On happiness

There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning.

Wise words from Charles Kenny on why we probably shouldn’t make happiness a direct goal in itself (by adding it to the MDGs):

As I suggest in this CGD Essay, for a society to maximize average happiness poll answers, its most effective course would probably be to put everyone on an antidepressant-ecstasy cocktail and (given the strong genetic component of happiness poll answers) add in chemical sterilization for the naturally unhappy.  Is that really what we want out of a new round of Millennium Development Goals?

Similarly, if we wanted to maximize the Happy Planet Index, we should do the same as above, while also reverting to a nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

The complexity of happiness

I took this right after you did it. Look how happy you looked.

I just watched this fascinating TED talk by Daniel Kahneman on the differences between the experiencing self and the remembering self, and what this means for measuring happiness.

Kahneman posits that our mind is divided into two `selfs’, one who experiences the present and one who reflects on the past (and, presumably, makes projections about the future). The two are remarkably disjointed, as he demonstrates with a study which found that colonoscopy patients rate the experience as being less painful if the procedure ends with a dose of low-level pain instead of high-level pain, even if they experienced this low-level pain in addition to the high level pain.

Not only they measure happiness or unhappiness differently, but these two selfs also have different objectives – our remembering self’s wants to maximized remembered or reflective happiness. We want to create experiences that we will remember fondly (vacations, weddings etc), while the experiencing self only concerned with actually enjoying those experiences.

He ends the talk calling for more nuance in the debate on measuring happiness, pointing out that these two notions are rarely recognized, even though they can be measured (“How are you feeling?” vs “How satisfied are you with your life?”).

I did wish Kahneman talked a little bit more about the policy implications of focusing on these two measures. He seemed to have a slight preference for the experiencing self, pointing out that we spend more time experiencing than remembering. I imagine that how much weight should we put on one rather than the other in our objective functions might also be correlated with with other base characteristics like impatience/high discount rates.

Immediate happiness is less correlated with income than life satisfaction, a result that is likely to lead to an emphasis on the former by the GDP-skeptics, although I suspect that it is people captivated with their own life satisfaction that end up being drivers of growth (even if they end up being drivers of the occasional financial crisis). With that in mind, do we want policymakers maximizing our collective life satisfaction, or our current happiness at any moment? Consider, for a moment, the life of Leonard Shelby, then get back to me.