Thursday, July 21, 2005

The Futile (?) Pursuit of Happiness

In a comment on my previous post Erik reminded me about this chestnut article from the NYTimes magazine: "The Futile Pursuit of Happiness."
Gilbert and his collaborator Tim Wilson call the gap between what we predict and what we ultimately experience the ''impact bias'' -- ''impact'' meaning the errors we make in estimating both the intensity and duration of our emotions and ''bias'' our tendency to err. The phrase characterizes how we experience the dimming excitement over not just a BMW but also over any object or event that we presume will make us happy. Would a 20 percent raise or winning the lottery result in a contented life? You may predict it will, but almost surely it won't turn out that way. And a new plasma television? You may have high hopes, but the impact bias suggests that it will almost certainly be less cool, and in a shorter time, than you imagine. Worse, Gilbert has noted that these mistakes of expectation can lead directly to mistakes in choosing what we think will give us pleasure.

We may be poor at making personal choices, but there is a political component to happiness. Cross-cultural studies have shown that having money is not sufficient for well-being. One of them is at Cross-National Differences in Happiness (pdf).

...Happiness tends to be higher the better the country provides its citizens with material comfort, social security, education, health care, and political rights. Happiness is also higher in the relatively equal societies. These differences are not only a manifestation of wealth. After control for RGDP the correlations remain sizeable. Together these country characteristics explain 80% of the variance in (average) happiness in the 28-nation set.

The Netherlands is a happy place, despite the weather. Happiness correlates with longer life, in their study, and is inversely correlated with "anxiety" measures like alcoholism, suicide, mental distress... It seems that happiness is a measurable trait that can be improved, perhaps more at the political and social level than by action at the individual level?

1 comment :

Erik said...

Not so much about the happiness, but there was a fascinating article I can never find about economic diversity and economic opinion, specifically about redistribution of wealth. The thesis was that it's not that rich people want to keep their money and poor people want to take it; rather, people who live in close proximity to others of different economic status are more likely to favor policies in which the rich are taxed to help the poor. That is, if you see people much richer or poorer than you regularly, you're more likely to want to reduce the gap.

This explains Manhattan and its Upper West Side liberals. And it explains red states where almost everyone is poor, like Mississippi, and states like Montana where wealth is pretty uneven but people are so spread out that they don't see it. There was a map of these factors by state that was almost exactly the red-blue electoral map.

Of course, a map just demonstrates correlation, not causality. But it was an interesting read, which I hope one day to read again.