Saturday, July 29, 2006

Happiness Lessons From A Libertarian

For most of my childhood I lived in a crackerbox ranch house on the edge of a neighborhood that got worse every year. At sixteen my family moved to a leafy suburb and bought a palatial (by our standards) two-story on a big lot filled with shade trees. My parents were thrilled with their new home, but if Bill Gates or Donald Trump had to live there they’d probably become suicidal over how far they’d come down in the world. I suspect a lot of modern McMansion dwellers would, too.

So would living in that house make a person happy or unhappy? There’s no firm answer, of course; happiness is relative, subjective, and every other –ive that makes a hard-science major shake his head and say “can’t be quantified.”

But that never stops guys with job titles like “analytical social psychologist” from trying. Thus, thanks to Scott Stein, I read this article about an A.S.P. named Adam White who claims he can not only measure happiness, but determine that Denmark is the happiest country on Earth, with the United States coming in at number 23. (Patriots will be happy to learn that we soundly beat the French, at number 62.)

The main factors that affected happiness were health provision, wealth and education, according to White.

Sounds sensible at first — who’s going to argue that sickness, poverty and ignorance lead to happiness? There’s probably a minimum material standard you must meet in order to be happy; I doubt you’ll find much happiness amongst those currently starving to death. But can you take raw data consisting solely of healthcare, income and education levels, and make any accurate predictions about a person’s level of happiness?

What about friends? Family? Lovers? Any human interaction at all? What about political freedom — is there any correlation between happiness and the fear that your government’s secret police will take you away?

"Smaller countries tend to be a little happier because there is a stronger sense of collectivism and then you also have the aesthetic qualities of a country," White said.

Oh, I see — what leads to happiness isn’t wealth, health and schooling, but collectivism and a country’s aesthetic qualities. What glorious news for an eccentric misanthrope who was chronically unpopular in high school and then grew up to continue the trend by becoming a libertarian! If I want to be happy all I have to do is learn to love the aesthetic qualities of popular artists like Thomas Kinkade and then bask in the collective’s warm embrace of a thirtysomething female who never bothered to get married, have children, or read any book with the words “for women” in the title.

Investment Tips For Women! A Guide to Politics For Women! Rules of English Grammar and Composition For Women! Speaking of aesthetics, the words “for women” are always in that damnable pink or lavender script guaranteed to grate the nerve endings of a woman whose primary wardrobal philosophy is “if all your clothes and bedsheets are dark it’s easier to do laundry that way.”

I’m sorry, I shouldn’t go off on a rant like this. Besides, I’m getting upset over nothing since White himself later demolishes his “happiness via the collective” theory:

"We were surprised to see countries in Asia scoring so low, with China 82nd, Japan 90th, and India 125th. These are countries that are thought as having a strong sense of collective identity which other researchers have associated with well-being."

China is happier than Japan?

China, which loses out to Japan in the categories of health provision, education, wealth, small-countryness and intellectual, political and personal freedom (assuming those matter at all) — China is happier than Japan?

Maybe. But if so it’s due to a factor not mentioned in White’s study, the factor which determines how happy you’d be with my parents’ house in the burbs. Ask the average person: do you think you’re better or worse off than you were ten or fifteen or twenty years ago? Those who say ‘better’ are probably happier than those who say ‘worse.’

Now ask about the future: will things be better or worse for you then? The happiest people will be the most hopeful as well.

Once you’ve met the basic material requirements for existence, I don’t think you can say “I will be happy so long as I have X.” Because once you get X you realize it isn’t so much unless you also have Y, which requires Z as a catalyst and then you’re right back to the beginning of the alphabet. Happiness doesn’t exist in the present on its own, but only at a certain angle relative to the future and the past. But this is too subjective to be measured with any accuracy between individuals, and certainly shouldn't become the basis for strengthening the power of the collective or enforcing any given aesthetic ideal.


Anonymous Scott Stein said...

Thanks for the link.

Of course, I agree that the study "certainly shouldn't become the basis for strengthening the power of the collective or enforcing any given aesthetic ideal." Because, even if the study is accurate to some degree, it is accurate only to the extent that we agree with the study's definition of happiness; because, happiness for the majority could be the result of terrible injustices imposed on the minority; because, in the long-term, even if some sense of belonging (what the researcher calls "collectivism") increases happiness for a good portion of the society, there are major economic and social consequences when collectivism is not voluntary (like with a close community) but forced (like with a communist government); because, happiness doesn't negate ethical and philosophical arguments against enforcing ideals. Lots of people we can think of would be very happy forcing others to live a certain way. Their happiness is not our goal. With all that said, people in Denmark are probably pretty happy, in a Denmark kind of way.

5:49 PM  
Blogger Jennifer said...

