Problems with Happiness Research

Personally I believe one should use happiness research with caution as a hedonist. For one thing, happiness research usually do not measure pleasure but rather self-reported life satisfaction. Of course, one can assume that the one thing has something to do with the other, but it would be too simple to make them out to be basically the same thing. Therefore I believe happiness research can be used to some degree when, for instance, arguing for certain policies, but one must also use other tools, such as introspection and anecdotal observation. Hedonistic politics can never be based on scientific precision (are there any kind of applied ethics that can?); and that – by the way – is one reason why it is so important that policies are decided democratically.

A paper that discusses problems with self-reported happiness appeared in the last 2016 issue of Journal of Happiness Studies. The authors, Ponocny, Weismayer, Stross, and Dressler, observe that there is something strange with the fact that most research seems to report that most people are mostly happy, i.e. generally very satisfied with their lives. The problem with that kind of research (which is often used by those who want happiness levels to be assigned more relative weight alongside traditional policy measures, such as GDP) is that it is usually left to the respondents themselves to decide what, for instance, life satisfaction means. Some studies have shown that people tend to interpret this in a way that moves us away from an actual correlation between reports of subjective life satisfaction and actual happiness (or the average pleasure level of one’s life). For example, people tend to downgrade the importance of negative experiences (even though they actually felt very negative for them when they occurred), but their assessments might also be distorted by social contexts (what does it mean to be “happy” in your culture?).

The authors of the article “Are Most People Happy? Exploring the Meaning of Subjective Well-Being Ratings” base their study on 500 interviews in Austria (random and snowball sampling), reaching approximate representativeness of the Austrian population regarding age and education, but not for gender (62.1 % were female). Respondents were interviewed by psychology graduates about good and bad things in life. After the interview they responded to a typical life satisfaction assessment between 0 and 10. Thus, the researchers had accounts of “narrated well-being” (NWB) that they could compare with standard self-reported life satisfaction.

The results of this research is that usually very high assessments of life satisfaction are not strongly correlated with the NWB-accounts; i.e., the match between the self-rating and the “external” rating (based on NWB) is not very good. One interesting finding is that “people who express only small emotions or who are categorized as ‘small emotions or close-lipped’ have a strong tendency to rate themselves as ’10,’ which gives rise to the suspicion that, for some respondents, positive self-rating might express defensive response behavior rather than true bliss”. For many cases, rather negative NWB ratings are combined with very positive self-ratings, but there are rare cases where it is the other way around.

A concrete example of the disparity between NWB and self-rating is a woman who rates her life satisfaction at 10, but still complains a lot about how stressful her life is with a professional career and children to raise, even claiming that sometimes she just can’t take it anymore. Another example, with self-rating 9, “reveals verbal compliance to obviously burdensome circumstances”. Regarding a question about restrictions in life she says: “Time pressure, I repeat myself […] It will get better. And still everything works. It does not knock me out. It is ok as it is. I just hope I continue to have the strength and health to keep going like that. And, all in all, it is fine. It is fine.”

The authors observe that “[e]ven respondents with self-ratings of ’10’ often report substantial psychological burden, including financial restrictions, health problems, unemployment, alcoholism, discrimination, death or life-threatening diseases of close relatives, and sadness.” Thus, even though some people “have essential restrictions of their hedonic status (as narrated by themselves)”, they still assess their lives very positively.

Thus, it seems obvious that happiness research cannot be relied on completely when, for instance, arguing for or against certain policies. As a hedonistic utilitarian one must make sure that we are talking about peoples actual experiences of pleasure and pain, and not only their self-reports of life satisfaction and the like. Of course, sometimes self-reported life satisfaction statistics is all we have, and then we must accord some relevance to it. But on the other hand, there are contexts when we can’t trust such figures at all, for instance when there are strong social pressures to appear satisfied with one’s life in spite of an obvious lack of hedonic pleasures.

I think one of the main problems today is that many people are simply reluctant to take a break from their ordinary lives and consider how their lives could be changed to be more pleasurable. They simply continue living in the way that is accepted as normal in their social environment. Often it is also probably the case that one is reluctant to appear ungrateful, for instance if one is living off the crumbs from other people’s tables. If you start complaining too heavily then the supply of crumbs might stop.


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