April 29, 2007

Happy Happy Joy Joy

Will Wilkinson has written a new paper on happiness research for the Cato Institute that I found both fascinating and odd. Odd because there are two parts: In the first, he argues that happiness surveys are too problematic and unreliable to use as the basis for public policy. In the second half, though, he uses those very same happiness surveys to suggest that the United States's "relatively libertarian" socio-economic model is a "glowing success." Okay, the paper's not as illogical as I made it sound—and it's quite brilliant in places—but that structure seems a bit jarring.

Anyway—onto the fun bits. I've been reading Bill McKibben's new book, Deep Economy, which is wonderful, but he spends a lot of pages pointing out that, according to various surveys, Americans aren't any happier today than they were 50 years ago, despite heaps and heaps of economic growth. His conclusion is that growth doesn't always make us better off. Now, I'm all for questioning GDP growth as the end-all and be-all, partly for some of the other reasons in McKibben's book. But, like Wilkinson, I'd rather not use happiness surveys to make that case.

A rather fatal problem for these surveys is that people often aren't aware of how good they have it compared to the past. The brain doesn't work like that. "Prior to the advent of modern sanitation and medicine," Wilkinson notes, "multitudes suffered from low-grade bacterial infections… toothaches, and other chronic maladies." But because people were used to these everyday annoyances, chronic toothaches wouldn't factor into their self-assessments of how happy they were. But everyone would agree that, at least in this respect, life has gotten much better—for those who can afford it—thanks to advances in medicine, dental care and the like.

Now, granted, dental care isn't the only thing that's changed over time. Maybe we've traded increased levels of stress and social isolation for fewer toothaches, and hence, from an objective standpoint, people really are no better off today than they were back then. That's possible. The point is that happiness surveys can't capture all of this change. Wilkinson quotes a paper by Dan Haybron, "Do We Know How Happy We Are?" that illustrates the point nicely:
[Subjects in a noisy office] showed elevated epinephrine levels, made half as many ergonomic adjustments to their workstations, and were markedly less persistent in efforts to solve difficult puzzles afterwards. Yet the researchers were surprised to find no differences in reports of perceived stress—specifically, reports about the extent to which subjects felt "bothered, worried, relaxed, frustrated, unhappy, contented, [or] tense" ...

It seems likely that given enough time, the experienced office workers . . . ceased to notice the unpleasant effects of the noise. Yet it also seems plausible that the noise affected not only subjects’ physiological responses and behavior, but the hedonic quality of their experience as well: they experienced more stress, had a less pleasant time of it, than they would have without the noise.
So we can be better off or worse off without knowing it. Is that the same as being happier without knowing it? Maybe, but that's a trickier question. Indeed, the difficulty researchers have even defining "happiness" seems like a sound reason to be skeptical of these surveys.

But this also cuts both ways. In the second half of his paper, Wilkinson cites research suggesting that countries that spend more money on welfare and social insurance aren't any happier. Welfare spending doesn't even appear to boost the happiness of the unemployed. But of course, a larger safety net might still make many people happier, even if they don't say so—because they may not realize, to some extent, that they're happier. In any case, happiness research will no doubt improve over time, but for now, it seems way, way, way too fuzzy for many policy purposes. (And, for instance, I think there are better reasons to worry about income inequality than the possibility that it causes envy and unhappiness, as Richard Layard suggests.)
-- Brad Plumer 6:23 PM || ||