Tuesday, September 14, 2004


I see that the excellent Arnold Kling had a good jab a little while ago at the "happiness" critics. We have known since at least the times of ancient Lydia and King Croesus that money does not necessarily make you happy. And Hollywood has been proof of it for years. St. Paul too was pretty scathing about money in 1 Timothy 6:10. But Left-leaning economists and psychologists seem to have realized all that only in the last few years. "So if we take your money away it won't hurt" is their conclusion. Odd that people do seem to get really peeved if you rob or defraud them, though! And ask anybody if they would rather spend their own money or have someone else spend it instead and there is not much doubt about what the answer will be. And that's the point: What people want matters. If some arrogant git claims that he can spend my money better than I can, he deserves to be treated like the con-man he is. The fact that overall level of happiness is mainly a personality disposition or trait which remains fairly stable across a wide range of circumstances (e.g. some people are almost always happy and others are almost always mournful) does NOT mean that people are uninterested in improving those circumstances or getting the occasional "high". But Leftists don't care what people want, of course. "We know what's best for you" is their lying mantra.

Marginal Revolution has lots of interesting links on the subject too.

From my point of view as a psychometrician, however, the whole field of happiness measurement is pretty suspect. I spent 20 years measuring psychological traits and have had many papers published on that subject but I have always regarded the measurement of psychological states as too difficult for me. Why? Because what people say about their states seems to be almost the same as what they say about their traits. The best-known example of an attempt to measure both states and traits in the same field is almost certainly Spielberger's work on state/trait measurement of anxiety and I have myself worked with Spielberger's questionnaires. But I found that the questions used to index the two gave generally interchangeable results: People who described themselves as anxious "at the moment" were also highly likely to describe themselves as anxious "in general". And that is not necessarily just a measurement problem, either. It surely stands to reason that people who are anxious "in general" are also more likely to be anxious on any given occasion. That implies to me that very short-term changes in states may be detectable (e.g. the "high" someone gets on being told they have won a lottery) but the sort of medium term change economists are looking for probably is not.

Yet given that traits are by definition both stable and general behaviour tendencies and given that they are almost always shown to be highly genetically inheritable, any consideration of traits as an economic variable is surely beside the point. Economists are looking for the results of something, i.e. a change of some sort, and something that is inherently not very susceptible to change is surely a strange place to look for change. So it seems to me that any study of happiness as an economic variable must specifically look at states or "moods" -- and that does not generally seem even to be attempted. And the tradition of mood research in psychology exemplified by Joe Forgas and others usually seems to treat moods as short-lived rather than as being the sort of long-lasting change that economists have been looking for.

And a cross-cultural note might not go astray here either. There have for many years been international surveys done which purport to find out which countries have the happiest people. But the big difficulty that the researchers found was that happiness is not always an adequately translatable concept. Perhaps the most surprising case of that is that even a language as closely related to English as German does not have any real equivalent to our word "happiness" (nor do they have a good equivalent for our word "pink" and nor do we have anything like an adequate translation of their word "Reich"). The commonest German translation is "gluecklich" but that really means "lucky", and I well remember an old German Jewish man with whom I was discussing that many years ago. He told me: "gluecklich I am but happy I am not". He meant that he was lucky to have escaped Hitler but still missed much of his old life. So can we really have as a key economic variable something that is not even translatable into German?


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