the contrary: the statistic made me question the whole concept of self-reported “happiness” in such studies, whose definition for their subjects may be too narrow.
Everything that has meant something to me in a profound sense has come to me at great cost. I’ve taken more than one bicycle trip of several thousand miles, and en route I could hardly have called myself “happy” when getting rained on an buffeted by debilitating headwinds. Yet once a bicycle tour is over, one experiences a tremendous sense of mission-accomplished, and an abiding joy in having undertaken and completed the journey. The same goes for writing books… Especially through the composition of a fragile first draft, I could not honestly classify myself as “happy” in any consistent sense. Nevertheless, my little library of seven novels and counting, in its totality, makes me happy.
True accomplishment – and therefore, from my compulsively Protestant perspective – true happiness – usually entails suffering. Parenthood may be not only an example, but the premier one.
Initially I was tempted to say that Arnold would like this quote, but on reflection, perhaps he’ll say that it’s as empty as the research it criticizes. So what do you think, Arnold? And how about the rest of you? Is this a fertile criticism of happiness research, or a dead end?
P.S. At least for me, Lisa Simpsons hits the nail on the head:
Lisa: I can’t do this, Bart. I’m not strong enough.
Bart: I thought you came here looking for a challenge.
Lisa: Duh! A challenge I could do!