ACCUMULATING PERIPHERALS


A concise statement of my beef with happiness research by mattsteinglass
July 24, 2008, 2:24 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

I’ve just read the first half of Will Wilkinson’s paper on happiness research for the Cato Institute, at his recommendation, and I think I have a more concise statement of my problem with the field, which is that I think it will always find that the happiest population of subjects are those who at the moment of being surveyed are in the process of overdosing on heroin.

I loved the paper by Anna Wierzbicka that Will references on the linguistic indeterminacy of the concept of “happiness”, which lays out an impossible range of differences between the French, Russian, Polish, and American terms for “happiness” and their social constructions.

I do however have two problems with Will’s views on happiness research. The first is that he states at the opening of his paper that his goal is to ascertain whether, as some happiness researchers claim, egalitarian European-style social democracies really are better at promoting general happiness than inegalitarian American laissez-faire liberalism. I’m afraid I didn’t doubt for an instant that a paper written for the Cato Institute would find that the happiness researchers are wrong and America is better at promoting happiness than Europe. A framework that did not involve such a national contest (one that implicitly tests the central tenets of libertarian ideology) would have avoided the suggestion of tendentiousness. But I understand that may be why he got interested in the subject in the first place, and that kind of thing is to some extent unavoidable.

But the second problem is a little heavier. When he’s arguing against contentions that European societies are happier than America’s, Will argues strongly against the coherence of a singular notion of “happiness” that could be an object of scientific happiness research. But then, in his post from last week on the Newsweek article suggesting having kids doesn’t make people happier, Will seems to accept the validity of happiness research without demurral. He suddenly falls silent on all of the extremely powerful and persuasive arguments he’s cited that people’s self-reports of “happiness” are influenced by time factors, by social conventions regarding appropriate self-presentation, and by linguistic factors, all of which differ in non-random fashions across different population groups. Why reject happiness research when it tends to favor European social systems over the American one, but accept happiness research when it tends to support the decision not to have kids?

For example, someone following Anna Wierzbicka might argue that research showing having kids doesn’t make Americans happier is actually showing that America is not a family-friendly society. Or they might argue that such research is showing that self-reports of non-happiness are socially unacceptable for childless Americans, but become socially acceptable for American parents because the status of parenthood carries a superior moral and social status and an aura of self-sacrifice that legitimates complaints. A group of new parents standing around talking about their miserable sleep routines might well score exceedingly low on a happiness questionnaire, even though each member of the group was in fact quite happy, and in fact their claims of greater suffering may be attempts to claim social privilege and not reliable claims of unhappiness. This behavioral effect, in which self-reports of suffering are not actually signs of unhappiness but claims to superior moral standing, ought to be familiar to any researcher who has a mother.

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5 Comments so far
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Matt, Great post! A couple reactions…

“I’m afraid I didn’t doubt for an instant that a paper written for the Cato Institute would find that the happiness researchers are wrong and America is better at promoting happiness than Europe.”

I didn’t find that, since it’s not my finding. The literature generally says that the U.S. does slightly better than the large Western European state and slightly worse than the Scandinavian states. A lot of people were saying that the U.S. has some kind of happiness problem and that’s demonstrably false. I thought it worthwhile to set the record straight.

“But then, in his post from last week on the Newsweek article suggesting having kids doesn’t make people happier, Will seems to accept the validity of happiness research without demurral. He suddenly falls silent on all of the extremely powerful and persuasive arguments he’s cited that people’s self-reports of “happiness” are influenced by time factors, by social conventions regarding appropriate self-presentation, and by linguistic factors, all of which differ in non-random fashions across different population groups.”

Good point. My assumption is that all the cultural biases point in the direction of being pro-family, pro-kid, which is what I think makes the result so striking. Also, a number of these studies are done using experience sampling methods, which are a lot better than global surveys. Anyway, do you disagree with that assumption that American norms tilt toward putting an especially happy face on family and kids? Do you really think the U.S. is not family friendly? I’d find that a really surprising claim.

Comment by Will Wilkinson

Will, I think American culture has pro-natalist tendencies in a kind of obligatory sense. But I don’t think you can translate that into saying the US is “family friendly” in comparison to other societies. You’d have to compare about a million different factors, and my personal anecdotal experience doesn’t support that claim.

Anecdotally, the number one sense in which the US is not family-friendly is the problematic public schooling, which has such high variance in quality. Relatively high confidence in the quality of public schools in the Netherlands means that anxiety over getting your kid into the right public school or paying for the right private one is significantly lower. The number two issue is the acceptability of letting your kids run around on their own — the attitude towards public space, basically. Parents in Brookline, MA don’t let their seven-year-olds walk five blocks to school. That seems crazy to me. I think parenting is theoretically granted moral status in American society, but I also think it’s increasingly enveloped in hysterical competitive anxiety and lacks sufficient support from formal or informal social institutions.

But, again, I’d also put a lot of emphasis on that issue of the meaning of self-reports of suffering. Parents overstate the degree to which they suffer for their kids because suffering for kids is seen as morally worthy.

Comment by mattsteinglass

Hi Matt.

When you say that “I think it will always find that the happiest population of subjects are those who at the moment of being surveyed are in the process of overdosing on heroin”, your beef is with happiness surveys of subjects, not with happiness research.

Interestingly, Maclean’s Magazine ran a cover story on how much better off Canadians ae than Americans in a number of areas known to affect happiness, including the number of hours worked, the number of hours spent with friends, monetary wealth, crime rates (actually crime in the two countries was on par overall, but violent crime higher in the USA), and a number of other indicators that escape my memory. The point is that this survey compared indicators that are known to have a correlation with happiness. The only big one they missed was faith in God, which I suspet would have given Americans the edge.

I am not saying that such reearch gives the most definitive and absolutely quantifiable results, but I do think it can be valuable nonetheless.

David Leonhardt.

Comment by David Leonhardt happiness

[…] at the Accumulating Peripherals blog, there is a discussion on the pros and cons of happiness research.  Matt offers explains his beef with happiness research and I have commented also on the […]

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[…] at the Accumulating Peripherals blog, there is a discussion on the pros and cons of happiness research.  Matt offers explains his beef with happiness research and I have commented also on the […]

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