17 October 2006

On Happiness

It is interesting to follow the emerging new paradigm of behavioral economics and its work on happiness. Lots of arrogance (“the future of economics”) combined with feel-good theories like “average income does not correlate with the level of happiness in the society so it is not important”. The subsequent suggestion is that governments should care less about wealth.


I agree with all the research that happiness is relative; basically we tend to define our level of happiness by comparing our situation with the people around us. This explains why people in the richer countries do not feel happier than people in poor countries.
But this cannot mean that the level of wealth makes no difference. Just ask a Swiss citizen how indifferent he would be to the prospect of becoming an average citizen of Albania.

Most importantly, (and I haven’t seen this in any relevant research or paper) we all use internal happiness benchmarks from our past. That means that extreme happiness almost requires some unhappiness in the past to function as a memory benchmark. For example, coming from a very poor family and becoming rich means more happiness than coming from a rich family and remaining rich, independent of the people around us.
And that is a big argument that money actually CAN make u happier, as long as you manage to change your life.

But my biggest problem with all this new “happiness paradigm” is that I believe that happiness is overrated.

Who would you prefer to be? An unhappy Alexander the Great or a happy junkie (with guaranteed endorphins, the neurotransmitters that make us happy), Aldus Huxley style? Look at the most important people in the human history, our childhood heroes: Napoleon, Pericles, Socrates, Jesus, Julius Caesar, Martin Luther King, Galileo, Columbus, van Gogh etc. How many of these you think would score high on a current happiness test?

The truth is that happiness as defined in all these papers doesn’t mean that much. Ask all these people that choose to suffer and can go to jail for their ideas, are willing to sacrifice their lives for their families or countries. For them the feelings of purpose, sacrifice for a moral end, making history, devotion to people or ideas, are all more important than bliss.

Even from a historical-evolutionary perspective, we see that societies that were rather relaxed and happy didn’t produce much and eventually disappeared: China, the world’s powerful nation in the 15th century entered a peaceful decadence until the sudden wakeup of the 19th century (after a handful of Europeans beat it). Ancient Greece, with its constant and bloody wars excelled; nothing comparable happened in the happier post-Alexander Hellenistic era. Contrast the peaceful Europe in Middle Ages with the turbulent Europe after Renaissance.

Men are not made to be happy. They are meant to be restless, strive for happiness, struggle for improvement, setting higher standards, expand the boundaries.
In that context, happiness is far from the ultimate end of human life.
Personally, I prefer the feeling of achievement with its many unhappy sacrifice requirements.


libertarian said...

Happiness (eudaimonia) is the ultimate end. It's in our nature to seek happiness and to avoid suffering. We act because we set goals. If we do not think that the achievment of these goals will bring us happiness or remove a greater suffering then we do not act.

You say "Personally, I prefer the feeling of achievement with its many unhappy sacrifice requirements." but that feeling is exactly the goal, the end. You feel happier. The sacrifices dont matter because you exchange some pain to get more pleasure.

Money can buy happiness :) or at least can remove some suffering and thus increase our happiness. Who is more happy the one that looses his child and all the time some members of his family because he has no clean water and in his region they suffer from famine or the average western guy? If you set a time frame you ll see that the guy that lives in Africa has less happy moments. So if they say that money cannot increase our happiness in intensity it can increase it at least in quantity.

Anyway happiness is rising in the western world.

libertarian said...

"to get more pleasure." a greater pleasure (by your standards) I meant.

Pleasure is happiness :)

pinklady said...

Interesting. I haven’t read any paradigm of happiness, new or old. But I can always agree that happiness is relative to the individual. Be it Alexander the Great or the junkie with Aldus Huxley style. Having that said, any definition that any paper would give for happiness is kind of meaningless.

Your article seems to equate “happy” societies with unproductive ones. Not necessary, per your examples, I will speak up for China. Some of the greatest inventions in the world happened during happy times in ancient China – The Tang and Han dynasties are the most well known peaceful periods. Silk road, world’s oldest and most historically important trade routes that linked the Roman Empire with ancient China was established in the Han dynasty. Paper money, books and printers, just to name a few, were invented in the Tang dynasty. Fireworks were invented for celebration (well later transformed into gunpowder for wars, but still …). Not to mention the greatest poets and artists were born at that time because that was when they got the chance to show off, I have to mention 2 of the 4 beauty legends in Chinese history were discovered at that time too :). Moreover, I hope you were not suggesting “unhappy” society make them productive. Look at the bloody war zones of the world today, what do you expect them to produce?

Ok, back to the happiness topic. I think we’re born to be happy (imagine a new born baby, pure-minded, loving parents, a warm home, etc, what’s not to be happy about? then again, it’s only relative to me) or that we’re born to pursue happiness that is relative to us as we grow up. Get richer, try to be better looking, get a higher degree, be a more influential person, get a less troublesome girlfriend … go figure!

bizwriter said...

Libertarian writes You say "Personally, I prefer the feeling of achievement with its many unhappy sacrifice requirements." but that feeling is exactly the goal, the end. You feel happier. The sacrifices dont matter because you exchange some pain to get more pleasure.

I agree.

Konon said...


Lets be clear and make a criticsal distinction. There are many definitions of happiness out there. For me and maybe for you, happiness is more like achievements, satisfaction, it may includes sacrifices etc.
However, independently of what you and me consider happiness, the models in behavioral economics are based on the strict operational definition of "bliss", more like euphoria, more like a heroine addict. According to this operational definition of happiness, the common limited person that enjoys his life by watching reality shows etc. is happier than Alexander the Great. So, my criticism of happiness refers to the BE's version.

I obviously agree in the last paragraph.


The new "happiness paradigm" that u never heard of, refers to a new school of thought in economics, called behavioral economics, that tries to marry ehavioral psychology with traditional economics.

I have to admit that my equation "happy nations = decadence" is a bit stretched. It looks though that my reference to China triggered an emotional response. If u look more carefully, I refer to a specific period in China, between the 15th century and 19th century. And I have the highest respect for China's most important inventions: fireworks and spaghetti. I am sorry that I am not aware of any poets and artists, BUT I would definitely be interested to get to know better some asian beauty legends :)

ON said...

Your comment reminded me what once Woody Alen said: You don't have to be rich and famous to be happy. Just rich would be enough. :-)