Happiness and unhappiness

by John Q on June 30, 2015

I have a chapter in a newly released book on happiness, extracts of which have been published in The Conversation. My argument, summed up as Measures of happiness tell us less than economics of unhappiness, is a reworking of points I’ve made in the past. In particular, I argue that it’s more useful to think about removing avoidable sources of unhappiness, and that has been the great success of social democracy and the welfare state.



R Cottrell 06.30.15 at 4:44 pm

I thought Bentham was dead.


mbw 06.30.15 at 4:48 pm

Your argument about self-reported happiness vs. income showing saturation because of implicit comparisons doesn’t fit well with Kahneman’s data. Overall reported happiness continues to rise, about logarithmically. It’s the sum of little measures of immediate joy vs. stress that saturates at moderate incomes. You’d expect those immediate sensations to be less based on comparisons than the overall self-evaluations.
Oddly, the life expectancy at age 55 in the U.S. shows a strong association with income, linear in rank, even though the immediate hedonic measures have saturated in the upper deciles and health care quality is not especially income-sensitive in those ranges. It would be interesting to try to tease out the causal patterns.


bianca steele 06.30.15 at 4:57 pm

I appreciate the illustration–now I know what “beach hair” looks like, though apparently it’s been supplanted by a style that’s even more arduous and expensive to attain.


Bloix 06.30.15 at 9:21 pm

From an extraordinary song, “African Gospel” by the Sierra Leone musician S.E. Rogie:

When you wake up in the morning
And you know
You are still alive
Count your blessings and be thankful
Sisters and brothers
Alleluiah amen

Count your blessings,
You are alive
You are healthy
You have enough to eat, enough to drink
You have your companion
Alleluiah amen

To all the refugees and displaced persons around the world, oh,
Take heart and don’t be discouraged
Be cheerful, because
You are alive
To you my brethren
Alleluiah amen.


cassander 07.01.15 at 2:09 am

>and that has been the great success of social democracy and the welfare state

And the capitalism that pays for that social democracy? Let’s give credit where credit is due.


terence 07.01.15 at 2:52 am

“Overall reported happiness continues to rise, about logarithmically.”

Not quite, happiness does seem to satiate, albeit at pretty high levels. It’s life satisfaction that continues to rise log-linearly (which still means major diminishing marginal returns).

See: http://www.pnas.org/content/107/38/16489.full


notsneaky 07.01.15 at 7:48 am

One of the strongest/most robust correlations between these “How happy are you?” questions is in fact (subjective) health – which I at least take to mean that there may be something to this metric, although broadly, I agree with you (I’m also told – and this I don’t really buy – that there’s stuff in “neuro-economics” which confirms the validity of these happiness studies).

I’m also pretty sure that in cross country studies there is a non-satiating, although possibly diminishing, positive associated between absolute income and happiness (or at least, as someone else pointed out above, life satisfaction). It’s the time series for single countries that show up flat. Which, if you think about it for just a minute or two is not that surprising (this also means the whole “Easterlin Paradox”, which is based almost exclusively on time series evidence is just hype/well executed academic marketing). If I tell you today that I will give you 100$ tomorrow, and my promise is perfectly credible (no risk), then I ask you today how happy you are, then come back tomorrow, give you the 100$, then ask you again how happy you are, I should expect roughly the same answer.

As an aside, while it may be true that the welfare state contributes to happiness, another pretty robust finding is that “conservatives” or people who identify as “right wing” do appear to be much happier than others.

There are also pretty significant differences in what makes people happy in developing and developed countries. As a quick example, being “retired” (or “old”) in a poor country sucks. Being “retired” in a rich country – even US – is actually pretty good (maybe that can be chalked up to the welfare state). Aspects related to family or social participation play out differently too.


reason 07.01.15 at 8:00 am

cassander @5
… And those capitalists who try their best to destroy the welfare state – let’s give blame where blame is due!


reason 07.01.15 at 8:04 am

Yep – correct, expectations matter. So do perceptions of risk. Economic security is really, really important. Excessive concern about moral hazard does a lot of damage to overall life satisfaction.


John Quiggin 07.01.15 at 9:42 am

And the capitalism that pays for that social democracy? Let’s give credit where credit is due.

What is this supposed to mean? Of course social democracy has a capitalist component. That doesn’t mean that making it more like US capitalism would improve matters.

another pretty robust finding is that “conservatives” or people who identify as “right wing” do appear to be much happier than others.

