28 January 2008

The book I always wanted to write

"Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy"

I admit I have read only the review in The Economist, but it seems that this book is spot on. Modern societies tend to deify hedonic happiness. Recently, they even made some inroads in economics with the new paradigm of behavioral economics that assumes that happiness is the ultimate target in an individual's life.

Well, as I have discussed here, there must be a reason that no great men, from artists to emperors was "happy". It is because achievements come not through happiness, but through struggle and pain. It is the Maslowian self-actualization that drives all these people, a concept that is fundamentally different to happiness.

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

I think that in this article that you wrote, as well as in one of your previous ones about happiness, you are rather playing with words than making an argument. I certainly believe that Napoleon, Socrates and most of the great men that you refer to, were happy! You seem not to realise the fact that happiness does not mean the same things for different people and it is definitely not expressed in the same way by different people. In its simplest form, I may not smile and be happy within me. I may be in prison and suffer pain but feel happiness that I stick to my beliefs and have dignity. I think Socrates was happy in prison. In a way that another brain would never understand. And that is what makes him great in our eyes. But for him there was no other way to exist. There was no choice. It is the contrast of the hairdresser feeling happy clubbing each night to the intellectual who feels happy reading about the ultimate goal of life being melancholic among his books. They are both happy. But they are different!

Konon said...

I think that you play with words instead of adding some value in the discussion. You cannot or do not want to understand a basic distinction that I mentioned many many times. I, and the writer of the book, refer to happiness as bliss and hedonism (the standard operational definition of all behavioral economists, that has a specific neurobiological basis) while you refer to maslowian self-actualization which is sthg completely different. Listen, you can define and expand happiness as it suits better your pre-conceptions and rationalise, but if you want to enter the discussion about the book or the usefulness of behavioral economics, please use the standard defined terminology.

I can't resist this comment: your tone ("you seem not to realise ..." etc.) implies that you possess superior knowledge or intelligence, but your arguments are so cliche and mistaken. I am not sure about the source of your frustration, but at the very least, you should cool down when you speak about sthg that you have no idea about. It is really embarassing.

Anonymous said...

Ok, I accept your criticism. I misunderstood you in the first place. Can you please explain to me why you think that behavioural economics may be worthless from your/the book's point of view? I am really interested in this.

Konon said...

Sorry if I sounded a bit harsh before.

Ok, the basic idea behind behavioral economics is to substitute the fundamental concept of "value" in economics which is a bit rigid with "utility" i.e. happiness, as the ultimate end in the actions of each individual. Behavioral economists see this paradigm shift as revolutionary as quantum mechanics was in physics.

However, in my view, the new concept is far from perfect and in cases misleading, since it misses many other motivation factors, like self-actualisation, revenge, pride etc. I still believe that at least for the purposes of the analysis of public policy issues we are still better off with the traditional "value" approach...

Anonymous said...

This is a very interesting topic to reflect upon for someone who has no knowledge in the area. I had a look at wikipedia about behavioural economics and I read your response but it is still not clear to me how/why behavioural economics should take into account pride, self-actualization etc. I think that what they do is provide insight about the human psychology, so as to explain better financial decisions (e.g. If I earn 1000000 euros I will get very happy but if I earn 2000000 euros I wont get twice as happy. Or I prefer earning 100 euros now thatn 200 in 6 months because of my nature as a human being-discounting of the future etc. How are these concepts not importan for economics or how do they have to do with self-actualization or pride?). If you hadnt got enough of me already, could you please give me a concrete example where you think that a specific theory of behavioural economics is not necessary?

Konon said...

There are many cases where people make financial decisions that are not based on their utility/happiness. I think there was an experiment where they gave 100 dollars to be shared by two people. One of them had to make an offer how to split this money to the other person. If the offer was not accepted, they would both loose their money. You would expect based on behavioral economics that the second person would accept any positive amount. Indeed they were usuallu accepting splits of up to 70/30. However, when the offer made from the first person was too "unbalanced" (say 90/10), it was rejected by the second person and they were both loosing the money. This can be explained in evolutionary terms, (we are all hardwired with the feeling of fairness and pride), but it cannot be explained with behavioral economics, that would predict that any amount of utility/happiness would be accepted.

Conclusion: although behavioral economics has offered some useful new perspectives, it is misleading in many cases. The reason is that it considers happiness as the ultimate end of any human action, a plainly wrong assumption.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your response. So, are you saying that behavioral economics are a useful "extension" of the traditional economics but they are not the whole story? But isnt that a useful step towards the "truth" anyway? Traditional economics didnt take into account psychological perspectives and behavioural economics that did, didnt take into account some other aspects (pride etc). Although one would expect that behavioural economics SHOULD have taken this into account.

So happiness (in a hedonistic view)=utility in behavioural economics? I didnt know that. I actually thought the opposite. That the very essence of behavioural economics would be to capture all the other aspects of human psychology (self-actualization, pride etc.). Maybe its a simplification, necessary for the models to work in this early stage of this new branch of science!

Konon said...

My criticism of BE is that they overrate happiness and that they have still not realized its limitations.
In the future, if they take into account all findings from evolutionary psychology etc. maybe they would be able to come back with sthg better. But, if they decide to accoutn for all the psychological factors, they will then look more like behavioral psychology and, most important, there are limitations in quantifying and predicting human behavior (think a chaotic system and Heisenberg's principle of uncertainty).

In any case, orthodox economics based on value will always be the ultimate reference tool.