Please Don't Stop!

It's funny. When I posted the Arthur Brooks excerpts about kids, I thought to myself, “If anything is going to motivate people to trash happiness research, it's the finding that kids don't make us any happier.” For my part, I think the finding is completely intuitive, and is just a nice example of how happiness isn't the only thing that matters to people. But the application of happiness research to this particular question has moved the usually extremely moderate Arnold Kling to resort to uncharacteristically forceful language in condemning the entire effort to scientifically measure the effect of people's choices and circumstances on the quality of their lived experience.

I honestly cannot think of a single positive contribution that happiness research has made that would justify all of the pathetically stupid articles, books, and blog posts that it has generated. It is painful watching otherwise intelligent people make fools of yourselves by invoking it. Please stop.

To me, this is the all-too-familiar sound of a crotchety normal scientist expressing heated annoyance at the shifting of a paradigm. The attempt to measure well-being more directly, rather than relying on economists' often misleading proxies is, I believe, very well-motivated indeed. But Arnold is an extreme skeptic.
Such total skepticism is unfounded, however, since life satisfaction measures track other more objective indicators of physical and psychological wellbeing fairly well. Just how well is a matter of ongoing dispute. That surveys carry some useful information about their putative subject matter really is not in dispute. And, as far as I can tell, there is little reason to doubt that finer-grained experience sampling methods tell us just what they say they do: how pleasant people tend to find different activities. This practically guarantees many “positive contributions” that justify the enterprise. But Arnold cannot think of one because he rejects (rashly it seems to me) the validity of the measurement instruments at the foundation of the whole project. That's why there's no point for him in pointing out particular possible problems (e.g., self-selection problems) with the results Brooks reports. The very idea strikes him as “pathetically stupid.”
Now, I think there are a lot of methodological problems in the way survey research is done and used — problems most people doing work in this area haven't fully gotten their heads around. But that's not an objection to the enterprise; that's a charge to do it better.
I'm sure Arnold has noticed more and more happiness work in top economics journals. Well, that's going to happen more and more whether he likes it or not, and it's not because those economists are fools or slaves to fashion. It's because a credible social science really does need better measures of satisfaction and well-being than income. As happiness research becomes more fully integrated as normal social science, methods will continue to be refined, philosophical disputes will get hashed out, and results will become ever more informative. My hope is to see more work that compares survey results with levels of various neurotransmitters and hormones, like some of Carol Ryff's. Sooner or later, we'll be able to study how various life-changes affect the physical systems that underpin the subjective sense of well-being and how these relate to more objective indicators of health and well-being. If Arnold doesn't find an investigation into the causes and mechanisms of human flourishing useful, then I don't know what to say. It's called science. Go science!
Or maybe this was all just a clever ploy to bring Bryan and I together again.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center