By Arnold Kling
One could conclude from the lack of correlation over time between aggregate happiness and almost any other socioeconomic variable of interest one of two things. Either that attempting to improve the human lot through economic or social policy is futile, or that happiness data over time is an extremely insensitive measure of welfare. The evidence points to the latter.
…There is a body of research on happiness which is, from a scientific perspective, much more securely grounded. This is based upon the analysis, not of aggregate happiness data over time, but of so-called panel, or longitudinal, data, which tracks specific individuals over time. It shows that stable family life, being married, good health, having religious faith, feelings of living in a cohesive community where people can be trusted, and good governance contribute to happiness. Chronic pain, divorce and bereavement detract from happiness.
I agree with the first paragraph, but I have my doubts about the second. I still think that the question “How happy are you?” is going to deliver unreliable answers.
I cannot measure my happiness in absolute terms, so I have to answer in relative terms. I have to think, “Compared to Joe, I’m happy, but compared to Susan, I’m not.” Or I have to think, “Compared to when I fell and broke my wrist, I’m happy, but compared to when I fell in love I’m not.”
And am I thinking of my momentary happiness, my happiness over the last hour, or my happiness over the past year? If it is momentary happiness, what if I have spent the last minute reflecting on bad childhood memories? Should I say that I am unhappy? Maybe 10 minutes from now I will be reflecting on fond memories. Should I then say that I am happy?
Suppose we get past that. Suppose that research shows in some reliable way that most people are happy doing X. Is it not possible for people to have different tastes? If research shows that people who eat tuna fish are happy, does that mean I should eat tuna fish?
I hate tuna fish.
But I like Bruce Charlton, who gave me the pointer.