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HappinessReview - Happiness
Lessons from a New Science
by Richard Layard
Penguin, 2005
Review by John D. Mullen, Ph.D.
Oct 24th 2006 (Volume 10, Issue 43)

There is a different and important research program that has developed in the last decade or so within the science of psychology.  It is the study of happiness or, as it's sometimes put, subjective well-being.  What is different in this field is its combination of two elements.  The first is that its technology is directed not at bringing the disabled to health but at improving lives that are, if you will forgive the term, normal.  The second element is that the research is grounded in solid empirical work.  Neither of these is unique independent of the other.  The human potential movement of the 1970s made much of elevating normality to the realm of "peak experiences" but its underpinnings were a bit fluffy.  Behavior analysis is scientifically solid but serves the cognitive or behaviorally troubled.  Happiness research is different and it has in a short period of time produced some very interesting results.

One of its biggest fans is the British economist Richard Layard of the London School of Economics.  It has always seemed to me that economists from the UK were a great deal more willing than those of the U.S. to stray from the safety of Platonic abstraction, a place from which one can feign political neutrality, to take on explicitly the problems of political economy.  In this, Layard does not disappoint.  He opens Chapter 1 with, "There is a paradox at the heart of our lives.  Most people want more income and strive for it.  Yet as western societies have got richer, their people have become no happier (3)."  This seems true equally for the UK, the U.S., Japan and many others.  While agreeing that our lives are more comfortable, healthier and longer, Layard labels the fact that they are no happier a "devastating fact" that should, "... cause each government to reappraise its objectives, and every one of us to rethink our goals (4)."  

It is worth asking just why it is such a "catastrophe" that happiness levels have not increased given that equality, personal liberty, comfort, longevity, health, wealth and safety have.  But first, let's look at some of what Layard finds so interesting.

(1)  Health and Happiness:  Since 1932 the American religious order of the Sisters of Notre Dame has required autobiographical statements of its incoming novices.  There are about 678 of these writings that, coupled with later medical and other histories, have provided researchers with interesting data in what is called "The Nuns Study".  Implications for Alzheimer's disease are most well known but Layard focuses upon longevity, "Of the nuns who were still alive in 1991, only 21% of the most cheerful quarter died in the following nine years, compared with 55% of the least cheerful quarter of the nuns.  This shows how happiness can increase a person's length of life. (23)."  Of course it shows no such thing, inferences of causation from correlation being a great deal more complicated than this.  Layard cites another example.  Of the 750 actors and actresses who were nominated for Oscars, the winners lived an average of four years longer.  This illustrates how, "Especially good experiences can have long-lasting effects on our health (24)."  Ditto for this example, but even if there were a finding that the Oscar win was a causal factor for extra longevity one could still question whether happiness had anything to do with it.  Perhaps the Oscar increases wealth that increases health care, etc.  These passages are not Richard Layard's finest hour.

(2)  National Wealth and Happiness:  The simple fact is that while standards of living in the UK and U.S. have approximately doubled since 1975, happiness level reports have remained static.  On the other hand, wealth and happiness reports are not uncorrelated since, "... some 45% of the richest quarter of Americans are very happy, compared with only 33% of the poorest quarter (30)."  Layard lays out the problem, "When people become richer compared with other people, they become happier.  But when whole societies have become richer, they have not become happier... (31)."   This formulation assumes that the additional wealth of the richer is a cause of their excess of happiness over the poorer.  What else could it be?  Well, Layard has already claimed a cheery disposition in the young nuns was a causal factor in their longevity.  Why not consider that naturally cheery dispositions enhance one's wealth gathering ability?  Why not test the hypothesis that statistically people are wealthier because they are happier rather than the reverse?    

Among developed western countries the wealthier ones report no greater happiness than the less wealthy ones.  Poor countries on the other hand do report increases in happiness as wealth increases.  Layard notes that this seems to be an application of the diminishing marginal utility of wealth.

But why don't mean happiness levels increase as national wealth increase, especially since richer people in these societies are happier than poorer people?  Layard's answer is simple and interesting.  Wealth is a vehicle for happiness only as an indicator of comparative advantage.  In other words, as a wealthy person I am happier than the less wealthy because I know I have greater wealth than the less wealthy.  The living standards of employed East Germans soared after the re-unification of 1990 while happiness levels plummeted.  Why?  Reunification changed the East Germans' base of comparison from the previous Eastern Europe now to the West.  Ask college students which they prefer: (a) 2 weeks of vacation while others have 1 week, or (b) 4 weeks of vacation while others have 8 weeks.  Oddly, they will overwhelmingly select (a).  An interesting correlate of this is that Republican tax cuts that while "lifting all boats" further concentrate wealth at the top should result in a general decrease of national happiness.

There is a very different explanation for why increased national wealth is not followed by reports of increased happiness   This is the theory of the "hedonic treadmill".  Ten years ago I may have rated my happiness at a 7 on a 1 to 10.  Today I may be one- hundred percent wealthier in real terms and still rate my happiness at a 7.  Perhaps as my life gets better my expectations, the situations necessary to maintain my happiness, get more rigorous.  This is similar in one regard to the comparative advantage theory, except that here what makes me happy is not having more than others have but having more than I previously had.  On this view it is not levels of wealth that make us happy but increases in levels of wealth. 

