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Happiness studies.

Pleasure is a brain wave right now. Happiness is a good story of your life. The Greek word for happiness is “eudaimonia,” which means literally “having a good guiding angel,” like Clarence the angel in It’s a Wonderful Life. The schoolbook summary of the Greek idea in Aristotle says that such happiness is “the exercise of vital powers along lines of excellence in a life affording them scope. But nowadays there is a new science of happiness, and some of the psychologists and almost all the economists involved want you to think that happiness is just pleasure. Further, they propose to calculate your happiness, by asking you where you fall on a three-point scale, 1-2-3: “not too happy,” “pretty happy,” “very happy.” They then want to move to technical manipulations of the numbers, showing that you, too, can be “happy,” if you will but let the psychologists and the economists show you (and the government) how.

Deirdre N McCloskey, writing about the whole, rather dubious realm of “happiness studies”. The fact that the UK’s paternalistic prime minister, David Cameron, is a fan of this sort of thing does not fill me with confidence.

29 comments to Happiness studies.

  • Snorri Godhi

    Since I cannot comment at McCloskey’s site without registration, I’ll do so here.
    Honest happiness research, far from legitimizing paternalism, provides strong ammunition to minarchists:
    * for equal income, the employed are happier than the unemployed;
    * for equal income, the self employed are happier than dependent workers;
    * happiness does not increase with welfare spending;
    * most important: happiness correlates with economic freedom of a country even after controlling for GDP/person.
    (I might be able to dig up references on request.)

    In short, it is very wrong to see humans as passive recipients of happiness, as Cameron and other paternalists do.

    Add the fact that economic freedom increases happiness by way of increasing GDP, and it becomes impossible for the State to do anything for happiness, except shrinking.

    The problem, of course, is the same as in climatology: only the research that serves to justify the growth of the State gets publicity.

  • Andrew Duffin

    “you, too, can be happy, if you will but let the psychologists and the economists show the government how”

    Why do I have the feeling that this will end in something like “you don’t need more money, or to make any decisions for yourself, you just need to pay more tax and leave it all to the State – it’s for your own good, you know.”

    Be afraid, be very afraid.

  • I’d be happier if I didn’t have a bunch of nannies trying to butt into my life all the time.

  • RAB

    This kind of witless bullshit makes me extremely unhappy.

  • I too sense a statist agenda lurking behind much happiness research – having visibly failed to come up with the material goods compared to the free market, they’ve switched to saying “ah, but we can make you happy.” It is conveniently hard to disprove!

    But Snorri Godhi is right. Being free makes people happy. People prefer not being forced – by definition!

    Charles Murray’s book In Pursuit of Happiness and Good Government looks at what happiness from a libertarian/minarchist viewpoint. Continuing what Snorri Godhi said above, he makes strong arguments that happiness and a sense of purpose cannot be imposed or given by fiat, but are strongly linked to autonomy.

  • ‘Happiness’ is a poor rendering of ‘eudaimonia’ which is usually understood to mean something like ‘flourishing’ and should be read with a little understanding of ancient Greek philosophy to grasp the notion a bit better. It means, rather, living and being the best you can.

  • PersonFromPorlock

    “As for Venice and her people, merely born to bloom and drop,

    “Here on earth they bore their fruitage, mirth and folly were the crop:

    “What of soul was left, I wonder, when the kissing had to stop?

    Robert Browning’s “A Toccata Of Galuppi’s”

  • Edward Smith

    This is probably a less than proper way to do this, but this is a good site, and I suspect that many who come to Samizdata might enjoy the interviews on it … and I’ve not yet figured out a better to way to reach out to all y’all.


    Russ Roberts does the interviews, and he interviewed Ronald Coase recently, for example. The interview on Creativity, and on Bias in psychology studies, are both quite illuminating, to my mind.

    Sorry to semi-Troll.

  • Laird

    It is often said that happiness is a journey, not a destination, and I think there’s a lot of truth in that. Somehow I think the journey is better if it’s self-directed, rather than being at bayonette-point.

  • Mark Gullick

    Eudamonion was also the original Greek word for the guiding ‘inner voice’ Socrates describes at his trial and elsewhere [Crito?]. It would only ever advise him not to take a particular course of action, never prompt him to pursue something positively. I don’t know what inner voices this bunch are listening to – or the political class in general – but they weren’t tuned to the same station as Socrates.

