What happiness conceals

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What happiness conceals

Smile for the camera: women in the Trashi Yangtse district of Bhutan. The Himalayan nation targeted ‘Gross National Happiness’ as a major development measure. Photo by Ami Vitale/Panos

For years, economists have laboured on the riddle of happiness. If they studied misery, they might get somewhere

John Quiggin is professor of economics at the University of Queensland. His latest book, Zombie Economics, is published by Princeton University Press.

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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.

Economists are famous for concentrating on problems for which they have data, rather than ones that matter. As an old joke has it, they are like the drunk man searching for his keys under a lamppost because the light is better there. So: happiness is intrinsically shadowy. Indeed, according to the so-called ‘hedonic paradox’, even those who hope to achieve it in their own lives can approach it only indirectly. As John Stuart Mill observed in 1873: ‘Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way [...] Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so’.

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.

When we shift our attention from unhappiness, some important political distinctions also come to light. Broadly speaking, everyone is in favour of happiness. It is a classic ‘motherhood’ issue (more so, indeed, than motherhood). Utilitarians seek to maximise it, even if they no longer believe in the precision of Jeremy Bentham’s ‘felicific calculus’. The classical liberals who wrote the US Declaration of Independence listed the pursuit of it among the inalienable rights of (white) men. Conservatives, according to a large body of scientific research, claim to be happier than liberals (in both the US and the European sense of ‘liberal’). Even the Nazis sought ‘strength through joy’. Of course, different political viewpoints yield different claims about what is most likely to promote happiness, but pretty much everyone is in favour of it. Even a book such as Eric Wilson’s Against Happiness (2008) turns out to be more accurately described by its subtitle: ‘In Praise of Melancholy’.

Unhappiness, by contrast, is divisive. Utilitarians take the commonsense view that, just as happiness is good and to be promoted, unhappiness is bad and should be minimised. This idea, coupled with the belief that the state should act to relieve unhappiness, is central to the philosophy of social democrats (and, with some qualifications, social liberals). The political right, by contrast, has a more equivocal view of unhappiness. Just consider the central dividing line of modern politics: welfare.

As an institution, the welfare state is not traditionally associated with very much happiness. If asked to list the sources of joy in our lives, few of us would include the receipt of unemployment benefits or a stay in a public hospital. But what it does (or tries to do) is minimise the sources of unhappiness in a market economy. It addresses illness, loss of income through unemployment or inability to work, homelessness and so on. This is not to say that, even in the most comprehensive system – one in which the fear of unemployment has been banished and there are decent public services for all – everyone is happy. Money doesn’t buy happiness. Still, as the comedian Spike Milligan said, it does buy a better class of unhappiness.

For many Americans, a better class of unhappiness would do nicely

And as far as that goes, the welfare state has had a remarkable track record. You just have to compare outcomes in nations that have modern welfare systems with those in the US, where the New Deal produced only stunted versions of the standard institutions. American technology leads the world and the US constitution endorses the pursuit of happiness. Yet on numerous important development indices, including premature mortality, food security, incarceration and access to health care, the US lags behind much of the rest of the developed world. For many Americans, a better class of unhappiness would do nicely.

Despite its achievements, the welfare state has never won much love on the political right. Why is that? Ostensibly, the chief point in the right-wing critique is that it creates more misery than it relieves in the long run. This argument generally depends on claims about the adverse incentive effects of high taxes and welfare payments – claims that have not, in general, stood up very well to data. The literature on these topics is huge, but perhaps the most striking evidence is the plummeting proportion of adult Americans who are in work, despite the supposedly powerful incentives of low taxes and minimal welfare.

Underlying ostensibly practical objections however, we often find signs of a belief that unhappiness is actually good for us, or at least, good for those on whom it is imposed. This idea might draw support from the orthodox Christian vision of the present world as a vale of tears in which original sin must be expiated. More generally, conservatives frequently see unhappiness as both inevitable, given the futility of attempts to reform human nature, and a necessary part of building an upright character.

