Each Person Is the Best Judge of What Will Make Him Happy?

"[The] finding [of Frey and Stutzer] was seemingly straightforward: the longer the [commuting] drive the less happy people were. Before you dismiss this is numbingly obvious, keep in mind that they were testing not for drive satisfaction, but for life satisfaction. So their discovery was not the commuting hurt. It was that people were choosing commutes that made their entire lives worse. They simply were not balancing the hardship of a long commute with pleasures in other areas of their lives -- not through higher incomes nor through lower costs or greater enjoyment of their homes." -- Charles Montgomery, Happy City, pp. 82-83


  1. There is a faulty inference here. People who have long commutes have them because of some trade off: a shorter commute would mean paying more for housing, or worse neighborhood schools, etc. It's easy to see why people who don't face the same trade off for whatever reason might be happier than those who do. It doesn't follow that those who do face the trade off would be better off if they made the other choice. It's probably the case that people with swimming pools are happier than people without them. That hardly means that I would be happier if I emptied my saving account to have a pool installed.

    1. The people who did the study are professional economists: they are not going to miss the fact that people make trade offs! Look at their paper:
      What they first show is that we would expect, if people are judging these things correctly, is that people with longer commutes ought to be, on the whole, happier. Instead they are unhappier.

      They did their homework here.

  2. This assumes that people work only to gain an increase in immediate satisfaction. That's not the case.

    A person may take a job with a commute because of their family members gain satisfaction at the expense of their own personal satisfaction. This is an obligation, real or imagined.

    A person may take a job with a commute in order to save money for retirement, or because it improves their career prospects in the future (losing satisfaction now in order to gain satisfaction later). A satisfaction survey wouldn't capture that reasoning.

    A person may take a job with a commute with the plan of moving closer once XYZ falls into place. In the meantime they are less satisfied.

    In all these cases, the person may be fully aware that they are costing themselves satisfaction while still making the rational decision all else considered.

    But even if I accept the conclusions at face value....

    1). I would be willing to bet that most commuters don't do so for very long. Meaning even if they aren't making a good decision, the soon correct it (either by moving closer or taking a different job - both of which may have been a part of their plan).

    2). Finally, just because somebody makes a good decision, it doesn't imply that they are not the best judge. Certainly the study doesn't claim that ALL commuters are less happy than ALL non-commuters. No, some are more happy and some are less happy, it's just that more are in the latter category. How is a hypothetical outsider to know which is which?

    1. "This assumes that people work only to gain an increase in immediate satisfaction."

      Not at all. "Taking care of my kids" should enter into my overall happiness, right?

      " How is a hypothetical outsider to know which is which?"

      Nothing was said here about what some outsider might know.

  3. Gene,

    You're right. My bad.


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