But there are two ways to interpret the idea of the hedonic treadmill, an issue that Layard does not discuss but which threatens the whole enterprise of comparative happiness judgments.  The first interpretation is that additional wealth (or any other good thing) actually increases my happiness, say from 6 to 9, and then my happiness actually decreases to its original 6.  The second is that additional wealth actually increases my happiness, say from 6 to 9, and then actual happiness remains at that level but the amount of wealth that it takes for me to give it a rating of 9 increases so its rating slips to 6.  Suppose I, who am 5'8" tall, have a friend who is 6'2".  I commonly refer to him as my "tall friend" until I take a job working with the Boston Celtics.  My friend does not shrink.  He is still 6'2" tall.  But I no longer call him my tall friend.  What has changed is not my friend's height but my standard of tallness.  Daniel Kahneman has written about this issue, one that threatens to bring down the entire claim of static happiness in the face of rising standards of living.  He states, "A substantial amount of well-being research might have to be done to resolve this ambiguity." (see his and Amos Tversky's Choices, Values and Frames, Russell Sage Foundation, page 17)

Layard cites literature indicating five factors that are reported to have little effect upon our happiness: age, sex, looks, IQ and education.  And he cites seven factors that seem to be important: family, finances, work, friends, freedom and personal values (63).  Layard notes that last of these refers to one's "philosophy of life" though I was unable to make out his point. 

In Chapter 9 Layard rightly criticizes the idea that GNP is a satisfactory measure of national welfare.  He notes that the measure was developed initially as a way to understand changes in employment and as a tool to control cycles of boom and bust.  He blames the influence of behaviorism (I would say logical positivism or operationalism) for the present use of GNP (or GDP) to measure social progress.  In fact, Layard admits that few economists consider GNP an appropriate measure of social welfare, but still, "... economists have no interest in how happy people are and focus instead on their combined purchasing power. (135)."  He continues, "Instead we need a new economics that collaborates with the new psychology. (135)."  And later, "Happiness should become the goal of policy and the progress of national happiness should be measured and analyzed as closely as the growth of GNP (147)." 

It's time, then, to get back to the issue of what's so important about happiness.  Why is it not just one good among many and in fact not the most important?  On opening day of my freshman philosophy course every September I distribute a true or false, twenty-five item "inventory" of philosophical commitments.  Early in the list I get a universal "true" for, "Happiness is the most important thing to strive for in life."  But later in the list I get an equally universal "true" for, "It is better for my child to be a frustrated artist than a happy prostitute."  In the discussion of these items there is little hesitancy on the part of students to give up on the first "true" in favor of the second.  Layard would be a good deal more reluctant.  In Chapter 8 he argues that we should treat happiness as the ultimate goal.  Why not a plurality of goals?  "The problem with many goals is that they often conflict, and then we have to balance one against the other (112)."  So when we buy a car we should select just one criterion rather than trying to fulfill the goals of cost, comfort, safety and reliability?  In the field of decision analysis such problems are commonplace and handled with the technique of "multi-attribute utility theory".  We could of course say that we will choose a car that makes us happiest and partition happiness into these four attributes.  But this would be to equate happiness with whatever we seek so that the claim that we seek happiness becomes the tautology that we seek what we seek.

Even if we should reduce all desires to one, why should it be happiness?  Layard states, "Happiness is the ultimate goal because, unlike all other goals, it is self-evidently good."  He cites the American Declaration of Independence as evidence, a document that lists the pursuit of happiness as one among three such goods and even the list these three follows the phrase, "among which are...".  Perhaps Layard means that happiness is so obviously a good that no reasons need to be given for its goodness.  But why then have so many people, from Buddhists, to Saint Paul, to Hindu ascetics to the early Pythagoreans considered it an evil, something that distracts us from what is truly good?  Perhaps he means that choices explicitly motivated by attempts at happiness need no further rationale.  But certainly such choices that in addition violate the rights of others do need further rational.  The rights of others will often trump the search for happiness, both empirically and ethically.

Layard argues that happiness is the ultimate good because the value of any other good resides only in its ability to bring happiness.  For example, "... freedom is a good because slavery, prison and secret police lead to nothing but misery."  This is preposterous.  Does it follow that falsely imprisoning someone is a good as long as the cells contains a plentiful supply of opium?  So much for the inscription on the license plates of the great state of New Hampshire, "Live free or die."      

There is in fact a politics to Layard's recommendation.  The (classical) liberals posit that each individual should be free to select his or her own goals and the means to achieve them – within the context of allowing others to do the same.  Paternalists of all stripes develop a theory of human good and don't shirk from imposing it on others because that is what is best for those others.  The former see the latter as implementing "a road to serfdom" and the latter see the former as justifying upper class advantage.  Rawls' use of Pareto optimality puts him somewhere in between.  Layard stands with the paternalists.  He denies this, but his argument is beside the point;  "... unless we can justify our goals by how people feel, there is a danger of paternalism.  We ought never say: this is good for you, even though it will never make you or others feel better (113)."  Layard seems to think that imposing a condition on an unwilling rational adult becomes paternalistic only if the condition fails to make the person feel good.  This idea would certainly drain Ira Levin's The Stepford Wives of a good deal of its drama, and would deprive us all of our satisfaction in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest as "Chief Broom" smothers the lobotomized McMurphy. 

So much in this book hinges on the claim that happiness is the human summum bonum, it is remarkable how weak are the arguments to support it.  And so much of the work in comparative happiness measurement is infected with the ambiguity mentioned above that the book, which relies on these results for its reason d'etre, should have given it a full discussion.

           

© 2006 John Mullen

 

John D. Mullen is Professor of Philosophy at Dowling College in Oakdale, New York.  He has written the widely read book, Kierkegaard's Philosophy, a logic text, Hard Thinking, and co-authored with Byron M. Roth, Decision Making: Its Logic and Practice.  Most recently in 2006 he has written "Nature, Nurture and Individual Change", which appears on-line in the journal Behavior and Philosophy and argues that the issue of nature vs. nurture is irrelevant to questions of personal change.


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