William Bennett, a representative figure, served as US education secretary during the Reagan administration. In The Book of Virtues: A Treasury of Great Moral Stories (1993), which he edited, Bennett finds the greatness of American character exemplified by (at least some of) the members of the Donner Party, a group of 19th-century pioneers who got trapped by snow in the Sierra Nevada. Many of them starved to death. Others survived only by eating the remains of their companions. As you might expect, the situation brought out both the best and the worst in people. But Bennett’s wistful admiration of the stoic survivors as paragons from a more virtuous age (‘Where did those people go?’ he wonders) shows just how deep the division is between conservative ‘virtue ethics’ and the consequentialist view that unhappiness is an evil to be minimised. Bertolt Brecht sums up this division neatly in his play Galileo (1943), meeting the virtue-ethicist line ‘Unhappy the land that has no heroes!’ with a consequentialist riposte: ‘No. Unhappy is the land that needs a hero.’

If traditional conservatives speak highly of unhappiness, an even rosier view can be found among Prometheans and radicals of both the right and left. For market liberals, for example, the idea that we could ever be satisfied with a given level of material comfort is anathema. Our unhappiness with what we have is exactly what makes us strive for more. The market economy that makes this possible therefore represents the highest possible stage of social evolution.

The American political writer Virginia Postrel is a particularly eloquent advocate for this system of insatiable desire. She has argued against broadly instrumentalist theories of conspicuous consumption that claim we seek luxuries in order to impress others and pursue social status. In Postrel’s view, consumers will seek luxury even in items that no one else will ever see, such as $400 toilet brushes. Her book The Power of Glamour (2013) presents glamour as a kind of ‘non-verbal rhetoric’ that ‘leads us to feel that the life we dream of exists, and to desire it even more’.

Unlike merely material needs, the need for glamour can never be assuaged. For the vast majority of us, the prize must remain forever out of reach. Nevertheless, Postrel argues, we are better off striving after what we know to be illusions than living with the dull contentment we find when our objective material needs are satisfied. (Those who starve while others dissipate resources in the pursuit of glamour might have a different view.)

Marxists argue that, by dulling the pain of poverty, welfare and religion diminish the anger that workers ought to feel at a system that exploits them

And it is only fair to note that not all of the champions of unhappiness are on the political right. Some on the Marxist left have argued that, like religion, social welfare is an opiate for the masses. By dulling the pain of poverty and unemployment, both welfare and religion diminish the anger that workers ought to feel at a system that exploits and alienates them. The revolutionary alternative would be to ‘heighten the contradictions’ of capitalism – by making it more miserable, until it is no longer tolerable.

For a brief moment in the 1960s, it appeared that this radical critique might succeed. A (largely hypothetical) alliance of downtrodden workers and postmaterialist student radicals would shatter the illusion of prosperous middle-class consensus and dispense with the palliatives of the welfare system, calling forth a new society in which genuine happiness for all might finally flourish.

In fact, this left-wing revolt achieved little except weakening the defences of the welfare state against the real challenge, which came from the free-market right. Nevertheless, a good deal of social criticism draws on the residual appeal of this critique, denouncing any ameliorative reform while implicitly conceding that there is nothing else on offer. One group that has taken this line to its logical conclusion is the former Revolutionary Communist Party of the UK, most of whose members are now associated with the market-libertarian group around Spiked magazine.

We are now at something of an impasse. Despite decades of pressure for cutbacks and rationalisation, the core institutions of the welfare state have endured. In most countries, what protects them is a sense on the part of the public that they are the only reliable bulwark against the miseries of unemployment, ill health and old age. Yet welfare’s opponents remain, and they are often, as we have seen, ideologically wedded to various forms of unhappiness, at least as experienced by others.

So, perhaps we need a new research programme, to examine how unhappiness really works. Does hunger, or unemployment, or the loss of a family member to preventable illness make you a stronger and better person? Is striving after more and better possessions more fulfilling than satisfaction with what you have? It’s obvious from the way I’ve posed these questions what I believe the answer to be. But genuine research into the economics of unhappiness might yield some surprising answers to such questions as these, and reveal new questions that we have never before considered.