  • Snorri Godhi

    PS: of course, Pericels understood this a long time ago.
    From the funeral oration:
    “happiness is the fruit of freedom, and freedom that of valor”

    Following up on Natalie’s plug for the Murray book, I can also recommend Martin Seligman’s Learned Optimism. You’ll have to do some independent thinking to see the connection to libertarian policies, but I think that everybody should read it independently of politics.

  • Dishman

    I’d be happy to let the Austrians show the government how.

  • Mike Lorrey

    This whole thing with “happiness” is a campaign by the Dalai Lama and the leader of Bhutan in the UN to stop emphasizing Gross Domestic Product and start measuring Gross Domestic Happiness.

    Saw these guys addressing the UN about this several months ago.

  • veryretired

    Of course, when you fail to grasp the enormous complexity of human nature, you easily produce all sorts of crappola about “happiness is …” or “self-esteem is …” or “fulfillment comes from …”.

    Sometimes it seems so hard to understand why so many good intentions go so badly wrong, why so many programs and projects have such severely negative unintended consequences, why so many people who claim, at least, to have the well-being of the poor and unfortunate at heart end up presiding over their destruction.

    It is based on the sad fact that many of our most influential ideologies, both secular and religious, that have shaped our culture, fundamentally misunderstand human nature, believing it to be an infinitely malleable construction formed from a few simple elements, which can be rearranged if people only believe fervently enough in the “theory of everything” du jour.

    Marxism, with its various derivatives, is the easiest example of this phenomenon. It posits that human consciousness is the product of economic relations, that changing the relations will change human consciousness, and then a utopian cultural stasis will result which will last into the future, as all human needs are satisfied by the new economic arrangement.

    Thus, the “New Soviet Man”, who would lead humanity into a perfect future. Plug in the new maoist man, or the new cambodian man, or, for that matter, the new aryan man, and the formula remains just as simplistic, and just as fundamentally flawed.

    And so, now, this or that academic comes up with a study which shows happiness is some trivial state, easily achieved by the appropriate manipulations, and life will be one big giggle fest.

    Painfully, pathetically childish.

    Just as prescriptive ideologies falter when it becomes apparent, for the millionth time, that one size definitely does not fit all, so does the looser concept of freedom and tolerance for differences succeed where elitist planning creaks to an overwhelmed halt.

    Happiness is a process that is lived out through a life of honest effort to achieve substantive results.

    The reason life truly belongs to those who value the free and independent mind is that they are the only people who can ever hope to achieve any semblence of true happiness.

    The rest just sit in front of their screens, waiting anxiously for the actors to turn and ask, “What do you think, Emily?”.


  • The difficulty with state inspired happiness is where the state reaches the ultimate utilitarian conclusion that the best way to achieve happiness is to shoot the unhappy.

    Lets remember the meaning of the word utopia, it comes from the Greek: οὠ(“not”) and τόπος (“place”) and means “no place”.

  • Sean

    “Happiness depends on freedom – but freedom demands courage” is a truth that must be a worry to those who know they lack the latter.

  • Snorri Godhi

    John Galt: the little difficulty that you point out could perhaps be removed by trying to maximize the happiness of the least happy, in Rawlsian fashion.
    That introduces another difficulty: if Ted and Alice work at the same job, obtain the same results, and earn the same amount of money, but Ted is less happy than Alice, then a Rawlsian would say that the State must take money from Alice and give it to Ted.
    The same happens if Ted works less than Alice, gets less work done, is paid more, but is still less happy than Alice.

  • Brad

    Of course there’s – 4-ecstatic – but I don’t think the average Statist wants to go there… there’s large hooks and rivers involved…

  • Alisa

    Happiness depends on freedom

    Only for those who like freedom. There are way too many who don’t, and so freedom does not make them happy – the opposite of freedom (both their own and that of others) does.

  • Snorri Godhi

    Alisa: that’s an interesting perspective, and it may help to explain the high level of happiness in Nordic countries. Though they are not exactly totalitarian, one can hardly say that the Nordic people are happy because they are free.
    However, I prefer to distinguish between contentment and happiness.
    Contentment is accepting the world as it is, including limitations to your freedom; happiness is realizing that you don’t have to accept the world as it is.
    Both have their role: see the Serenity Prayer.

