Saturday, August 20, 2005


Happiness seems mainly to be a stable personality trait. We tend to be born as either happy or miserable people. And no prizes for guessing who the miserable ones are. There is a long history of evidence showing that conservatives are happier. The most recent is from Gallup: "Even when accounting for partisan differences in marital status and household income, Republicans are significantly more likely than Democrats and independents to be very happy." Leftists are miserable sods, to put it plainly -- but you just have to hear their constant whining about everything in our society to know that.

How happy we are does NOT seem to depend strongly on external circumstances, though it does of course depend to SOME degree on what happens to us. So one person will be happy in circumstances that would make another person miserable. I know. I have observed perfectly cheerful people among the street-sleepers of Bombay. Some people are almost always happy. Some people are almost always whining. Some people just have happy natures and some do not. So looking at what it is that makes people happy is largely futile. In statisticians' terms, you are looking for variance in something that is invariant. Or, putting it another way, correlations with something that is invariant will NECESSARILY be zero. So if you are interested in running a public policy that respects other people, you need to look at what they CHOOSE, not at what makes them happy. And most people choose (for instance) more money rather than less.

And I think that this article shows beyond doubt that degree of happiness is a stable disposition: "Most people who live with serious disability or illness, such as kidney failure, appear to adapt well and maintain a healthy outlook on life, new research reports. This trend may be surprising to some -- the report also found that people without serious illnesses tended to underestimate the level of happiness in these patients. "We think it is encouraging that for at least some illnesses, life seems to (eventually) go on and that people come to experience good and even normal mood levels," study author Dr. Jason Riis of Princeton University in New Jersey told Reuters Health. "We cannot adapt to anything. But we are generally more resilient than we think," he said. In the Journal of Experimental Psychology, Riis and his colleagues note that this is not the first study to show that people can adjust to good and bad life events. For instance, a nearly 30-year old study found that paraplegics were not that much less happy than lottery winners."

And some more evidence that happiness is a personality trait: "In a boost for exam-flunkers everywhere, a study published yesterday in the British Medical Journal found the levels of satisfaction with life recorded by 550 Scottish men and women aged 84-85 were unaffected by their mental abilities, either when they were young or much later.... The study group, all born in Lothian, Scotland, in 1921, were remarkable for the fact they had all undergone tests of mental ability when they were about 11 years old, and the records had been preserved. The tests were repeated a few years ago, when they were about 79. They each ranked their happiness on a scientifically validated satisfaction scale."

In recent years, Left-leaning economists such as Ross Gittins have discovered the academic psychology literature on happiness -- and it seems to have given them some relief. The research shows, of course, that higher incomes do not automatically buy you more happiness. Any observer of Hollywood knew that long ago and I guess people have in fact known it for about 4,000 years. In 1 Timothy 6:10 St. Paul probably went a bit too far in saying that "The love of money is the root of all evil" but you get the idea. And the whole story of Job in the Old Testament runs along similar lines. But these days, "If money does not make you happier, then take it away!" is the Leftist reasoning. So that old bit of wisdom has found a new use as the latest pathetic excuse to hike taxes. There is another dummo academic (Richard Layard) reported here who points to the fact that getting richer does not necessarily make you happier and who thinks therefore that government meddling is indicated.

So why are SHOULD we worry about giving everyone higher incomes if that will not make them any happier? The simple answer: "Because almost everybody WANTS higher incomes" does not seem to have occurred to everybody yet. They seem to think that if money will not necessarily make you happy then governments should not bother with efforts to get more of it to you. But satisfaction, comfort, convenience, leisure options, security etc are not the same as happiness. The strongest external influence on how happy you are is probably your relationships with others. Given satisfaction with your relationships, you will probably remain roughly as happy through a wide range of incomes. But you will still want more of the things that money can buy if you can get them. So you will still say "Yes, please" to the possibility of more money.

There is a reply to Gittins on the economic issues here but it should also be noted that money does have SOME influence. As this article reports: "A new survey of national wellbeing has found the people happiest about their lives are those earning more than $150,000 a year. Those least happy earn less than $15,000 a year".

And this article also tends to show that there are ways in which money can buy happiness: "Two studies released yesterday shed new light on the importance of economic circumstances, and undermine earlier findings that poor people are just as happy as the rich. Money doesn't buy Happiness - or Does It? by the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research, at Melbourne University, shows that when wealth - not just income - is measured, the rich are indeed happier than the poor. Earlier research that focused only on income found very little difference in the reported happiness of high-income and low-income people. Mark Wooden, the study's co-author, said: "This has led some people to say money is not that important, relative to other things." However, when people's assets were taken into account - the value of their houses, cars, art works, even stamp collection - a different picture emerged."

This is a big subject so I will undoubtedly have more to say on it later. Maybe tomorrow.


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