March 17, 2003

How to Be Happy

Richard Layard of the LSE tells us how to be happy in his Lionel Robbins lectures...

Posted by DeLong at March 17, 2003 03:13 PM | TrackBack


I haven't looked at the files very much, but the questions posted remind me a bit of some parts of Asimov's Foundation series, where the Mule suspects that the Oligarchy of Tazenda (sp?) is the second foundation because everyone seems satisfied with the way society works, which seems to indicate a kind of advancement in the social sciences that the First Foundation's achieved in the physical sciences. The Mule turns out to be wrong, but regardless, the Oligarchy is a rather poor, feudal society; nonetheless, the Mule and his agents believe that this is a social utopia because the social organization works so well, in spite of lack of physical power.

Posted by: Julian Elson on March 17, 2003 03:33 PM

Funny, we have a related lecture coming up next week on "What Can Economists Say About Happiness" by Bruno Frey of the Univ. Zurich.

Posted by: Eszter on March 17, 2003 03:36 PM

Richard "The Coming Russian Boom" Layard?

Posted by: Snookerdoodle on March 17, 2003 04:41 PM

This part was interesting...
"....the role of economics teaching is truly problematic. We tell people that they are selfish and it is not surprising that they become more so......students who took introductory economics became less honest, while astronomy students became more honest, and the difference was significant. Similarly, when playing the Prisoners Dilemma game, economics students were less likely to cooperate than other students and the gap widened the longer people studied economics. As time passes, economics teaching is seeping increasingly into our culture. This has many good results but also the bad one, of justifying selfishness."

So that's what wrong with society... :)
BTW, would only a sycophant say what a great blog this is?

Posted by: andrew b. on March 18, 2003 02:51 AM


Thank you. I heard the BBC cover these lectures briefly and actually posted a request for information here on you web long. Ask and it shall be given. Layard is right. The question to ask is "how do we help make people happy?"


Thank you, too. Looks promising.

Posted by: K Harris on March 18, 2003 04:27 AM

I'm strongly tempted to quote someone here parodying someone else. "In this case, as in so many others, the full armamentarium of economics is pulled out to generate a conclusion that is either trivial or inane or both." People's happiness is far more directly related to their sense of relative status than to absolute measures. No duh. You could have asked any cultural anthropologist in the last century the same question and they could have told you that.

Heck, everybody knows that even stone age hunters who own nothing but a stick and a codpiece can be quite satisfied with their existence, at least until they discover there's something else to be had. This is one of the central myths of our era, retold countless thousands of times in literature. Hasn't Layard seen "George of the Jungle" yet?

While I agree with Layard's real conclusions, which happen to favour my political tendencies as well as simply making sense, I find myself in either serious disagreement or deep belly laughter over nearly all of his methods, assumptions and metaphors. Indeed, several of his conclusions are obvious in light of long standing knowledge in sociology and anthropology. For example, his discovery that Swiss cantons that practice local direct democracy are happier. People who feel attached and well integrated into their communities and who do not feel that distant powers control their lives are happier. Once again, duh.

All these things... This is what the "soft-headed" arts and humanities people have been saying for generations if not centuries. Now, now after all this time, is it finally sinking in?

"Money can't buy happiness. But it does improve your bargaining position."

- Opus the Penguin

Posted by: Scott Martens on March 18, 2003 08:44 AM

Problem is, there is nothing trivial or inane about studying happiness and its causes. I understand that sometimes other areas of study reach conclusions ahead of economics. The fact that economic methods can reach the same conclusion doesn't make the conclusion irrelevant. Just gives more reason to believe the conclusion. Medical science sometimes confirms what herbalists, chiropractors and the like have already concluded. I take some comfort in this. I am more prone to try what one branch of medicine prescribes if another backs it, too.

Posted by: K Harris on March 18, 2003 09:27 AM

...not to mention: "To understand how the economy actually affects our well-being, we have to us psychology as well as economics. Fortunately psychology is now moving rapidly in the right direction and I hope economics will follow." What exactly did Layard say that earned him the "duh"?

Posted by: K Harris on March 18, 2003 09:50 AM

What did Layard say that earned him the "duh"?

How about coming to the shocking conclusion, advanced by poets, writers, film makers, anthropolgists, sociologists and psychologists for as long as any of them have existed that "satisfaction of needs" does not in fact follow causally from "access to goods and services"? Some variation on this theme is what almost always follows the words "What's wrong with economists is..."

However, let's start with the laughter and disagreement parts. Figure 1 on page 7 of the first lecture's notes. People are least happy during their time at work, happier during their lunch hour, and then happiest in the evening. That's a "duh."

Next page: "But before we do that we have to ask whether the feelings which people report correspond at all accurately to any kind of objective reality? We need to be sure that, when people say they feel something, there is a corresponding event that can be objectively measured. We now know that there is. For the feelings which people report correspond closely to activities in the brain which we can now measure from instant to instant."