  • Alisa

    Snorri: are the Nordic peoples really known for their (reported) happiness? My impression was quite the opposite…

    In any case, I’m afraid that my point may have been missed: I too make a clear distinction between contentment and happiness, I do understand it the way you seem to do, and in my comment I did mean ‘happiness’, not ‘contentment’. There are people who are actually happier (no living soul is ever completely happy) when they are not free.

  • Snorri Godhi

    Alisa: Nordic people, especially the Danes, consistently rank amongst the happiest in the world in Happiness Surveys.
    As for the distinction between contentment and happiness, I have given you my definition, but I am not sure I understand yours.
    Of course by MY definition Nordic people are not as happy as some (few) other people; but they are more content.

  • Alisa

    Raking my memory now, I don’t recall any specific info about Nordics in general, but I do recall Finland reportedly having the highest rates of depression or something along those lines?

    What I am saying is that my definition of contentment vs happiness is the same as yours, and that by that very definition there are people who are happier (not more content, but actually more happy) when they are less free.

  • Snorri Godhi

    Good to have this conversation.

    “What I am saying is that my definition of contentment vs happiness is the same as yours, and that by that very definition there are people who are happier (not more content, but actually more happy) when they are less free.”

    Not sure that, by my definition, it’s even possible to be more happy when you are less free: my definition is that happiness comes from pursuing goals and actively taking advantage of opportunities. I suppose that, theoretically, limiting freedom could lead to a better focus on one’s goals and opportunities, but it seems unlikely.

    WRT the Nordic countries don’t take hearsay for granted, because popular opinions about foreign countries is invariably wrong.
    Look it up here instead:

    NB: I do not recommend taking it as a guide to emigration.

  • Alisa

    Snorri, some people just do not like freedom – although I think that they are a minority, and that most people do. For the majority of us it is not too difficult to understand how someone may not like others being free – that’s because such people tend to affect us directly by trying to curb our own freedom (think anyone from our own parents, through our teachers and bosses, all the way to famous dictators). However, most of us have difficulty wrapping their mind around the idea that someone may not like to be free himself. There are several reasons for that difficulty. One is that such personal preference for lack of freedom does not impact us directly. Another is that such people may not be open about it, because, at least in Western culture, things like freedom and independence are considered good things, and so such people may pay lip service to these values, but deep down ‘not get’ them or even feel contempt towards them. However, the main reason seems to be simple lack of self-awareness (or any awareness, for that matter): most people, of either variety, simply never even stop to think about these things.

    my definition is that happiness comes from pursuing goals and actively taking advantage of opportunities.

    This is not a definition of happiness, it is the mere identification of only one of its possible sources. For someone who values freedom, that would be a very likely source, but for someone who does not, there would be a different source – likely the presence of some kind of a parental figure who makes all the important decisions, and bears all of the responsibility.

  • Alisa

    BTW, not only do I agree that it’s good to have this conversation, I think it’s important.

  • Snorri Godhi

    “This is not a definition of happiness, it is the mere identification of only one of its possible sources.”

    This is the kernel of our differences.
    I agree that some people don’t “like” being free, what I disagree is that they can be “happy” when they are not free.
    You say that I identify only one of the possible sources of happiness, and you might be right; let’s say then that what I wrote is a hypothesis.
    Let me rephrase the hypothesis: there is a brain state or mental state that humans can reach only by successfully pursuing goals.
    I call this state “true happiness”, though perhaps I should describe it as “flow”. (It’s a technical term in psychology.) I am in flow right now as I make progress on my goal to explain (at least to myself) my idea of happiness.

    People who prefer not to be free, don’t really pursue goals, and therefore they cannot be in flow. Whether they can be happy in some other sense, seems to be a matter of definition.

  • Alisa

    I see your point (or, rather, I saw it before, but now I see that you also see mine:-)) i’m still not sure that I agree though. I think I’ll use it as food for further thought. Thanks for that:-)

  • Snorri Godhi

    Alisa: good to brainstorm with you.
    See you around in this blog, I guess.