Scott, I don't doubt that Denmark is a generally happy country, but I think that's not due to collectivism of "the aesthetics of a country" (whatever the hell THAT means), but because they've got the minimum material standard of living, plus some luxuries, plus a generally non-evil government and, I would guess, if you read Danish papers you wouldn't see quite so many pessimistic articles as you'd read here in America: "Today's young generation will be the first group of Danes to not surpass their parents' standard of living," "Denmark's increasing number of enemies in the world," "Denmark: A Country in Decline?"

6:05 PM  
Anonymous Scott Stein said...

Probably there are other countries that also have a "minimum material standard of living, plus some luxuries, plus a generally non-evil government," that didn't rank as high. I see what you're saying about Danes not being bombarded with negative news being a factor. There are so many variables, but the big issue I think is how we define happiness. The definition the researcher uses seems arbitrary, but it isn't--choosing a certain definition guarantees certain answers. No capitalist country is going to place at the top of a list that values contentment and satisfaction with one's station in life. In a society where striving for more is not the norm or expected, there will be more "happiness" if accepting your situation is how "happiness" is defined.

Anyway, by "collective" above, I don't mean totalitarian or even socialist. I mean something like, I don't know, the Amish. If it turned out the Amish were happier on average than most people, it's plausible to me that part of the reason could be that they feel a sense of belonging and purpose and have large supportive families and communities and so on. I wouldn't want to live like them, but I don't define happiness as the researcher does. As he defines it, I do think the Amish lifestyle (which fits the researcher's idea of "collective") results in happiness for people who choose that lifestyle. Your lifestyle might make you happy according to your subjective values, but the researcher has defined happiness in a way to make you seem less happy. Not that I know what questions he asked. I'm just basing this on how he defined what he was measuring: "Whether you are satisfied with your situation and environment."

Oh well. Would you rather be happy as in "I accept my lame/uninspiring/whatever situation" or unhappy as in "I am going to work hard to get out of this lame/uninspiring/whatever situation"?

9:31 PM  
Blogger Jadagul said...

I think you're pretty much right that the important question is "am I better off now than I was four years ago?" (with apologies to President Reagan). I believe that the research supports us: after a certain threshold, total wealth has a relatively small effect on happiness, but things like the rate of economic growth and the potential for social mobility have a large effect. I've tended to express this as "happiness is affected more by the first derivative of wealth than it is by wealth itself" (can you tell I'm a math nerd?).

3:26 AM  
Blogger Jennifer said...

All libertarians are nerds on some level, Jadagul. Run for the hills if I ever start talking about my collection of 19th-century stereopticons.

If China is happier than Japan, it's because the Chinese have reasons to think their lot will improve in the next decade or so, whereas the Japanese do not. But in ten years, I think Japan will still be better than China (though not necessarily better than Japan is now).

I remember reading the "Little House" books as a kid; Laura Ingalls' family was so poor that when she was a child she only got to taste candy on Christmas. I daresay she got more happiness out of that once-a-year peppermint stick than I got as a child who could afford candy more often than not, but does that mean I, personally, would be happier if I'd switched to a situation where I could only have candy once a year? I would say no.

A Saudi woman living her life under gender-based house arrest is probably thrilled beyond measure to leave the house and go to the grocery store; I usually view such trips as an onerous chore. So a Saudi woman gets more happiness out of a shopping trip than I ever would; does this mean I would be happier if I switched places with her? Hell, no.

I think, in reference to Scott's second post, that the researcher made a list of what HE thought would make him happy, and then asked questions accordingly. Even assuming happiness can be scientifically measured and quantified, the fact that White's piece made NO mention of human or social interactions tells me White is not the one to do it.

If you tripled your salary, got extra health insurance and picked up another Master's degree, would this extra health provision, wealth and education make you happy if you lost every friend and family member you have? Absolutely not; you'd be miserable and pining for the days when you were broke and degree-less but had people to talk to when you felt blue.

6:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'd doubt that there's any such thing as happiness as a present experience. It's used instead in accounts and explanations. ``She doesn't seem happy.''

Probably the word that wears the pants is ``unhappy,'' and ``happy'' is just a spouse seen at formal affairs with it.

What they're playing with is a picture of happiness that they have in their minds. ``There must be happiness because there is a word.'' But they're not curious how the word gets used in normal life.

Car ads used to measure ``comfort.'' ``There must be comfort because we're measuring it.''

6:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've come to the conclusion that the only thing measured by these kinds of surveys is the opinions of the people responding to the survey on the day they were interviewed. The answers apply to no one else and not even to the people responding if asked a couple weeks in the future. Show me something more objective, like, oh, heart rates or blood enzymes or seritonin levels and I'll listen. Until then, all this guy is giow. I've been bringing more mindfulness into daily life since then though, and I've felt more things shifting and stiring inside, and I've been having more insights and realisations about myself and my situation during this few months than I have in years, but I felt that I needed to pick up the sitting again, so I did.

--Hanna sitting again, so I did.


12:34 PM  
Blogger Kitty said...

I think there was some confusion. Anonymous got the first two sentences of my last comment, but the rest of it is not mine.

12:35 PM  

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