Tuesday, August 10, 2004


I'm dubious of this thought experiment on the subject of happiness:
Imagine that you could go back a few hundred years and ask people if they are 'very happy,' 'fairly happy,' or 'not happy.' Suppose that this survey showed that happiness was approximately the same back then as it is today. Would it be fair to conclude that the tangible goods that we have today contribute nothing to happiness? People a few hundred years ago had no idea what it was like to live with indoor plumbing, abundant food, and antibiotics. People today have no idea what it was like to live without them. How can a 'happiness survey' provide a meaningful comparison of the two eras?

In Frank's view, what the surveys show is that consumers have been behaving myopically, striving for more tangible goods without increasing their happiness. An alternative hypothesis is that in answering the surveys the consumers are behaving myopically, reporting on their happiness relative to a near-term baseline. That is, when you ask a consumer in 2004 if she is happy, she instinctively makes a relative comparison to how she remembers 2003. If she could remember how she felt in 1974, and she were focused on that as a baseline, she might answer the question differently.
I'm not so sure. We have to separate out two reactions that could easily be confused: (1) How happy, in fact, was I in 1974?, versus (2) How happy would I be if the I who exists today were transported back to 1974?

These are two very different questions. Take 1980 (I don't remember 1974, having been born that year). Would I be happy if the 2004 me could time travel back to 1980, and had to make do without a computer, a cell phone, etc., etc.? Well, maybe not, because the 2004 me would know what I was missing from not having modern technology, medicine, etc. But was the real me happy in 1980? As happy as any six-year old could be, from what I remember.

And even if I was transported back to 1980, any unhappiness wouldn't last for long. Happiness is like the sense of smell. If you walk into a room where there is a bad odor, you smell it most strongly at first. But if you remain in the room for even a short period of time, you find that the odor fades into non-existence. What is actually happening is that your sense of smell adapts. The odor is no longer new, and hence your nose doesn't detect it any longer.

Same with happiness, as most research tends to show (to my knowledge). Once you're past a certain minimal threshold (i.e., not starving, not dying of cancer, not homeless in the streets), material goods don't really produce any lasting happiness. No matter how much or how little you have, you quickly adjust to it.

Indeed, I've known blissfully happy people who were rather poor, and deeply unhappy people who were multi-millionaires. What's more, I observed that the multi-millionaires were unhappy precisely because they had spent their lives in pursuit of material advantage and had ignored friends and family along the way. What made an inestimably greater difference was their attitudes and character.

Look again at these two lines:
People a few hundred years ago had no idea what it was like to live with indoor plumbing, abundant food, and antibiotics. People today have no idea what it was like to live without them.
Right -- but so what? This passage seems to imply that the true measure of whether an invention causes happiness is whether people who have experienced it would miss it if it were gone. I think that's not true. For any useful invention, people who have experienced it would miss it (at least initially) if it were taken away, because their sense of happiness would have to adjust. But even then, when they had time to adjust, they might be just as happy as before. And as for people who never experienced the invention (indoor plumbing, for example), they would just view that fact as a necessary part of life.

Put it this way: People today have no idea what it is to live without the luxuries that might exist in 2150. And the people in 2150 will have no idea what they're missing by not living in 2500. You can continue these sorts of comparisons infinitely. At every stage of human existence -- assuming continuing material progress -- no one can really imagine what humans will come to experience as normal in 50 or 100 years. For all we know, there might be a trillion different inventions that will occur at some future date that will (seem to) improve happiness. The logical conclusion is that almost no one can really be happy right now, because the inventions they own are so outnumbered by the inventions that might occur at any future date.

This obviously makes no sense. People can experience happiness right now. And they do.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

The process of achieving material improvement is itself a principal source of happiness. Take away the prospect of progress, whatever the starting point, and the world becomes a miserable place. See The Progress Pardox by Greg Easterbrook.

4:23 PM  
Blogger ATW said...

I just read this article by Robin Crouch earlier and while seemingly quite unrelated seems to have a resonant theme with this discussion (well to me anyway).

"I was just a child back then, listening because my mother was listening but I've never forgotten her favourite quotation. "Surprised by joy" it was - from a poem by Wordsworth.

Webb's philosophy was that, no matter how grim or dull the hour, one must always keep the old beady open because, when you least suspect it, something will pop up to make you happy - or, as Wordsworth put it, "surprised by joy". It was a valuable world-view to learn as a child and it still lurks in the back of my mind.

The secret, of course, is that the joy needn't be of the megawatt, "I've won the Lotto!" variety; it can just be a little bolt from the blue that bucks you up."

Basically when one gets down to it happiness has very little to do with material wealth, ever.

10:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

One can go even further than material goods. Most of us have relatives who have died, generally elderly ones, and this usually causes a period of mourning. After some time, most of us get over our grief and would be willing to answer that we are happy on various surveys. If our relatives had lived 10 or 20 years longer, they would have still died at some point and we would still have had the mourning period, so this survey question of net happiness may not have increased. However, it would be ridiculous to argue then that we wouldn't want people to live longer.

People in old times would certainly call themselves happy, even though life expectancy was much shorter for them and their friends and relatives. You learn to live with things, sure. That doesn't mean that you don't strive to improve them.

1:17 PM  

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