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Friday, November 25, 2005

Oh no! We're headed back to Bentham

I don't know how Austrian this is. I bet it probably isn't very Lionel Robbins-ish. He, after all, said "every mind is inscrutable to every other, and no common denominator of feeling is possible." If he's right, then measuring happiness is ridiculous. Maybe you think so, too.

My dissertation at the LSE was on the economics of happiness. Somewhere along the way I guess I was convinced that we could measure happiness or, at least, give a 'good enough' account of it. And, since some prominent economists--especially Richard Layard who let me use a manuscript version of his book "Happiness" as I was doing research--are using happiness data to plump for more statism, I thought throwing a wrench into those works would be a good idea.

A synopsis: We're (Westerners) wealthier, healthier, and more educated, but we're no happier than we were 60 years ago. People call this a paradox. They don't really bother too much about the fact that something like 80 per cent of us claim to be 'happy,' which compares favourably with any other non-capitalist nation you care to pick. The solution to the paradox is that, after some point, what matters is relative, not absolute, income. So since the Jones's also have more, none of us are much happier by way of comparison. That's the story.

10 comments:

  1. Anonymous5:44 PM

    Check with Buddha on this idea. Some of the stoics and early christians were onto it also.

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  2. Yeah, no doubt, but now we have some empirical evidence to bolster it. That's news, even if the idea isn't.

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  3. Anonymous5:56 PM

    Is a "happiness" poll really meaningful? How do we know that answer a Laotian gives as to how happy he is has any meaningful relation to that of some Bulgarian? How do we even know how the answers of two Bulgarians relate? Maybe one means by "happy" that he didn't off himself today, while another means he is having the best time of his life.

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  4. woody6:48 PM

    It doesn't matter what they say about current conditions.

    Unless you get vaporized by a nuke or nicely doped up in a hospice, all the planning, careful living, and material confort you accumulate comes to naught. It's inevitable that most of us will leave this earth kicking, screaming, depressed... a miserable bag of pain.

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  5. I sympathize with annonymous' skepticism, but studies have shown that the words tend to be stable across different linguistic communities, and even different cultures. The case of Switzerland is interesting, since they have three different linguistic communities, but interpret the questions similarly.

    Of course, you have to treat like with like, and people are NOT comparing significantly different cultures on the same measures. Instead, we can easily compare Canadians with Americans with Brits with the French with the Belgians and so on. To be sure, there might be differences, but the data is also correlated with other measures (like, through neurobiology, activity in the left prefrontal cortex).

    Skepticism is warranted, but not as much as all that. The measures seem 'good enough' for our purposes, and what I mean by 'happiness' is relevantly similar to what you probably mean by 'happiness,' so long as you are reading this blog, you are probably in an area where the words overlap significantly enough.

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