Tuesday, May 6, 2008

‘why the fuck are we all so miserable in the first place?’

Lon takes issue with my question "can money buy you happiness?"
The first thing to say to this is that there's no objective measure of happiness anywhere around here. Nothing to say "members of this group are happy", "the people in this country are unhappy". All we can say is that these people are happy than these people or less happy than they used to be. (Incidentally, there are at least two statistical effects tending to push the data here away from the extremes and towards the middle - see comment on the last post.)
As I only hold knowledge about animal behaviour, I have been taught that to keep animals happy, in order for them to breed in captivity and not suffer from depression, species have to be kept as close to their evolved way of life as possible, especially primates.

I've always wondered just how happy animals really are, especially when you take into account their periods of disease, hunger, death of relatives and friends and so-on. Sadly there is no survey data where they trained dogs to bark a number of times to indicate how happy they were.
This sounds like the sort of thing an evolutionary psychologist would say, though. I'd like to see a fight between an evolutionary psychologist and an economist.

Mark takes up the theme:
Though it's not empirical, quantifiable data (something that would be very difficult to glean in this area), I have seen many documentaries & read a lot of articles of traveling reporters & Humanist scientists who have spent time with remote tribes who insist such people, whilst living a subsistence lifestyle, are the happiest people they have ever met. These people spend their lives working for the direct benefit of a small group of people, hunting, gathering, building, growing.

That's a familiar viewpoint, though as with animals I wonder how accurately it reflects the burdens of disease and early death (particularly in childbirth) in these communities.

Naturally, these societies are not reflected in the Gallup, or any other, polls. This does suggest, however, that rural populations might be happier than urban ones - having a somewhere more traditional lifestyle. That's not something that's obviously borne out in the data, though one interesting theory you could propose is that the reason Easterlin found a paradox and this data is because poor countries have urbanised a great deal since the 1970s. Still, I don't think it's an argument that would stand up to scrutiny.

The point is, what should we be aiming for to make people happier? (If we accept that as a reasonable goal.) Some positive points about increasing incomes there is good evidence of a strong relationship between increasing income and happiness and that it's something people, governments, society and suchlike are experienced thinking about. One of the downsides is that that doesn't necessarily mean they're good at doing it.

In other words, it's not a foregone conclusion that effort put into increasing GDP will be more successful than the same amount of effort put into increasing happiness another way. Trying to increase GDP is certainly not the same thing as succeeding... Though that applies to other changes as well. The US experience is salutary. Here's a case where a country has increased its GDP, with the assistance of government policies strongly aimed at this, at the expense of other goals. This success on GDP hasn't made people any happier.

So what should we be doing to make people happier? To start with, none of this is prescriptive at an individual lesson. It's not saying the way to make yourself happy is to go out and try and raise your income. In terms of broader social and political aims, should economic growth (with appropriate environmental caveats) be our primary aim? Or would we be better off using other means?

The question of whether we might benefit from trying tomould our societies more closely to homo sapiens' 'natural state' and/or incorporate more features from tribal societies is one that I'm going to have to leave open.

Interesting as Wolfers and Stevenson's research is, it still leaves these questions wide open for debate. And even the specific argument about happiness is bound to keep running away.

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