Left Behinds

The anti-andrewsullivan.com. Or, the Robin Hood (Maid Marian?) of bright pink Blogger blogs.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Happiness Is

For The Nation's Katrina Vanden Heuvel, happiness is luxuriating on the beach in Rio (don't worry, in the comments I called her out for this limousine liberal moment). But "don't you think that the very idea of quantifying happiness threatens it?" asks Katrina, ingenuously.

Well, she kind of stumbled onto an interesting question. Economic theory is predicated on quantifying happiness (you can't maximize a personal utility function without a working quantitative definition of happiness). There's a whole literature in the philosophy of economics about the implications of how one quantifies happiness (my ex, for instance, wrote her dissertation about how to include non-traditional pleasures (such as aesthetic pleasure) into economic definitions of utility, which let's face it is just the most adorable dissertation topic ever). Suffice to say, it's a highly controversial and politically loaded question.

In the New Yorker this week, there's a very good review by John Lanchester of two books about the history and science of happiness.

The review is largely concerned with "positive psychology," which is the scientific study of the psychology and brain chemistry of happiness. There's a certain amount of question-begging in the review (since I haven't read the books, I can't judge if they make the same mistake). Lanchester, at least, argues that the science of happiness relies on people's reports of feeling happy, which to a certain extent presumes the conclusion in the premise. However, setting aside that critique, there are some intriguing results.

One observation not unfamiliar to economists is that
People living in poverty become happier if they become richer—but the effect of increased wealth cuts off at a surprisingly low figure. The British economist Richard Layard, in his stimulating book “Happiness: Lessons from a New Science,” puts that figure at fifteen thousand dollars, and leaves little doubt that being richer does not make people happier.

This contradicts common sense ideas about happiness, but it is not really groundbreaking (aside from the very low threshold number).

More surprisingly, Lanchester describes a study intended to get around memory's distortion of how we felt as we were feeling our feelings.
The study showed that people were most content when they were experiencing what Csikzentmihalyi called “flow”—in Haidt’s definition, “the state of total immersion in a task that is challenging yet closely matched to one’s abilities.” We are at our happiest when we are absorbed in what we are doing; the most useful way of regarding happiness is, to borrow a phrase of Clive James’s, as “a by-product of absorption.”

That's a novel result. And I can see why it appealed to a writer at the New Yorker, since it sounds rather like the experience of writerly inspiration.

But it's such a depoliticized definition of happiness. To me, it feels perhaps closer to contentment or a certain kind of pleasure.

What is happiness? Kicking it in Rio with Katrina Vanden Heuval and the Democratic elite? Being immersed in a challenging task? Or could happiness be something unpleasurable? Political action is often difficult, nasty, and/or boring, but I can't imagine being truly happy if I felt like I was just selfishly pursuing my own short-term pleasure. Believe me, I've tried, and it's not so satisfying.

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  • At 4:54 PM, Blogger Antid Oto said…

    Is that $15,000 a year? Starting from a baseline of what? $0? People are happier as soon as they start earning $15,000 a year? that seems unlikely. Or is it just as soon as they have $15,000 in the bank in permanent assets?

  • At 5:55 PM, Blogger Solomon Grundy said…

    No, the idea is that poor people get dramatically happier with every dollar of increased wealth, until they hit $15,000, after which happiness plateaus, and each extra dollar earned has less happiness-generating value.

    The basic idea is that distracting poverty is the only way in which wealth impacts happiness.

    But like I said, the definition of happiness is question-begging, since the whole study relies on how happy people report themselves to be at various wealth levels.

  • At 6:04 PM, Blogger Antid Oto said…

    But until they hit $15,000 per year, or $15,000 in absolute accumulated wealth? There's a very big difference.

  • At 6:09 PM, Blogger Antid Oto said…

    Anyway, do we really need a good quantitative definition of happiness for public policy? It's not like policy interventions are ever crafted with any degree of theoretical precision.

  • At 10:34 PM, Blogger Solomon Grundy said…

    Presumably $15,000 in income, not wealth. But in that income bracket (people who make, say, $9,000 a year) there's not much wealth other than income, anyhow. Well, except for the executives who make $5 a year on-the-books income and sit on $5 katrillion of wealth, but that's not who we're talking about.

    I'll think more about your second question.

  • At 10:38 PM, Blogger Solomon Grundy said…

    Anyhow the basic point is that making money does not affect personal happiness except insofar as it lifts one out of abject poverty. But once you've got your basic needs taken care of, the accumulation of filthy lucre becomes a self-perpetuating cycle that doesn't very significantly affect your happiness no matter how much you make.

    I haven't read the book in question, but I assume that's a national figure. People living off $15,000 in NYC would still be pretty distracted by their poverty.

  • At 7:49 PM, Blogger Phoebe Evergreen said…

    I would think happiness would be more determined by perceived inequality than by absolute wealth or income.

    As for "flow", I'm persuaded by that conclusion. Whether involved in political action or, say, my rather depoliticized hobby of recording or writing music, I recognize that description of some of the single happiest moments of my adult life. In fact, I'd say it even transcends whether the activity was social or not.

    Although maybe you're saying that one must have a great deal of political autonomy to be able to achieve that flow, and that as a str8 white male it's easier for me to achieve a state of "in-the-moment"/Zen/flow happiness without having to worry about the patriarchal cock-boot of the man on my neck.


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