Τετάρτη, Οκτωβρίου 18, 2006

On Happiness

It is interesting to follow the emerging new paradigm of behavioral economics and its work on happiness. Lots of arrogance (“the future of economics”) combined with feel-good theories like “average income does not correlate with the level of happiness in the society so it is not important”. The subsequent suggestion is that governments should care less about wealth.

Hmmm…

I agree with all the research that happiness is relative; basically we tend to define our level of happiness by comparing our situation with the people around us. This explains why people in the richer countries do not feel happier than people in poor countries.
But this cannot mean that the level of wealth makes no difference. Just ask a Swiss citizen how indifferent he would be to the prospect of becoming an average citizen of Albania.

Most importantly, (and I haven’t seen this in any relevant research or paper) we all use internal happiness benchmarks from our past. That means that extreme happiness almost requires some unhappiness in the past to function as a memory benchmark. For example, coming from a very poor family and becoming rich means more happiness than coming from a rich family and remaining rich, independent of the people around us.
And that is a big argument that money actually CAN make u happier, as long as you manage to change your life.

But my biggest problem with all this new “happiness paradigm” is that I believe that happiness is overrated.

Who would you prefer to be? An unhappy Alexander the Great or a happy junkie (with guaranteed endorphins, the neurotransmitters that make us happy), Aldus Huxley style? Look at the most important people in the human history, our childhood heroes: Napoleon, Pericles, Socrates, Jesus, Julius Caesar, Martin Luther King, Galileo, Columbus, van Gogh etc. How many of these you think would score high on a current happiness test?

The truth is that happiness as defined in all these papers doesn’t mean that much. Ask all these people that choose to suffer and can go to jail for their ideas, are willing to sacrifice their lives for their families or countries. For them the feelings of purpose, sacrifice for a moral end, making history, devotion to people or ideas, are all more important than bliss.

Even from a historical-evolutionary perspective, we see that societies that were rather relaxed and happy didn’t produce much and eventually disappeared: China, the world’s powerful nation in the 15th century entered a peaceful decadence until the sudden wakeup of the 19th century (after a handful of Europeans beat it). Ancient Greece, with its constant and bloody wars excelled; nothing comparable happened in the happier post-Alexander Hellenistic era. Contrast the peaceful Europe in Middle Ages with the turbulent Europe after Renaissance.

Men are not made to be happy. They are meant to be restless, strive for happiness, struggle for improvement, setting higher standards, expand the boundaries. In that context, happiness is far from the ultimate end of human life. Personally, I prefer the feeling of achievement with its many unhappy sacrifice requirements.

8 σχόλια:

Ανώνυμος είπε...

Um... I think you're off the mark in a number of points.

Sure, behavioral economics is rather annoying in its happy-go-lucky optimism on a number of issues, perhaps even this one.

But your decomposition of these effects isn't sound.

Yes, we do need a reference point to be happy. But reference points readjust. People always want more, and always compare.

People who become rich coming from a poor background aren't happy. They're happy they're not poor anymore, but that doesn't mean they're happy.

An ex of mine recently landed a $150k+ job. She was at a party, with lots of doctors. They were all bitching about how they only make circa $300k, and how poor they feel compared to their trader friends making $700k+.

Would they want to get a $30k job? (Somewhat higher than the median US income if I'm not mistaken.) Of course not. Are they happy with their $300k? Not necessarily.

Plus let's not go nuts here. Happiness isn't overrated. Happiness is happiness. It's different from progress.

Should we pursue happiness or progress? That's a value judgement. I think most people would go with happiness. Besides, society doesn't need everyone to suffer to progress. We only needed one Napoleon, one Alexander the Great, one Einstein, one Gates, etc.

Think about Gates by the way. He started out all rough and aggressive. Once he had kids, he changed Microsoft. He realized he was driving people too hard, and that allowing people more time with their families would make them more productive. Or was just the right thing to do, I don't know what he was thinking.

Anyway, bottom line happiness is of course important. Some people become happy by climbing the corporate success ladder. Sometimes, like Napoleon, these people are the least happy of all. Constantly moving their reference points, constantly seeking something more, something better. Society needs those people. But that doesn't mean other people can't be happy at the same time.

libertarian είπε...

You judge the things that bring happiness not happiness itself. The end is always pleasure or minimizing suffering. What you are saying is that the happiness that comes from doing something and achiving it is greater than the happines that drugs can provide you.

