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.

Sanderson on Why We Should Care about Happiness

I recently listened to a talk by Catherine Sanderson, a psychologist who discussed what happiness research can teach us about leading better lives (in terms of increasing happiness). This kind of research is, of course, interesting for a hedonist, although happiness research doesn’t usually equate “happiness” with pleasure.  Nevertheless, it is better to have research that decently approximate what we are interested in than no research at all.

The conclusions of the research that Sanderson discuss are the same that usually come up in this context. There are things that many believe will make you happier, but that usually do not live up to those expectations: more money and possessions (unless you are very poor), big achievements and events (for instance, job promotions or seeing one’s favorite team win), having children. There are things that people believe will lower happiness, but usually do not (at least in the long run), such as becoming handicapped. The things that seem to raise happiness the most are, for example, meaningful social relationships, being engaged in/working with activities that you enjoy, eating good (often unhealthy) food, exercising (actually, the best feeling comes after you have exercised), being generous to other people (although here the causal relationship might go the other way), being outdoors in nature. Your general attitude to life is also important (you should, for instance, smile often!), but unfortunately around 50% of your happiness level seems to be determined by your genes.

I do not intend to discuss that empirical research, but rather another point that came up in Sanderson’s talk. She started with a few words about why we should care about happiness. Her contention seemed to be that we should care about it happiness because “happy people are different from people who are not happy”. Happy people are, for instance, more helpful and gentle and less hostile. Happiness also increases productivity (a reason for employers to treat employees well), health (resistance to disease etc.), and longevity.

This perspective seems a bit strange to me. Can it really be meaningful to say that we want happiness in order to get something else? Surely, the point of having productive or helpful individuals around you is that such things can contribute to more happiness. Health is obviously good because being unhealthy brings you pain (so, again, avoidance of pain is the ultimate reason, not health itself). As for longevity, it can obviously be a mixed blessing. Having a long and unhappy life is presumably worse than having a slightly shorter but more happy life (although one can discuss exactly how these two variables should be weighed).

We cannot really ask why we are interested in happiness, because (at least according to hedonists like myself) happiness (or pleasure) is simply intrinsically good. Of course, one can say that your happiness is instrumentally valuable for me, because if you are happy you might, for instance, be more helpful, kind, or generous to me. Overall happiness might, thus, increase if I try to make other people happy (and remember that making other people happy is often a happiness-increasing activity in itself). Maybe this is what Sanderson actually meant, but in that case she could have stated it more clearly.

Although the instrumental view has something to it, there are also some problems with it. It might happen that I (as a hedonist) give some of my resources to  people who are poorer than me in order to raise their happiness, but that they subsequently spend those resources in ways that are not enhancing happiness. This might be because they themselves are not hedonists and do not believe that you have a moral duty to increase happiness in the world. Thus, the instrumental view – that it is good for us to have happy people around us – can potentially backfire.