Perhaps Bhutan will lead the way once again. Paternalist monarchy has given way to democratic elections, the second of which produced a surprise win for the People’s Democratic Party of Tshering Tobgay last year. Tellingly, he has abandoned the pursuit of Gross National Happiness. ‘Rather than talking about happiness,’ Tobgay told The New York Times, ‘we want to work on reducing the obstacles to happiness’. Such a pragmatic view might not make Tobgay a cultural icon like his predecessor, but it seems likely to do more to relieve the people of Bhutan from the various miseries attendant on poverty.

* Other researchers, such as Justin Wolfers and Betsey Stevenson, using different measures of happiness, have found a statistically significant, but relatively small, link between increased income and self-reported happiness over time.

Correction, April 1, 2014: When first published, this article placed the Donner Party in the Rocky Mountains. In fact they were stuck in the Sierra Nevada.

Read more essays on economics, poverty & development and wellbeing


  • JenJen10

    I remember getting a self-help book in the 80's, I did the 1st exercise. It said to imagine yourself as an adult walking down the street you lived on when you were a child, you meet your child self. You give your child self what they need, whether it be a hug or a talk or whatever. You heal your inner child. It was very cathartic. I felt calm & happy afterwards. Many people avoid that kind of self-retrospection because it's temporarily painful. I don't. I've tried to remember as much of my childhood as I possibly can. I've found that I tend to forget the bad things, I have to deliberately look for them; I have to go down into the pit & bring them out as an adult & look at them now, from my adult viewpoint. When I understand what happened, I feel better about myself.

    So in that respect, I think facing painful things is helpful.

    • khms

      The bad things I do remember, I have no power to help with. I can't think of a thing I could do that would help.

  • Andrew McIntosh

    There's a problem in making exclusive definitions between happiness and misery. Everyone seeks happiness and attempts to avoid misery, making some kind of satisfactory medium between the two almost unthinkable. For a while, I've preferred the concept of contentment - being satisfied with oneself as one is. This would include basic material essentials and comforts while excluding unrealistic aspirations. Politically, I'm not sure were this would be based, although, as the article indicates, there's not a lot of cache to be found in telling people to be content with themselves, as long as they have what they really need and forego what they really don't. The aspirations and utopias of ideologies are far more appealing, easier to argue for and make better political promotion than simply "good enough".

    • Jongdo

      You should read "The Antidote" by Oliver Burkeman, if you haven't already. May be time to move on from the happiness/unhappiness dichotomy.

  • Joe Campbell

    One huge aspect of happiness that this article neglects is the most "bang-for-your-buck factor" that makes people happy: community. One reason why wealth may not be the variable that is correlating very well to happiness metrics is because, once basic needs are addressed (shelter, warmth, food, and clothing) which happens early on in a nation's development, the biggest co-factor for happiness is the amount of social capital one has -- if you want to use such academic a term.

    I remember reading an article about a woman who died in an apartment somewhere in the UK and nobody noticed for three years. The main point of the article is that the modern world allows for unprecedented amounts of loneliness, social isolation, and incoherent social identity.

    Put another way, what's causing unhappiness? Lives lived in relative isolation. This explains why incredibly wealthy people can still suffer mental maladies that cause unhappiness and even commit suicide, despite possessing massive wealth.

    But as you say, Economists need data (and I'd argue that data always is reduced to monetary terms) to do what they do. Perhaps an economist shouldn't be the one tackling this issue.

    • Jongdo

      In a longitudinal study of only men (I don't have the details at hand, but I recall it is an atypical study due to the length of time, and possibly the gender focus too), the overwhelming majority of participants stated at the conclusion, when they were in their older years, that "relationships" is the most important aspect of life.

  • Jextified

    Misery teaches lessons happiness never could.