Of course not all pleasures leed us to happiness and we should judge them before satisfying them. A drunkard may get pleasure for a while but in the end he always gets more suffering than pleasure by satisfying his desire to drink very much (he looses his job, his family, he has health problems, he feels most of the time like a wreck etc).

I 'm not so sure that being van Gogh or Galileo makes you more happier than the average guy of a western country. A guy that becomes a father may feel a greater happiness than Thomas Edison when he made a great discovery.

Last night I made a hack (without having a soldering iron!) so that my gfx card can output color image when it's connected to the tv with a super video cable + scart and I was jumping around like a crazy (I was trying to fix it all night long) but I could get a greater feeling of happiness if that chick with the deep blue eyes I saw in the club came to my table :-P I believe that the things that bring us pleasure are subjective so you may or you may not get a greater pleasure by achieving something than some other thing that you did nothing or little to make it happen.

Bottom line eudaimonia is not overrated, it's not just important, it's the end that makes us act.

"Ask all these people that choose to suffer and can go to jail for their ideas, are willing to sacrifice their lives for their families or countries. For them the feelings of purpose, sacrifice for a moral end, making history, devotion to people or ideas, are all more important than bliss."

He goes to jail exactly because he would feel miserable if he betrayed his ideas, he sacrifices his life for his family exactly because he thinks that a life without them would be unbearable. We do not act only to achieve pleasure but also to avoid a greater suffering. I'm not saying that we are calculators and we're saying hmmm life would be sh*t if my kid dies so I prefer giving him my x organ and die. It's automatic. If we didn't feel happy if our kid is healthy or miserable if he dies then we would have no motive to act.

Anyway as I said in your blog these papers are wrong, happiness is rising, money can buy happiness :P

S G είπε...

"Yes, we do need a reference point to be happy. But reference points readjust. People always want more, and always compare."

actually Kahneman and Tversky showed this so well that it (among other things) earned Kahneman a Nobel prize.

in general i agree with Kostis. The only thing, i am not sure napoleon was good for us :-)

No, seriously, if we believe the prospect theorists, more money could probably readjust your status quo in the medium term, so you are not much happier. but less money will always make you feel like shit...

Chrysotheras είπε...

...interesting debate folks, but happiness is just ...happiness!

I'm afraid you cannot dissect happiness and put under a microscope or crush and pulverise it in a grinder and try to distill its essence...

You can try all sorts of ersatz or substitutes (yes money helps but not quite enough..) only to discover that the real Macoy eludes you!

But happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. Happiness cannot be sought, it must be found indirectly.
Happiness chased is an ever-receding horizon...

So, just...relax eh!
(aint life a b!#ch)

Ανώνυμος είπε...

The theories of happiness may be very useful in shedding light into the abyss of the leftist soul. They never have enough money, the rich are always getting richer and the poor are getting poorer, they are always discriminated against, never appreciated enough and so it goes, and it is the State's responsibility to fix all that. I think Ayn Rand illustrated this irrationality very well in some of her fiction books. Perhaps she would have been interested to hear the current theories. I don't know what causes the shift in our happiness reference point, if it is the result of the evolutionary process or some "microchip" installed in us by some intelligent designer. But being aware of the fact may help us become happier, for it may prompt us to question, when we are having a "Life's a bitch and then you die" kinda day, whether it is our consciousness or our genetics speaking. Maybe then we can re-direct our thought to all the good things we do have!

S G είπε...

"I don't know what causes the shift in our happiness reference point, if it is the result of the evolutionary process or some "microchip" installed in us by some intelligent designer"

well I think in part it is just plain mechanics of the human body! Happiness is the effect of some hormone in the brain. This effect is bounded, it can always reach a saturation point. The same applies for some unhappiness hormones. Saturation leads you probably to a new reference point.

Ανώνυμος είπε...

I'd suggest you read the famous debate about happiness between Solon from Athens and Kiros the king of Persia.

"Personally, I prefer the feeling of achievement with its many unhappy sacrifice requirements. " the feeling of acheivement is happiness. Acheivement can be anything from a scientific breakthrough to finding a new girlfriend. Actually the higher the unhappy sacrifice requirements the happier you will feel.

- Can money buy you happiness? It depends on what your goals are. If buying a Porsche makes you happy ,then yes money is vital.
If being with a certain person makes you happy then money is not the most important thing.
-Can an Albanian be happier than a Swiss? Why not?

Ανώνυμος είπε...

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