Thursday, May 03, 2007

Happiness and Forecasting

I like the WSJ way more than more self-styling progressives. Perhaps a lot more.
I ran across the following article yesterday, which makes an excellent point--that increasing wealth and "prosperity" have yielded no increase in happiness over the last 30 years. I wonder why they chose 30 years as the benchmark (i suppose it could be cherry picked) but the point is intuitively compelling. The writer surveys a pair of common explanations pitched by academics who study this stuff. [btw i have an article talking about consumption, values, and happiness coming out in a volume on contemporary ethics by Dorff and Newman].

anyways, here is that WSJ article:


No Satisfaction: Why What
You Have Is Never Enough
May 2, 2007; Page D1

We may have life and liberty. But the pursuit of happiness isn't going so well.

[Getting Going]

As a country, we are richer than ever. Yet surveys show that Americans are no happier than they were 30 years ago. The key problem: We aren't very good at figuring out what will make us happy.

We constantly hanker after fancier cars and fatter paychecks -- and, initially, such things boost our happiness. But the glow of satisfaction quickly fades and soon we're yearning for something else.

Similarly, we tell our friends that our kids are our greatest joy. Research, however, suggests the arrival of children lowers parents' reported happiness, as they struggle with the daily stresses involved.

Which raises the obvious question: Why do we keep striving after these things? Experts offer two explanations.

We aren't built to be happy. Rather, we are built to survive and reproduce. We wouldn't be here today if our ancestors didn't struggle mightily to protect and feed their families. The promise of happiness, meanwhile, is just a trick to jolly us along.

"This is an incentive scheme for the benefit of our genes," argues Boston money manager Terry Burnham, co-author of "Mean Genes." "It's a very fundamental trick that's played on us, this lure of perpetual bliss."

Don't like the idea that we're hoodwinked by some hard-wired set of ancient instincts? Blame it, instead, on societal beliefs.

Working hard and raising children may not make us happier. But these beliefs keep society functioning -- and those who embrace them prosper and end up passing these values onto their children.

We're bad at forecasting. Consider a study by academics Daniel Kahneman and David Schkade.

They asked university students in the Midwest and Southern California where they thought someone like themselves would be happier -- and both groups picked California, in large part because of the better weather. Yet, when asked how satisfied they were with their own lives, both groups were equally happy.

"When you're thinking about moving to California, you're thinking about the beaches and the weather," says Mr. Schkade, a management professor at the University of California at San Diego. "But you aren't thinking about the fact that you'll still be spending a lot of time in the grocery store or doing chores. People emphasize differences that are easy to observe ahead of time and forget about the similarities."

When we predict what will make us happy, we're also influenced by how we feel today. If we buy the weekly groceries just after we've had lunch, we will shop much more selectively. The downside: A few days later, we will be staring unhappily into an empty refrigerator.

Maybe most important, we fail to anticipate how quickly we will adapt to improvements in our lives. We think everything will be wonderful when we move into the bigger house. We don't realize that, after a few months, we will take the extra space for granted.

Experience should help us avoid repeating such mistakes. But it doesn't, in part because we don't accurately recall how we really felt, says Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert, author of "Stumbling on Happiness."

One example: We work devilishly hard to get that next promotion, because we're sure it will leave us elated. We forget that, when we last got promoted, it was a bit of a letdown.

With any luck, just knowing we are susceptible to these pitfalls will help.

But you might also try a reality check, Prof. Gilbert says. Suppose you think you will be happier if you move to a small rural town, adopt a child, or quit your job and become a high-school math teacher.

Don't rely on the opinions of people who live in small towns, have adopted kids or become teachers. Instead, spend some time observing these folks -- and see whether they're happy.

Becoming a teacher "sounds quite romantic," Prof. Gilbert says. "But hanging around high-school math teachers may quickly disabuse you of that notion."

I am hoping to have time to respond more fully but suspect I won't. So here's the quick version:
  • The article is right that, for the most part, material consumption is not happiness creating
  • The things which do create happiness, meaning, community, etc, are undervalued
  • If one is interested in being happy, living beneath your means, choosing work you care about, finding people who share your values, and investing in community are likely to move you in that direction.


At 5/05/2007 , Blogger Eli said...

Thanks Zach for the WSJ article!

I spend a lot of time thinking about (a) am I happy? (b) why not? (c) can I be happy and unhappy at the same time? (d) is happiness my goal in life?

This is where I start sermonizing about things you already know. We've got two kinds of nouns in ethics: the right and the good. The right encompasses duties, obligations, and responsibilities; and the good encompasses happiness, health, community, meaning, progeny, and the virtues. The point of the right is to pursue the good, but to do that, we've got to figure out what the good actually is. Some people think of it as money. Health professionals tend to assume it's health. It's fine that people put the emphasis on different syllables, but we don't acknowledge this diversity very well. Instead, we subsume everything under a single term: happiness.

Maybe it's a mistake to evaluate our life projects by whether they generate "happiness." I don't understand happiness very well, and all this thinking about "am I happy?" may very well be making me, well, unhappy.

At 5/05/2007 , Blogger Eli said...

Excited to see your article!

At 5/09/2007 , Blogger ZT said...

Yitz Greenberg once told me that "if you look for happiness, it will elude you. Happiness is the by-product of living a meaningful life."
i tend to think he is correct. money doesn't make people happy once they are eating and sleeping regularly. bling doesn't create happiness nor do most kinds of status.
spend less energy on those things and more on family, community, and doing work you care about. sounds like a version of your argument dr. braun.


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