Actually, I think the neuro evidence goes the other way. That is, conservatives self-describe as happier, but don’t display the physical correlates of happiness.


oldster 07.01.15 at 11:00 am

“another pretty robust finding is that “conservatives” or people who identify as “right wing” do appear to be much happier”

Wasn’t that the study where they demonstrated that sociopaths are less troubled by the suffering of others? Not that surprising, really.


engels 07.01.15 at 11:05 am

It seems at least plausible to me that conservatives would be happier (in the positive psychology sense) than people with more left-wing views. For example, you’re likely to be happier (in that sense) if you believe that ‘God’s in his heaven and all is right with the world’ than you are if you believe that exploitation and injustice are ubiquitous., if you’re wealthy you’re likely to be if you believe you deserve your wealth than if you doubt this, and in a great many situations if you’re poor you will be happier if you ‘accept your place’ than if you struggle to change it. My impression is that ‘happiness’ psychology, CBT, etc tends to push people towards more conservative belief sets (which might be partly why the British government now wants to put compulsory C-B therapists in job-centres).



engels 07.01.15 at 11:16 am

another pretty robust finding is that “conservatives” or people who identify as “right wing” do appear to be much happier than others

I seem to remember another solid one was believing in God makes you ‘happier’. Opium time!


afeman 07.01.15 at 2:00 pm

Pass the pipe!

One US-centric observation I’ve heard (probably from Doug Henwood) is that USers, when asked how happy people are in general, or around them (I forget exactly which), rate them lower than they rate themselves. This might be because anybody here who isn’t happy is regarded as a loser.


geo 07.01.15 at 2:08 pm

engels: believing in God makes you ‘happier’

“The certainty of a God giving meaning to life far surpasses in attractiveness the ability to behave badly with impunity.” — Albert Camus


Lynne 07.01.15 at 2:14 pm

Engels, the late Christian philosopher, George Grant, once said (paraphrasing) “If your religion doesn’t make you happy, throw it out!”


notsneaky 07.01.15 at 4:08 pm

“Actually, I think the neuro evidence goes the other way. That is, conservatives self-describe as happier, but don’t display the physical correlates of happiness.”

I thought the “conservatives are not really happier than liberals” results were based on the fact that… conservatives smile less and use less positive language. Which seems sort of a goofy criteria (and they criticize economists for not being scientific!). I can see Engels being more right here.

I don’t know about the neuro evidence on this. I’m extremely skeptical of all of this, beginning to end. A lot, if not all but a few, of these studies rely on partial correlations which aren’t robust at all to inclusion of other correlates. They’re – even or especially ones published in non-economic “science” journals, like Science – are sketchy as hell.

That guy (from LSE?) that makes a big deal about there being a U shape between age and happiness was on NPR a few months back. He offered all kinds of high-fallutin’ theories as to why this was the case. You go and actually read the papers and he explicitly says something like “we do not control for other things which may potentially be correlated with age (like income or health – me) that affects happiness because we only want to document a reduced form relationship”… and then he goes on to offer all kinds of high-fallutin’ theories as to why age messes with happiness.

It’s like the medical literature (from the 1960’s? I hope) which found that everything causes cancer because it didn’t control for other factors.


UserGoogol 07.01.15 at 4:29 pm

engels: I think that’s backwards, at least in some important aspects. In broad terms, conservatives think things are getting worse, while progressives think things are getting better, and in that sense progressives have more to be cheery about. Radicals are more inclined to be pessimistic about change (at least until the revolution comes) but the left-of-center at large is pretty mixed between radical cynicism and liberal hope. And as for conservatives, their pessimism doesn’t just apply to the future, it’s pretty standard for them to be pining for some idealized past rather than just being content with the present. Say what you will about the Tea Party, but they’re certainly not pollyannas.

What you say is certainly true to a point; if nothing else, conservatives are more likely to believe in God, and the God they believe in is more likely to be interventionist, but the left-of-center has its own ideals to derive hope from, even if they aren’t divine in nature.


engels 07.01.15 at 4:53 pm

UG, to be clear I meant conservative in the sense of ‘defender of the established order’. The reasoning certainly wouldn’t apply some right-wing currents (eg. white supremacists, free market revolutionaries, people who want to restore Victorian gender roles, etc). I suppose a conservative in my sense can believe the established order is disappearing as we speak and this could make her unhappy but I’d imagine that’s a minority position (but maybe it does include tea party types).


bianca steele 07.01.15 at 4:58 pm

UserGoogol @ 18:

Barbara Ehrenreich has evidence that some churches have incorporated positive thought and “Secret” like attitudes–a paraphrase of one of her examples is something like, “Dear Lord, I know I’ve found favor with this restaurant hostess, and I’m sure You will ask You to lead her to seat me soon.” She does argue that this is unchristian, but she represents herself as an atheist, and at least one of her main informants is a Baptist criticizing Pentecostals, though, so I take that with a grain of salt. (I blogged about her religion chapter here.)


