Sunday, August 21, 2005


I have just put up here another article that points to fairly static overall levels of happiness despite improvements in economic circumstances. Such observations are of course entirely predictable if we regard happiness as a trait rather than a state.

The trouble is that we DON'T usually think of happiness as a trait. We see it as something that happens to us -- as a temporary state rather than as an enduring trait. We mostly seem to think of it as the sort of thing that happens inside us when we win a prize or a lottery of some sort. And we see UNhappiness as event-related too. If a man's wife leaves him that will usually make him unhappy and if his dog dies that will make him VERY unhappy. But a new love and a new dog will of course immediately restore or even improve the man's happiness. But even without a new love or a new dog, happiness levels will eventually creep back to where they were. In fact even clinical depression (where people are having suicidal thoughts) usually wears off after a couple of years. So it doesn't really matter what a shrink says or does to help a depressed person as long as he can manage to keep the patient alive for a couple of years.

So clearly there is huge conceptual confusion in all this. Perhaps the language we use to talk about the subject is inadequate. And a cross-cultural note tends to confirm that. 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 of "happiness" 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?

One approach that might seem hopeful for researchers into the subject is to talk about "happiness state" versus "trait happiness" but from my point of view as a psychometrician, however, that seems unlikely to help. 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 traits 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.

So my conclusion is that happiness research is still in its infancy and attempts by economists and others to use it for political purposes are totally premature and irrelevant.

Nobody is going to take the slightest notice of that conclusion, however, so I think I will have to soldier on and continue looking at what is being said about the subject. And I think it time I noted that Leftists are not only using the static nature of happiness to justify higher taxes but they are also using it to attack freedom and variety of choice.

There was a 2004 NYT article (reprinted here) arguing that too much choice can be bad for you. Too much choice is said to be confusing, paralysing and dissatisfying. This is actually a very old idea -- one made much of in Alvin Toffler's 1971 book, Future shock -- and it is ideal fodder for Leftists who want to dictate to people. As good totalitarians have always said, they can say: "See. Choice is bad for you. WE will make all your decisions for you".

This article has some reasonable comments on that: "In a recent New York Times op-ed touting his book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, psychology professor Barry Schwartz criticized political reforms aimed at expanding choice. He argued that "for many people, increased choice can lead to a decrease in satisfaction. Too many options can result in paralysis, not liberation."... There is much to be said against this thesis. First, if choice makes us unhappy, why do so many of us stop patronizing mom-and-pop stores and rush to Wal-Mart the moment we get the chance?... Choice in the marketplace grows out of individual freedom. I want shoes. Many people are free to sell me shoes. That presents me with choices, requiring me to pay attention and to discriminate. What's the alternative? Government control aimed at limiting choice. Where's the evidence that that makes people happy?... Schwartz is a professor. If someone were to suggest that too many books, journals, and magazines crowd the shelves, that all this choice makes people unhappy, and that government could serve us better by restricting the number of choices, Schwartz and his ilk would scream like banshees".

There is of course some truth in saying that choice can be "blinding", as Toffler put it, but everything has its costs and the key question to ask is what if YOUR particular choice (of jam or anything else) were taken away? You would not like it. I myself feel irritated by the vast range of jams, mayonnaise etc that I have to go through in the supermarket to find just the one I want -- but I get REALLY irritated if my particular favourite is not among those on offer. The basic conclusion is that if we want our OWN choice of something, we have to tolerate OTHER people being given their choice too. Freedom has its costs. Nobody has ever pretended otherwise. But take that freedom away and you run into REALLY big costs -- in happiness and much else besides.

And there is the larger question of whether getting what you want makes you happy. Often it may not. As Oscar Wilde memorably wrote in his 1892 play Lady Windermere's Fan: "In this world there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it". And having choices and options may be an instance of something that people seek but which does not make them happy. But surely only someone who thinks he is a very superior being (e.g. the typical Leftist) would see that as a reason to stop giving people what they want. Who are we to sit in judgment on other people's choices and on what will make them happy? As Queen Elizabeth I asked the King of Spain centuries ago: "Why cannot Your Majesty let your subjects go to the Devil in their own way?"

Whew! I think that will have to be enough from me on this subject for today but there is heaps more that I COULD comment on so I probably will in due course. For further reading in the meanwhile, Gregg Easterbrook's book on the subject is reviewed here and here. And I haven't even mentioned Martin Seligman yet. As a prophet of happiness, Seligman's surname is very apt. It means roughly "Blessed man".


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