Misery’s Teachings


There has, over the past couple of decades, been a remarkable boom in economic research into happiness. Strangely enough, it might have originated in remarks made in the early 1970s by Jigme Singye Wangchuck at the time of his coronation as absolute monarch of Bhutan, one of the poorest countries on Earth. Questioned about policies to promote growth in Gross National Product, the King said he would rather strive to promote Gross National Happiness than the conventional goal of Gross National Product. This neat aphorism spurred on a full-scale research agenda, not only in Bhutan but in the developed world as well. Over time, a new group of academic stars – if not household names – has emerged, not least economists such as Richard Easterlin, Bruno Frey and Richard Layard.

And what have we learnt so far? Chiefly this: that there is a reason why everyone reads Dante’s ‘Inferno’ and no one reads his ‘Paradiso’. ‘All happy families are alike,’ Tolstoy wrote; he might have added that this is why so few of them appear in novels. Maybe there just isn’t anything interesting to say about happiness. That certainly seems true of the social science work on it, where even the most basic results look like shadows cast by the analytical framework rather than genuine discoveries.

Take the field’s crucial finding, the so-called Easterlin paradox. Cross-country data seem to show pretty consistently that, on average, happiness increases with income, but only up to a certain point.* In the developed world, for example, people are scarcely happier than they were in the 1960s. The evidence for this claim consists of surveys in which people rate their happiness on a scale, typically from one to 10. Within any given society, happiness tends to rise with all the obvious variables: income, health, family relationships and so on. But between societies, or in Western societies such as Australia over time, there’s not much movement, even though both income and health have improved pretty steadily for a long time.

This sounds like quite a discovery: happiness is relative! But in fact the result is probably an illusion. To see why, just consider this puzzle. Suppose you wanted to establish whether children’s height increased with age, but for some reason you couldn’t measure them directly. One way to start the investigation would be to interview groups of children in different classes at school and ask them the question: ‘On a scale of one to 10, how tall are you?’ You’d find that kids who were old relative to their classmates would tend to report higher numbers than those who were young relative to their classmates. After all, the older ones would mostly be taller than the younger ones. So far, so good.

After you had surveyed a few classes, you might start to notice something rather odd. As you moved up through the year groups, the average age would keep increasing but the average reported height would not change much. For all age groups, the median response would be something like seven (accounting for the ‘Lake Wobegon’ effect, by which nearly everyone thinks of themselves as above average). What to make of that?

By analogy with the ‘happiness puzzle’, you might conclude that height is a subjective construct depending on relative, rather than absolute, age. But, in reality, we know that height actually does increase with age throughout childhood. The problem is that asking for a subjective mark out of 10 is a silly way to measure height. Each child is likely to score himself relative to his classmates rather than to any absolute scale, with the result that comparisons between age groups are meaningless. Does happiness keep rising with income? Nobody can say. But, since we don’t have any absolute scale of mood, it certainly seems plausible that people judge it in pretty much the same way as the children judged height in our imaginary investigation.

In a society where most people are hungry most of the time, having a full belly might justify a pretty decent happiness score. If everyone has enough to eat but it’s mostly rice or potatoes, you might consider yourself blessed to be eating roast chicken, and so on. The objective level of income and health needed to report yourself as more than averagely happy will depend on what you consider average. This is true whether or not people in rich societies are in fact happier, and whether or not the average person is happier now than the average person in 1960. A relative scale tells us nothing one way or the other. And as far as happiness goes, a relative scale seems to be all that we can hope for.

Misery, by contrast, is a marvellously rich source of data. Unhappy families are, as Tolstoy pointed out, much more varied than happy ones. And if happiness is elusive and subjective, there are plenty of objective sources of unhappiness: hunger, illness, the premature death of loved ones, family breakdown and so on. We can measure the ways these things change over time and compare that data to subjective emotional evidence. A whole new research programme suggests itself.

Adapted from https://aeon.co/essays/misery-has-far-more-to-teach-us-than-happiness-does


  1. Happiness = relative scale = elusive +subjective. Misery = rich source of data + lots of objective sources.


  2. MI: happiness = measured on a relative scale + tells us nothing in relation to income


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