The Opposite of What Robin Says
By Bryan Caplan
I often disagree with my dear friend Robin Hanson, but his latest post on happiness strikes me as a full 180 degrees wrong. Robin begins by discussing fascinating research on the divergence between what people choose and what makes them happy:
Not only are we well aware of wanting as a different feeling
from happiness, we know of many systematic differences between our wants
and our happiness. For example, even though we expect these choices to make us
less happy, we expect we’ll pick money over sleep, shorter commutes, leisure
time, friends, family, and legacy. We’ll pick school over a social life, and a
career-helping internship over interesting one. And we’ll pick attending a
favorite musician’s concert over a friend’s birthday party or reporting a
Two other fascinating cases:
To reconcile the intuition that Americans today are better off
than in the past with the finding that average SWB [= subjective well-being]
has remained flat in the U.S. over the past decades, we ask respondents to rank
being born in 1950 versus being born in 1990 in both choice and SWB questions.
Although our respondents overwhelmingly favor being born in 1990 in both
questions, more choose 1990 despite believing that they would be happier in
1950 than the reverse. …
To reconcile the intuition that expanding political and
economic freedoms for women have made women better off with the finding that
average SWB among women has declined in the U.S. since the 1970s, both
absolutely and relative to men, we ask respondents to rank living in a world
with or without these expanded freedoms for women. Again, significantly more
respondents choose a world with these expanded freedoms for women in spite of
believing that a world without them would make them happier than the reverse. (more)
Robin then proposes the following resolution of the puzzle:
These all seem to me reasonably consistent with our
thinking we’ll be happier doing what others approve, and what connects us
to them. Our visible happiness functions in part to convince our associates
that that we care about their approval and contact.
What? Does Robin really think that other people in today’s society approve of choosing to be born in 1950 rather than 1990? Of choosing a world without Women’s Liberation? That such choices “connect” us to the rest of our society? Nay, the opposite is true.
Claiming we’d be happier in a world dramatically different from our own is an affront to the people around us – though not as great an affront as admitting that we would choose to live in a world dramatically different from our own. Yes, Social Desirability Bias taints our claims about happiness and choice; but it taints claims about our choices more because there’s more social pressure to do “the right thing” than to feel “the right way.”
Furthermore, Robin’s story also runs counter to the massive body of work – fictional and non-fictional – on the ubiquitous tension between personal happiness and social approval. Think about every person torn between marrying for love and marrying to suit their family. Or every person torn between pursuing their dream and caring for a sick parent.
What’s especially odd: My story fits the forager/farmer divide that Robin has so often explored. Both foragers and farmers value status, but farmers value it more because status matters more in farmer societies. As a result, foragers tend to act on impulses that farmers strive to suppress. Impulses like: Choosing what makes you happy, no matter what the neighbors say.