Thursday, January 24, 2013

economics of happiness

I can't decide whether I hate or love this article more. Her criticisms are related to valid criticisms of happiness research, but she infuriatingly portrays happiness researchers as guileless soothsayers earnestly extrapolating from their immature results. (She is herself an economist, for the record, so I'm at least tempted to forgive the exaggeration as well-founded professional-insider criticism.)

It's true that the 1-2-3 happiness scale is widely used, but not because anyone honestly believes it captures happiness. It's an easily measured proxy variable for something related to happiness (we're not exactly sure what yet). Studies keep using the same proxy variables across many studies not because they have concluded that it is in fact the best measure or that it measures what they actually want to measure, but because this allows you to merge and compare studies coherently. Many other such proxy variables are used in tandem. Happiness research is currently on a simultaneous quest to understand what, exactly, these things measure, and how to measure more relevant things better, and to learn about happiness itself.

But it's definitely true that statements such as "happiness has not risen since the ’50s in the U.S. or Britain or (over a shorter period) in western Germany" make happiness researchers sound like idiots and mislead layreaders. Measurements of some happiness-related proxy variable that we don't fully understand may have not risen over that time, yet I doubt many people would choose to live in those earlier times, so you just can't make that statement with a straight face, caveat emptor. The oft-mentioned finding that "having children makes you less happy" is equally ridiculous for obvious reasons: that billions of people want children, enjoy having children, and don't regret having children, either at the time or especially after raising them, is overwhelming evidence that these results say more about the metric than the thing we hope it proxies for.

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