Why Did Work Drop Out of the Happiness Calculus?

As we’ve discussed, in the UK there is a move afoot to include the concept of wellbeing in public policy debates. The Brits have recognized that alienation and anomie are on the rise and are willing to discuss whether government can be part of the solution, or at least not part of the problem.

While the question of happiness hasn’t risen to that level of discussion here, one can see signs of increasing interest in understanding what makes people happy (with of course, the aim of then pursuing it programmatically), and a willingness to consider than that might not be the same as maximizing wealth. For example, it has been widely reported that Harvard’s undergraduate popular psychology course is the most popular on campus.

A guest writer Sandwichman on economist Max Sawicky’s blog MaxSpeak makes an important observation: the initial inquiries into happiness (the rigorous ones, not the longstanding philosophical debate over what makes for a good life) started with Max Weber, who was interested in the question of “joy-in-work” versus the consequences of not having that, meaning being unemployed. Some economics writers outside the US, such as Michael Prowse in the UK and Ross Gittins of Australia, have been willing to mention the unmentionable, namely that the pursuit of growth often entails industry restructuring and consolidation, which means job losses, which means unhappiness. Yet unlike some of their predecessors, such as Jeremy Bentham, modern economists define the greater good narrowly, in terms of greater output, and don’t consider social costs.

To MaxSpeak:

Has everyone heard about the “placebo effect” and its comeuppance? For decades clinical trials involved the use of placebos to control for the supposed placebo effect but no one bothered to systematically evaluate the evidence for such an effect. Then in May 2001 the New England Journal of Medicine published a study comparing administration of a placebo with no treatment and finding “placebo had no significant effect on binary outcomes, regardless of whether these outcomes were subjective or objective. .” I would guess that clinical trials continue to routinely use placebos, though, because that’s the way we’ve always done it.

There have been thousands of articles written on the psychology of happiness. Over the past ten years the economics of happiness has become a burgeoning field. What do all those earnest researchers know about the methodological roots of the happiness surveys upon which their speculations are based? Might there be some evidence in that genealogy that researchers have neglected to evaluate? Might “happiness” be as insubstantive a construct as the placebo?

Frankly, the Sandwichman doesn’t know the definitive answers to those questions. Just asking. But he’s doing so because of what appears to be a direct link between a research study conducted by Max Weber with the Verein fur Sozialpolitik in the first decade of the 20th century and the research agenda to measure personal happiness promoted at mid-century by Paul Lazarsfeld. In connection with the earlier study, Weber’s monograph on the “psychophysics of industrial labor” has never appeared in English translation although a questionnaire developed by him has.

The monograph’s influence on Lazarsfeld’s thinking about the importance of measuring subjective attitudes can be gauged from Lazarsfeld’s 1965 article on “Max Weber and Empirical Social Research”, from his comments in the 1950 article, “The Obligation of the 1950 Pollster to the 1984 Historian” and from citations of Weber in the 1933 study of unemployment in Marienthal, Austria on which Lazarsfeld collaborated with Marie Jahoda and Hans Zeisel.

In Survey Research in the United States: Roots and Emergence 1890-1960 Jean Converse credits Lazarsfeld with having put “the measurement of personal happiness on the research agenda.” The curious thing about this surveyed happiness, though, is that somewhere between Marienthal and the National Opinion Research Center, work — or more precisely joy-in-work (or despair in unemployment) — fell out of the equation. Those matters were the impetus for Weber’s study and the Marienthal investigation. Incidentally, Lazarsfeld’s co-investigator at Marienthal, Jahoda, had previously published a book titled Arbeitsfreude, Kapitalismus, Arbeiterbewegung (“Joy in work, capitalism, workers’ movement”).

It should be noted that there were compelling historical, political, anthropological and analytical reasons for placing the subjective experience of work/unemployment at the center of the VfS and Marienthal studies. Were their any comparably compelling reasons for displacing work to the periphery of the modern happiness survey enterprise? Or did “subjective happiness” simply become an unevaluated placebo for the stong medicine of joy-in-work?

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. Joseph

    I am neither an economist nor an academic by training, but I would very much like to learn who has studied and discussed the tendency of the market economy to produce unsatisfying, stultifying, and/or noxious work? Of course there has always been a lot of such work, at least among humans who have made the transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture, and beyond; but capitalism, with its regimentation, with its intensive application of the principle of the division of labor, with its dedication to the extraction of the maximum economic value from every unit of the laborer’s time on the job, and finally with its complete theoretical and practical disregard for the notion of work as creative and expressive activity, must be acknowledged beyond question as extremely ingenious and prolific in the creation of what can be fairly called “noxious work”. This ought to be addressed as something distinct from questions of social equity and distribution, although those questions are relevant.

    Probably none of that needed to be said in order to motivate my inquiry. I know for instance that Adam Smith in his famous example of the pin factory pointed out not only the gains in efficiency due to the division of labor, but also the “gains” in the creation of what I am calling noxious work — in this case the stultifyingly tedious and physically painful dedication of the laborer’s work life to a single repetitive task. And Malthus in turn wrote probingly of the detriment to the well-being of workers who moved from the “healthful” and tradition-bound sphere of work in the countryside to the crowded and regimented indoor work of the new factories. But I don’t know who has pursued these kinds of questions in any depth and detail since.

    So, again, my question is: who has notably examined and discussed the tendency of the market economy to produce unsatisfying, stultifying, injurious, etc. work, “noxious” work?

  2. Yves Smith

    I wish I had a simple answer for your very good question. In general, the degredation of work is a result of the Industrial Revolution. In grossly simplistic terms, before then, people were either farmers, merchants, aristocrats, clergy, soldiers, or craftsmen. Even being a farmer on poor land was likely to be preferable to factory labor. You had more control and worked outdoors. So I would look to nineteenth century writers first. One place to start is Friedrich Engel’s classic The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844. You can order it at Amazon.

    I also did a quick Google search and found an interesting paper: “Happiness, life satisfaction and the role of work” http://melbourneinstitute.com/hilda/Biblio/wp/Dockery11.pdf
    I am not at all surprised that it is from Australia. For the most part, people in that country still have their priorities straight.

    If you learn anything, do let me know!

Comments are closed.