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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
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
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
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
© 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.