OK, I am being completely unfair, I just wanted to get your attention. The blog New Economist pointed me to a couple of posts by what it calls “the always readable Cato Institute gadfly Will Wilkinson” on the subject of happiness research. He finds most of it to be lousy.
I have no doubt he is correct. Most research is lousy (I happen to be one of those weirdos who actually reads Medline, and I am staggered at what passes for medical research). And the happiness/well-being area is hamepered by first, being a new field, and second, having to build on psychology, a discipline whose underpinnings I find dubious (the famous post-Jungian James Hillman co-authored an article whose title says it all: “One Hundred Years of Psychotherapy and the World’s Getting Worse”).
But the reason I am inclined to indulge this line of inquiry is the world needs a counterbalance to the market fundamentalism that is ascendant in public policy and popular imagination, at least in America. Policies that might help the poor or the elderly or the otherwise disadvantaged are decried because they interfere with so-called free markets. If any of these people who were so enthusiastic about markets every lived in a real market (a Wall Street firm, a commodities brokerage, a trading pit), they’d be considerably less romantic. An unregulated market is a brawl, and regulated markets are merely ruthless.
I am always suspicious when people affiliated with a place like the Cato Institute take issue with research on happiness, simply because that work threatens the ascendancy of eocnomists. One finding of a number of happiness studies is that, beyond a certain level of income (and not a high level at all, just having one’s basic needs met plus a buffer for bad times) more money does not make you happier. That is at odds with a fundamental assumption of modern policy, which is that economic growth is always good, and more economic growth is better. But policies that promote more rapid growth often lead to disruptive change and job losses. So if the gains to the many (in terms of happiness) of faster growth are dubious, and the costs to the few are high (losing one’s job is traumatic, and protracted unemployment often leads to depression), then maybe we need to rethink our economic policies in terms of greater social good. That in essece is what the well-being debate is about, so it’s easy to see why economists have a vested interest in opposing it.
Similarly, one of the pieces of well-being related work that is considered to be rigorous has found that high income disparity is bad for one’s health. As the Financial Times’ Michael Prowse pointed out:
There are good reasons to believe that policies that promote greater economic inequality – such as budgets that slash top tax rates – cause higher rates of sickness and mortality….
In Britain, these new arguments are most closely associated with Richard Wilkinson, a professor at Nottingham University’s medical school. Wilkinson has spent much of the past two decades painstakingly assembling the evidence for a link between inequality and sickness. But researchers elsewhere, such as Ichiro Kawachi and Bruce Kennedy of the School of Public Health at Harvard University, have independently confirmed many of his claims.
Those who would deny a link between health and inequality must first grapple with the following paradox. There is a strong relationship between income and health within countries. In any nation you will find that people on high incomes tend to live longer and have fewer chronic illnesses than people on low incomes.
Yet, if you look for differences between countries, the relationship between income and health largely disintegrates. Rich Americans, for instance, are healthier on average than poor Americans, as measured by life expectancy. But, although the US is a much richer country than, say, Greece, Americans on average have a lower life expectancy than Greeks. More income, it seems, gives you a health advantage with respect to your fellow citizens, but not with respect to people living in other countries….
Once a floor standard of living is attained, people tend to be healthier when three conditions hold: they are valued and respected by others; they feel ‘in control’ in their work and home lives; and they enjoy a dense network of social contacts. Economically unequal societies tend to do poorly in all three respects: they tend to be characterised by big status differences, by big differences in people’s sense of control and by low levels of civic participation….
Unequal societies, in other words, will remain unhealthy societies – and also unhappy societies – no matter how wealthy they become. Their advocates – those who see no reason whatever to curb ever-widening income differentials – have a lot of explaining to do.
Nevertheless, Wilkinson’s objections have some merit. He takes on a recent paper by David G. Blanchflower and Andrew J. Oswald, “Hypertension and Happiness across Nations,” he takes issue with their notion, “For effective social and economic policies to be designed, it is necessary for policymakers to be able to measure human well-being.”
Human well-being, as opposed to the several dimensions or components of well-being, is pretty much impossible to measure.
Why? Because the specific nature of human well-being is relative to the individual and the components of well-being are diverse and must often be traded against one another.
What does this mean? Let’s start with the relativity of well-being. The achievement of valued aims (meaningful goals, important personal projects, whatever you’d like to call it) is a component of human well-being if anything is. However, the content of valued aims varies from person to person. It follows pretty straightforwardly that the specific requirements of well-being vary from person to person.
The comment says more about him than it does about the validity of the research. Pursuing achievement is a particularly Western construct. It wouldn’t fit a Buddhist notion of well-being. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi says being in a state of flow, meaning engagement, is happiness. It’s not achievement but process.
Wilkinson seems to be opposing the efforts of Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman to find objective ways to measure happiness. From the Economist:
Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist at Princeton University who won the Nobel prize for economics in 2002, reckons people are not as mysterious as less nosy economists supposed. “The view that hedonic states cannot be measured because they are private events is widely held but incorrect,” he and his colleagues argue….They can look into people’s eyes; or better still, their brains. People who confess to feeling happy also grin more than others. And they mean it: they smile with their eyes (a contraction of the orbicularis oculi facial muscles), not just their mouths. People’s self-reports also tally roughly with what electrodes planted on their scalp reveal about the frequency and voltage of electrical waves in their left forebrain, which sparks up when they are feeling good.
Now if someone could find objective measures, that would add great validity to a now seemingly flaky field. But there are other ways to introduce more rigor. Recollection is notoriously slippery; having people keep diaries or logs on an ongoing basis is vastly more accurate.
Wilkinson is correct that there is nevertheless a problem with issue definition. But go back to his initial statement: “Human well-being, as opposed to the several dimensions or components of well-being, is pretty much impossible to measure.” His statement is just as true if you substitue the word “health” for “well-being.” But we soldier on trying to get a better understanding of what health is and how to improve it, despite the lack of a definition of “health.” There’s thus no reason to assume we can’t make considerable progress on understanding and improving well being, despite a lack of consensus on what that means. It just won’t be a very tidy exercise.