Thousands of years of philosophy get an awful short treatment here. The neuroscience is also a whole lot more complicated than that. None of what he describes - which is brain localisation - nor Davidson's work as far as I know - supports the conclusion that "we have objective measurements of how feelings change over time. More important, the same measurements can also be used to compare the happiness of different people." Quite the contrary, as I understand it you can at most attempt to correlate an individual's activity measurements with their own claims about how they feel but you can't just look at an MRI scan and say you know how strongly someone is feeling something. Across people, you can - sometimes - identify areas of the brain associated with particular emotions, but only in the presence of very blunt stimuli. This does not support the conclusion that emotional senses can be strictly ranked, much less that subtle phenomena like satisfaction can be objectively measured at all.

Page 17: "[O]nce a country has over $15,000 per head, its level of happiness appears to be independent of its income per head. For poorer countries, however, there is a clear impact of income on happiness, which is also borne out by the time-series in India, Mexico and the Philippines. When you are near the bread-line, income really does matter. But, for countries above $15,000 per head, the flat cross-sectional finding in the graph ought to bother economists just as much as the flat time-series."

Layard touches on something here, but then just misses it completely. It isn't absolute wealth or poverty that matters to happiness, not even if you have less than $15,000 in annual GDP per capita. It's not the money, it's the bread line. It is the struggle to live that creates misery, not the quality of the booty.

There are still a few pre-agricultural societies in the world. Not many, but a few. Some of them are miserable and violent places, but some of them are filled with people who are quite content. They are - in material terms - poorer than beggars in Calcutta, but the beggar struggles every day to eat, never knowing when his next meal will be. When the hunter-gather gets hungry, he hunts and gathers. He's good at that, he knows what to do and his haul is fairly constant. If he's sick, his mates bring him food, because their his mates, and food is plentiful and can't be stored.

Layard could have gone that way. He could have made a statement about how culture can make people miserable by pressing them into a struggle to live, and how the wealthiest societies - the ones where money has the least correlation with happiness - are unsurprisingly the ones with the greatest social pressure to measure success in strictly material terms. Instead, he spends two pages explaining how linguistics has nothing to with his results. (He's right, language isn't a good direction to criticise his results, but his reasons for coming to that conclusion are 100% wrong.)

His discussion of clinical depression rates as a measure of happiness over time is also problematic. Again, as far as I know, the consensus is that either depression was underreported in the past or over reported in the present, although there are still good reasons to think people are more likely to be seriously depressed now despite that. Alcohol abuse and crime statistics are also easy to criticise as measures of public happiness.

This leads, of the three conclusions at the end of his first lecture, to one that he hasn't adequately supported, a second which is either trivial, inane or both, and a third which is meaningless or perhaps even false.

You know, this is turning into a blog article. Give me a few hours - I have to make dinner and then I'll do a more detailed critique.

Posted by: Scott Martens on March 18, 2003 11:01 AM

I don't have a few hours, but already, there are problems. It's struggle that creates misery? Don't know that to be true. If we want science to back us up, the best stuff I've seen (found through DeLong) is that it is not whether one struggles, but whether one sees the struggle as fair, that is likely to distiguish between those who are happy and those who are not at a given level of income. There seems a substantial break between reports of happiness among urban and non-urban civilizations, so while comparing the two is interesting, putting them on the same continuum used to compare one urban culture to another doesn't make sense. Does "pressing" us into the stuggle to live make us miserable? Who presses? Does no good to anthropomorphize, even when the culture doing the pressing is made up of us anthros. If we are to rely on the views of artists and philosophers, well, not all think struggle is bad. Funny, once one gets into the details there is lots of disagreement over happiness among the non-quantifying disciplines. Maybe, just maybe, efforts like Layard's can clear up some disagreements, once they mature.

Point is that Layard isn't a poet. He isn't, to my knowledge, a philosopher. He is dealing with economics. Unless some other economist has done a much better job in dealing with issues of happiness, then it doesn't matter all that much that he is covering things already "known" by other disciplines. They don't "know" in the same way. Even if these are baby steps, they need to be taken. No intellectual discipline is going to jump into a new line of endeavor mid-stream. Foundations are laid, then research proceeds.

Layard wants to make a contribution to public policy, with happiness as a goal. Is he ready? Doubt it. Is ahthropology ready? Is sociology ready? Probably, but they seem to have hit the up-hill part of their struggle, making smaller contributions as results turn ambiguous. Poetry and philosophy? They've had a few short millenia, so I'd guess diminishing returns have set in there, too. Layard seems to think his discipline has a contribution to make, but only after some further study. You don't seem impressed. I think the quest for good policy and happiness deserve more than a canned sneer.

Posted by: K Harris on March 18, 2003 12:46 PM

Since I had posted about this earlier on this thread I thought I should post an update: Bruno Frey has cancelled his visit to Princeton next week. He said - referring to the war - that he feels "it would be inappropriate for me to fly in from Europe to talk about "Happiness"." Just fyi.

Posted by: Eszter on March 21, 2003 10:21 AM
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