Happiness Research: Get Used to It
By Bryan Caplan
Arnold has curtly dismissed happiness research:
Books that are based on research designed to predict behavior belong in the Social Science section. Books that tell you how to be happy belong in the New Age/Self-Help section.
If we followed this advice, unfortunately, there would be no reason to read these books, because they would be written by low-quality authors for low-quality readers. The point of happiness research is to apply the careful methods of social science to a new subject.
If you think this is a pipe dream, check out one of the most eye-opening articles I’ve read in years: “Hedonic Adaptation” by Shane Frederick and George Loewenstein. The motivation:
Most of us are familiar with striking examples of people who seem to be adapting well to circumstances that are extremely adverse. We may have seen footage of malnourished children playing happily in garbage dumps or know of severely handicapped people who maintain a cheerful disposition in spite of their disabilities… This chapter examines both the extent and limits of hedonic adaptation – processes that attenutate the long-term emotional or hedonic impact of favorable and unfavorable circumstances.
Unlike a lot of people who work at the intersection of psychology and economics, F&L don’t pretend that all the research points in the same direction. People get used to higher income, but not noise. Paraplegics and quadriplegics aren’t miserable, but (contrary to a number of misleading summaries I’ve read) they don’t fully adapt either – they report an average happiness score of 2.96/5, versus 3.82/5 for a control group.
F&L also provide a fascinating discussion of the forces that moderate hedonic adaptation. It helps the bereaved and the handicapped to socialize with people with similar problems. It helps to have advance notice: You get over the death of a loved one more easily if you have some time to get used to the idea. And – expected utility theory notwithstanding – people adapt more easily to 100% certain bad events than to 95% certain bad events.
If and who you blame for bad events matters too. In one study, “[V]ictims of severe accidents who blamed themselves for the accident were coping more successfully eight to twelve months afterward than those who did not, and… victims who blamed other people (as opposed to some nonspecific external cause) displayed especially low coping scores.” This rings so true to me that my head is still spinning. Have I ever felt unhappy for long about something without blaming another person? I’m drawing a blank.
Arnold could point out a lot of flaws in this literature, but F&L have beaten him to the punch. They inventory a long list of inadequacies in existing research. But they diverge from Arnold in taking a constructive attitude toward happiness – separating the wheat from the chaff, noting areas with mixed results, and pointing out better approaches.
The bottom line is that I’m glad that smart, careful scholars like F&L are hard at work on this topic because I want the answers. Happiness is much too important to be left to the mush-heads in the New Age/Self-Help section.