Thursday, August 7, 2008

Leave Happiness Alone

I often feel about economists talking about happiness the way I feel about nuns talking to schoolgirls about sex: I don't doubt they are well-intentioned, but I do doubt that they're the best qualified people on the subject ...

So I was kind of relieved when I read a delightful hatchet job by my old colleague Paul Omerod called The Unhappy Thing about Happiness Economics (pdf). He points out (with co-author Helen Johns) that the variation in historical trends in measured happiness in countries like the UK is mostly explained by statistical 'noise' due to the use of surveys (which are always subject to margins of error). In other words there has been no significant change in happiness measures over time - for good or bad. He therefore puts paid to all those social analysts and commentators who demand more state intervention to correct all the things that are allegedly making us unhappy. As Johns and Ormerod declare:
Our inexorable conclusion is therefore that society-wide happiness time series should be abandoned as they don’t tell the social scientist anything useful; in addition, the flatness of happiness time series most certainly cannot be pinned on the economic system, and neither do they point to some kind of social aberration in need of government correction.

Average happiness has shown demonstrably stubborn flatness despite vastly differing government styles and levels of inequality, and it is seriously misleading to argue that, armed with the ‘insights’ of time-series happiness research, government intervention is going to make society measurably happier.
Hopefully the National Competitiveness Council will take note.

But while I think the authors do a convincing job of destroying the nonsensical idea that happiness is some kind of social trend that can be measured consistently let alone 'managed', there are some aspects of happiness economics that I do think are worth exploring further. For example, economic research shows that:
  • Freer and richer countries are happier than poorer and/or unfree ones.
  • Immigrants coming to richer countries (like Ireland) are happier than their countrymen left behind.
  • There has been a decline in happiness inequality between social class and race groups in some countries such as the United States.
  • Unemployment affects happiness more in rich countries than in poor countries.
So I think the message is clear: leave happiness alone if you are a politician fantasizing about socially engineering us into a better frame of mind; but do bear in mind that politics can make us happier if it leaves people alone to improve their own lives and ultimately those of their fellow countrymen and women.


  1. I think I commented before on the theory that we all tend to have a base level of happiness, this would support the findings you mention. How does the survey determine happiness though. Did it include the question "are you satisfied?" For many people the 9-5 job for life you derrided before would entail far less worry throughout their lives, whilst economically being rather inefficient. Did an over-all happiness index take into account rate of incidence of mental health issues in the population? And lastly I don't believe that an mp3 player contributes one iota to long term happiness, so why oh why are we encouraged to buy all this consumer tat all of the time (the ads all have happy smiley people, hmm, false advertising?).
    BTW I like the blog, I just don't have anywhere else to direct these questions :-)

  2. Oh, one other thing, I heard a while back that for all the crap we buy from China they buy less from us than Switzerland. Is that accurate?

  3. I read somewhere that Happiness was to be found in the 'pursuit of attainable goals'. Im inclined to agree with that, just from personal experience. The question I then ask is - how are the goals set?.
    If my goal is to have an mp3 player then working to save up for one, conducting a canny transaction on e-bay or even navigating a set of risks to steal one, probably contributes more to my state of hapiness than the actual Mp3 player itself.

  4. but why concieve the goal of owning an MP3 player in the first place? The goal of owning an MP3 player is in fact a far simpler subconcious goal that has been mapped onto the MP3 player by a marketing professional. The illusion is spun that product X fulfills underlying subconcious goals that we only partially acknowledge (acceptance, sex, control, whatever) in order for our concious minds to concieve of the goal of MP3 ownership. As you say, the ownership does not fulfill because the underlying goal the marketeer evoked has not been satisfied. It's a bait and switch to keep the money flowing, disinformation and over-information flood our modern lives and the baser animal within is pulled from pillar to post to answer the commands of the economic machine. I blame Bernaise and Friedman, it will all end in tears.

  5. I can never understand this "we don't need (insert technology of your choice)" mindset. There are lots of technologies and inventions I don't 'need': what's the point of mascara, for example? Or tampons: didn't women get along just fine without them until they were invented in the 1930s?

    But that's the thing: one man's superfluous gadget or gizmo is another woman's vital source of wellbeing. There is something terribly arrogant about dismissing some technology or invention as merely a trick foisted on us by marketing (all those cosmetics ads, tut tut).

    I prefer the freedom to determine what I will or won't buy (I love my iPod touch btw, it has re-ignited my love of music slowly being abandoned in advancing middle age). And if people really, really insist on buying mascara then that's their free choice too.

  6. The example in my immediate experience is I was talking to someone who told me she was thinking of getting an MP3 player. I had to remind her that she already had one, but did not use it because she did not know how to get music onto it. I did explain that she would need her computer (she also does not know how to use this) and appropriate software that I could get her (but fully expect her not to be able to use). My objection is not to gadgets or any specific object, it is that vacuous consumption is the pastime of choice in a spoilt and self indulgent society.


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