    • G

      That gets a 'not even wrong' award.

      The disproof of your statement is the amount of money spent on various forms of entertainment and recreation, including the fine arts, the popular arts, athletics, amusement, hobbies, etc. All of which, if you ask the people who are engaged with them, are valuable parts of their lives.

      As a matter of cognitive science, humans learn from experiences that have emotional content, whether that content is attractive (pleasure) or aversive (pain).

  • http://pengcognito.com Jen Beaven

    Happiness is DIY. It can be facilitated by external circumstances, but is not caused by them.

  • A Amiri

    Happiness lies in self-control! If the political leaders learn to limit and control their insatiable desire for power, wealth, conflict and war; if the few people who are in charge opt for a just system that benefits everyone according to their merits and works (and not the money they have accumulated in their bank accounts!) then, we can make ourselves happier by making other people happy.

    Happiness lies in self-control and in learning that this life is short and we only take with ourselves what we have done in this life. So, we need to control ourselves and set limits on our desires and inflated egos. Instead of hoarding and making more and more, we need to forgive and give to the needy of our wealth and possessions that we don't need!

    The problem that we face today is that governments and people pursue happiness through achieving superficial freedoms like gay marriage, pornography, and Hollywood kind of propaganda. We need to learn that after some brief moment of comfort that we taste, we become ungrateful and tend to waster our lives and resources, thinking that we are secure and protected.

    Happiness and true freedom lies in hard work and of course, many moments of suffering and unhappiness.

    • G

      '... superficial freedoms like same-sex marriage...' Right, and the same rationales were used at one time against inter-racial marriage.

      Are you married? Is it superficial? When did you decide to be heterosexual?

      • Brad


  • Brad

    Aren't happiness and unhappiness two sides of the same coin? You can't have one without the other. It's a matter of contrasts. A brief respite in a cool shade on a hot day is happiness for a laborer.

    • The Day Breaks for Friedrich N

      You could, because no one is aware of everything all the time, we have finite capacity. Say that you were enjoying the beauty of the desert until you enter a garden, and see the beauty of the garden. Or that you were enjoying a sunny summer day, not particularly thinking about it being hot, but probably sweating, until the moment you jump into a cool lake and savor that too. In other words, enjoying what you are presented with and not necessarily thinking about what it is not. It's possible to feel that way a lot of the time, isn't it?

      • Brad

        By Jove, you may be onto something, but isn't your premise itself based upon unseen contrasts? Once the other is seen, one makes you happier since it is virtually impossible for each to make you equally happy. (And now, back to navel-gazing.)

        • The Day Breaks for Friedrich N

          Exactly, that's what I was getting at. It's impossible for us to focus on every part of the environment at once, so it's possible to enjoy something, and then enjoy a contrast to it, and then enjoy the first thing again later. Or, if someone liked dissatisfaction

  • James Davis
  • BDewnorkin

    Quiggin suggests that research on happiness have suffered, essentially, from an unreliable dependent variable. "...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... children [judge] height..." As an alternative, he suggests that empirical research focus on unhappiness, for "[m]isery, by contrast, is a marvellously rich source of data."

    But this is terribly misleading. Unhappiness is only more measurable because Quiggin operates with the controvertible assumption that "structural" criteria like health, familial harmony, and access to housing can only be measured to determine unhappiness. For he suggests that while "as far as happiness goes, a relative scale seems to be all that we can hope for...," unhappiness is for some reason a more straightforward mood, a near-inevitable consequence of material poverty.

    Any reader (who I assume likely belongs to an industrial society) who's visited the developing world or a disaster site recognizes the tenacity of joy. And anyone who's spoken to cancer victims or war veterans will have heard about a kind of communal experience that daily American working life simply doesn't provide. Now, I'm not arguing against the universalization of basic material provisions. Rather, I'm arguing that they directly correlate with neither happiness nor unhappiness, and therefore an apt analytical proxy for neither.

