The Happiness Hype
Where then lies the real happiness?
CLAUDE S. FISCHER
The pursuit of happiness is on! Not Jefferson’s version, the one he slipped into the Declaration of Independence in place of property. I mean the stampede to study happiness, create happiness measures for national policy, and publish pop-science and how-to books on the subject.
Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Commission uses citizens’ reports of their happiness to assess national progress, and former French President Nicholas Sarkozy appointed a Nobel-encrusted commission to study a similar idea; the United Nations places “happiness indicators” on its war-burdened agenda; American science institutions pour money into fine-tuning measurements of “subjective well-being”; and Amazon’s list of happiness books by moonlighting professors runs from The Happiness Hypothesis to Stumbling on Happiness, Authentic Happiness, Engineering Happiness, and beyond.
Since at least the 1950s, academics have analyzed surveys asking people how happy or satisfied they feel. We’ve used fuzzy questions such as, “Taken all together, how would you say things are these days—would you say that you are very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?” to assess respondents’ morale. We’ve compared, say, women to men and the poor to the rich. Dutch sociologist Ruut Veenhoven started compiling the findings into his World Database of Happiness back in the 1980s.
So what set off the current frenzy? Economists found happiness.
In the decade after 2000, the number of articles on happiness in major economics journals roughly tripled. One economist told me a couple of years ago that his colleagues’ pursuit of happiness was depressing him. Nonetheless, established leaders and bright new scholars turned to the topic and brought with them the funding, media prestige, and political clout of the profession. That a guild which prides itself on scientific rigor and hardheadedness would embrace such a sappy concept measured in such mushy ways is, well, bemusing. Even Federal Reserve Chief Ben Bernanke drew on the new economics of happiness to find the moral for his 2010 commencement address to University of South Carolina graduates: “I urge you to take this research to heart by making time for friends and family and by being part of and contributing to a larger community.”
The embrace resulted, I think, from the great challenge the emergence of behavioral economics posed to the discipline. Standard economics assumes that people are rational deciders, and they reveal their preferences, what gives them “utility,” by their choices. But, people often have confused preferences, make sub-optimal selections, and regret their decisions. Because of this, Nobel Prize–winner Daniel Kahneman and current Chair of the Council of Economic Advisers Alan Krueger wrote in 2006, “An exclusive reliance on choices to infer what people desire loses some of its appeal.”
If economics is all about individuals optimizing their utility, but that utility is not revealed by people’s actual choices, how then do we know which economic behaviors and policies are optimal? Track happiness. Kahneman and Kreuger have mounted projects to do just that, trying to bring the measurement precision of, say, steel production reports and the Fed’s overnight interest rate, to happiness. Study subjects are asked to list their activities of the previous day and rate the pleasure and pain they felt then. (This is cheaper than “experience sampling,” in which subjects report their moment-by-moment feelings via a pager or similar device.) The returns from this research investment have so far been slight.
What do we know about happiness? We know that people’s reports of immediate joy and misery fluctuate from activity to activity—sex is an upper; commuting is a downer—and often diverge notably from the summary answers they give to questions about their happiness “these days.” We also know that subjective well-being can be complex. People can be happy about work and sad about love; the latter usually matters more. The opposite of happiness, research suggests, is not necessarily despair, but rather apathy; some people just don’t feel much of anything.
Whatever the philosophical issues around happiness (oh, the philosophy professors have also joined the pursuit) asking people questions about their feelings of well-being is a useful diagnostic tool for research. We learn, for instance, that increasing economic inequality since the 1970s widened the class gap in feelings of happiness and that the job and income losses of the Great Recession have depressed Americans’ average happiness. But these are rough measures, and whether they can or should guide national policy remains an open question.
Lastupdate on : Tue, 4 Dec 2012 21:30:00 Makkah time
Lastupdate on : Tue, 4 Dec 2012 18:30:00 GMT
Lastupdate on : Wed, 5 Dec 2012 00:00:00 IST
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