Measuring Happiness

Will Wilkinson reports on the inconsistencies of a happiness researcher. At a seminar presentation on this sort of "data" at LSE, I commented that treating any such subjectively chosen "measures" of happiness, health, well-being, etc., as if they were real, physical measurements that could be statistically analyzed is scientifically on the same level as asking people if various objects moved "slowly," "moderately," "somewhat fast," or "shit-kicking fast," assigning an arbitray number to each answer, and then trying to formulate a science of dynamics based on those numbers.

I believe that the majority of social science "data" are examples of social scientists wishfully imagining that dealing in such meaningless "quantities" can raise the status of their discipline to that accorded the physical sciences. For example, Will critically notes that Oswald, his target, admits: "The key point is that we do not know the shape of the function relating ‘reported happiness’ to actual happiness. This is a serious problem when researchers try to make statements about the curvature of relationships — though not as serious when we talk, as most of the happiness literature does, about the direction of relationships."

But Will implicitly accepts the idea that there is some "function" determinately mapping reported happiness to actual happiness, and that there are meaningful ways to quantitatively measure either. Since 'happiness' is not a physical magnitude but a culturally defined concept, I humbly suggest that there is no way to coherently measure it at all. Consider, for instance, three hypothetical respondents to a survey conducted by a "happiness scientist." For one of them, happiness means thinking that she has helped "God's will be done" in the world. For the second, it means having achieved material plenty. For the third, "happiness" consists in having scored with many potential sexual partners. If each of them rates their happiness as "7" on a scale of one to ten, why in the world should we believe that "7" represents a scientific, objective measure of anything?

But hey, maybe I'm just overly anal about these things.


  1. Anonymous11:11 PM

    "Remember, there's a big difference between kneeling down and bending over." Frank Zappa

    I was shopping in Costco tonight, and it was my contention that 200 blank DVDs were worth $49 (including taxes) to me. While checking out, I was informed by the cashier that my coupon was invalid because the manufacturer had changed the SKU. Though the SKU I desired was in stock, they explained that a different discount applied and that it would "only" cost me any extra dollar? I said, "Oh, what's a dollar?" I extended my hand to the cashier and added, "So why don't you give me a dollar?" I noticed that I had put the woman in a nonplus, so I just took the beating. When it’s my dollar it’s nothing… I understand.

    The neoclassicals might have some pat explanations for my behavior, but I went a little further.

    Near the exit was the return counter. I returned the DVDs in exchange for cash. I had originally paid with my American Express card, which gives me a 1% rebate on all purchases. I never carry a balance, so never pay a carrying penalty. (Gee, could we set up a multi-trillion dollar trade like this?) I returned to the sales floor and purchased the appropriate SKU.

    Though the purchasing power of a dollar is pretty meaningless to me, a dollar is still useful to keep score. For trying to beat me, Costco gets to pay some fool to restock the item, some clerk to do the accounting, and probably lost an hour of labor because of all the chit-chat about that "asshole returning the disks."

    I’m quite happy with the results of these exchanges, though the extra $1.50 in my pocket hardly quantifies my satisfaction. The best part is that Costco believes I’m an unsatisfied customer. [Reported] I’m giddy! [Actual] How’s that for being anal?

  2. That was me, above, butterfingers... I'd just hate to post anonymously.


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