hix 07.01.15 at 5:14 pm

With regards to 12: Yes yes yes. All i would need right now is a freaking internship (mandatory for my degree, last thing to do to finish besides the ba thesis if delayed that part), unpaid even that gets accepted by the Profs. Instead i must have cost thousands of Euros in the last month (there were a couple of stationary weeks, specific advisory for mentally ill job seekers….) and just sit arround unhappy. Mostly the advice was to “pretend to be happy” in interviews about getting a cook cofee unpaid internship, or to “get a positive attitude” because “otherwise ill never get a job” (were speaking about an unpaid 5 month internship).


hix 07.01.15 at 5:17 pm

I might also be able to write coherent sentences at some point. First (-if to ive delayed the intersnhip part of the degree till the end).


Conall Boyle 07.01.15 at 11:24 pm

As part of a research project, I’ve administered a standard ‘Happiness Inventory’ questionnaire to a group of 120 undergrad Econ 101 students. I’ve met and talked to the UK national statisticians at Newport, Wales who developed and applied Prime Minister Cameron’s Big Society idea of measuring overall happiness of UK citizens each year.

And I am deeply unimpressed by the whole shamozzle! OK, improbable though it seems, the method is sound enough. Some of the insights are interesting, some downright banal. So if you are religious, you are likely to be a bit happier; if divorced a bit more miserable. But overall these attributes only account for a tiny (~5%) of an individual’s happiness score. People differ for their own reasons be it upbringing, genes or whatever. The whole National Happiness Survey seems an exercise in extreme fatuousness, and little notice is taken of the results.

What useful work could be done in the ‘happiness’ (or Subjective Well-Being as I’d prefer to call it) field? Taking my cue from the great Dr Deming, what matters is not any comparative level of general happiness. What we all really, really want is to be happIER. I enquired of the statisticians at Newport if they could ask respondents simple questions like: “What small change would make your life a bit better?” Examples might be ‘less litter’ ‘more playgrounds for the kids’.

They were dumbfounded. Their remit was to measure the damn thing, not to look for ways to change it!


John Quiggin 07.02.15 at 8:27 am

@notsneaky I’m not a big fan of any of this stuff, as the linked post suggests. But, if you have to choose a measure of happiness, “smiles a lot” seems less bad than “self-reports happiness of 8”.


UserGoogol 07.02.15 at 9:36 pm

engels @ 19: I think to be a defender of the established order you have to at least to some extent feel like the established order is being attacked. People who think the status quo is just fine the way it is are probably more likely to identify as moderates. And as Corey Robin wrote a whole book about, reactionaryism is just deeply engrained in conservatism, even the ones who aren’t especially extremist about it.


engels 07.02.15 at 10:23 pm

UG, I haven’t read Corey’s book yet. Iirc Roger Scruton defined ‘conservative’ as someone who is opposed to ‘unnecessary change’, that’s all I had in mind. If you’d rather call that ‘moderate’ be my guest. I really don’t think I’ve said anything very controversial but perhaps haven’t been as clear as I might.


notsneaky 07.03.15 at 7:12 am

I don’t know, there might be some correlation between frequency of smiling and “happiness” but to my mind the former has more to do with culture and one’s upbringing – whether you were taught that it’s important to be agreeable and pleasant (this goes even more for this “uses positive words”, whatever those are). Is a stoic person unhappy? Or you’ve got that stereotype of a 1950’s housewife who’s smiling all the time because that’s what “proper ladies” do but is miserable inside.

(this also makes me think of that Japanese guy in Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train)


John Quiggin 07.03.15 at 11:26 am

@notsneaky I think you have this backwards. The view I’ve read is that self-described happiness is much more driven by cultural expectations (eg Christians are saved and should therefore be happy) than are physical manifestations.


hix 07.03.15 at 3:12 pm

Do those studies count fake great smiles in the first place? The great smile aspect would definitly make cross-country comparisons impossible considering how much the social expectations to great smile differ from absolutly mandatory (Japan/China) to undesirable (Russia). Doubt thats an issue when one compares different sub-groubs of US society however. Also pretty sure that within countries where smiling is considered positive but not an absolute must, happy people are also far more likely to fake/semi fake great smile, its pretty damn hard to do when one is rather unhappy.


notsneaky 07.04.15 at 2:29 am

The fact that we can’t even agree on that sort of suggest that both approaches are deeply problematic.


c 07.06.15 at 9:12 am

R Cottrell: “I thought Bentham was dead.”

Actually the longtime mainstream economist thought that Bentham was dead is what is now dead (or undead, still rambling about but in increasing decay). The taboo against interpersonal utility comparisons erected by 20th century economics was a major failure. Tear down this wall!

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