    Now, Quiggin may wish to disagree with me, but a brief quotation from Tolstoy is insufficient to shore up a stark weakness in his article.

  • G

    Postrel is clinically insane. Unlimited growth is not possible on a finite planet. The belief that it is, is a dangerous and widespread delusion. The fact that it is widespread makes it all the more dangerous, see also climate change.

    This particular form of insanity will ultimately be found to be caused by an impairment of the brain mechanisms associated with satiety. 'Binge' eating disorders are only the most obvious example, and this because they are sufficiently unusual as to be noticed. Conspicuous consumption and competitive consumption are binge disorders for objects other than food.

    One of the most sane, and most subversive, things a person can do in their lives, is to sit down and write out the list of the elements of material wellbeing it would take for them to be happy and satisfied. Every item on this list should be a thing-in-itself, rather than a 'more-than' or 'less-than.' For example instead of 'more money,' put a specific and realistic number on it: how much? Instead of 'better house,' be specific, for example 'south-facing kitchen window, bathroom large enough to stretch out both arms without touching the walls, double-pane windows to reduce noise from outside, and a neighborhood where the probability of becoming a crime victim is lower than X percent.'

    And another thing a person can do is to write out the list of the elements of 'immaterial' (social, ethical, spiritual, etc.) wellbeing they seek. These should also be specific rather than 'more/less'. For example 'find at least one more good friend who is interested X, finish writing that novel, take a weekend hike in the woods at least once every year, volunteer a day per month at the soup kitchen or food bank, write two more songs and get good at playing them, learn another language well enough for casual conversation, spend at least 1/2 hour a day meditating, and write to my elected officials about issues Z and Q,' etc.

    Keep the lists around and revise them as needed. Each time you achieve something on the list, check it off and give yourself permission to enjoy it fully.

    • The Day Breaks for Friedrich N

      This list (things + experiences) will never end, you will always be adding to it, just as Postrel's 'hungry ghosts' will always be adding to theirs. But I do think you will be much more satisfied and happy as you do it than they will. :)

    • Brad

      Don't you mean "intangible" rather than "immaterial"? Anyway, we get what you're talking about, and your suggestions appear worthy.

  • Dutch Man

    "You can't have a light without a dark to put it in."
    ~ Arlo Guthrie

  • cmnelson

    Great piece! One little fact error. The Donner party was trapped in the Sierra Nevada mountains, not the Rocky Mountains.

    • http://www.aeonmagazine.com/ Sam Dresser

      Good eye! Apologies for the error, it's now been corrected.

  • Michael Hanlon

    Bang on the money. Self-reported levels of happiness are more or less meaningless, but self-reported levels of unhappiness are probably far more valid.
    And there is something in the idea (whose was it?) that prisons have produced a hundred times more great novels than universities ,....

  • http://irene-turner.com Irene Turner

    I'm an American. Recently spent a month in India and on my return read a book called "Holy Cow". In it an Australian woman who spent a year in India was in a very poor, very small town in the north. She was amazed to realize how happy the people were. She couldn't understand it. A man in the town commented that it was because in the west, we look above us and measure what we have, what we want and how we feel about it by comparing up. There in India, they looked behind them and noticed how far they had come. So perhaps part of it is how we compare ourselves that can make us happy or unhappy.
    I did notice over there how happy most of the people seemed, especially in small towns (vs. large cities like Mumbai). Verses what I see every day here in the US. It's like we are a country of teen agers. It's all about us, and we feel entitled. If we don't live the American dream of always doing better, getting more, we feel unhappy.
    I also agree with Joe Campbell...community and family, which is in abundance in India, is also key.
    Thought provoking article. Thanks!

  • khms

    If you speak about the history of the welfare state, you should start at the beginning.

    The concept was created by the political right, NOT the political left - more specifically, by Bismarck, in Germany, at the end of the 19th century.

    The reason the left suspected the welfare state to be opium for the masses, is that that is exactly what it was originally designed to be. It was only around the world wars that the political sides exchanged their positions on the welfare state.