Can happiness be quantifed?

Can happiness be quantifed?

Can happiness be quantified?

Number-crunching satisfaction and desire


From Saturday’s Globe and Mail

June 22, 2007 at 5:00 PM EDT

Can happiness be quantified? Philosophers usually say no, but of course they would: Quantified happiness would probably put them out of business. Consider instead their more hard-headed cousins, economists. Measuring happiness is actually the holy grail of economics, because all that math and profit-motive analysis is in the service of understanding what we want and how we can get it.

But they don’t call it the dismal science for nothing, and the happiness in play is a muddle. What economic models mostly succeed in measuring is unhappiness. Hundreds of papers and books on subjective well-being have been published in the field since 2000. Ironically, the most influential tool in that spate is the so-called U-index, devised by a pair of Princeton number-crunchers. It measures happiness as an inverse function of the time people spend doing unpleasant things. For this model, happiness is a blank margin – the mere absence of unpleasantness.

Another recent study, from the U. S. National Bureau of Economic Research, falls prey to a different fallacy. The paper argues that there is a significant correlation of low blood pressure with happiness. Countries with higher reported rates of happiness also showed lower national levels of hypertension. “[I]n constructing new kinds of economic and social policies in the future, where well-being rather than real income is likely to be a prime concern,” the authors say, “there are grounds for economists to study people’s blood pressure.”

But which came first, the calmness or the happiness – and why? Social policy is indeed important, but how exactly do we get there from blood pressure?

These failures should not be surprising, since the very idea of quantifiable happiness obscures the most interesting problem. No matter how precise the rulers, the subjects being measured are humans, in particular their notoriously variable affective states. Who in their right mind would expect meaningful numbers to emerge from that? This is where economics meets psychology, and both march off happily together, building on dubious assumptions, ignoring the fact that happiness is elusive precisely because we are elusive from ourselves.

Humans, for example, are competitive creatures. This explains, in part, why somebody with $100,000 a year can still be unhappy – if he is surrounded by friends with $150,000. It also explains why most people believe they would finally be happy with a 20-per-cent increase in income. We all say money doesn’t buy happiness, but keep acting as if it did. (A recent book about American billionaires shows they are deluded on a grander scale: The subjects said happiness would come if they could just double their incomes.)

Ultimately, our desires, which get tangled up in seeking happiness, are complex and strange, ruled by envy and overcome by their own satisfaction. Desire’s vectors are self-defeating: The more we have, the more we want. And getting what we want is almost never as good as we thought it would be. The upside is that not getting what we want usually isn’t as bad as we imagined.

Even when economic models take account of such nuances, they still operate on a basic presupposition of market scarcity. That is, they assume that certain goods are by definition rare and therefore available only to a happy few. These goods can be material or non-material, or a combination of both, but they are structurally scarce, not factually. You can’t generate more happiness by giving everyone a BMW, because then a BMW ceases to be a status symbol and becomes just a car.

What other assumptions, and other kinds of economy, are possible? First of all, we ought to distinguish well-being from happiness. Evidence shows that beyond a certain level of material comfort, humans do not exhibit higher degrees of subjective happiness. In fact, because the wealthiest societies are often the most competitive ones, generating ever-new kinds of scarcity and envy, the opportunities for negative affect tend to multiply with wealth.

One conclusion to that is a condemnation of our shallow consumerist selves. But see it instead as evidence of a positive duty to bring everyone to the baseline of well-being. It is not enough that we are happy; others must not be miserable. Amartya Sen, the Nobel laureate economist and philosopher, has articulated the most persuasive general list of necessary components, all more tangible than blood pressure. Some of them – litres of potable water per day, for example – can indeed be measured and met.

We could go even farther in shifting away from the thickets of subjective happiness. In his landmark 1979 work The Gift, Lewis Hyde analyzed what he called “imagination and the erotic life of property.” The trouble with economics, Mr. Hyde suggested, is that it assumes everything operates according to a single economy, the one ruled by capital and reason. But in fact humans engage in multiple economies, including ones that ignore capital; that is why market models have such a hard time accounting for “irrational” behaviours.

Gifting is one of these, where the act of passing something on, rather than acquiring it, is what generates value. Art is a gift, even when it is bought and sold, because it comes from a place, the imagination, untouched by capital and it generates a reception likewise resistant to purchase. Suppose happiness were a gift like art, something that requires imagination rather than acquisition. Suppose it were something whose value lay in giving rather than receiving.

I’m not sure what such artful happiness would look like, exactly, but I do know you couldn’t measure it any more than you could sell it. I can feel my blood pressure going down already.

Mark Kingwell is a philosopher at the University of Toronto and the author of Better Living: In Pursuit of Happiness from Plato to Prozac, recently translated into French and Portuguese.