“How Happy Are You?” Is Unreliable

At the Silicon Valley Junto last week, where we discussed belief systems, I said I believed that the pursuit of happiness is the most important pursuit. That happiness should be the fundamental benchmark in our life. Eliezer Yudkowsky took issue with this and asked me, "Is there anything you do that isn’t for the sake of your short-term OR long-term happiness?" I couldn’t think of anything, but it’s an interesting question.

Today, Arnold Kling blogs about happiness research, and says:

I still think that the question "How happy are you?" is going to deliver unreliable answers.

Arnold is skeptical about research which tracks individuals over time and attempts to draw conclusions about what types of behavior will lead to someone being more happy. He says:

Suppose that research shows in some reliable way that most people are happy doing X. Is it not possible for people to have different tastes? If research shows that people who eat tuna fish are happy, does that mean I should eat tuna fish?

No, but it means you ought to consider tuna fish. Try it and see how you like it. If research shows that large numbers of people report higher happiness levels when they are with other people, and you’re a hermit, it means you should try to be more social, if you care about happiness. No guarantees though. Stay a hermit if it makes YOU more happy.

Happiness research told me that people tend to be happy when they drive, because they like the sense of control. I had never minded driving, but after reading that, I drove with this idea in mind. I like driving. I like the sense of control and listening to music or audiobooks. Or getting to talk on the phone. I now consciously associate driving with my happiness.

But I do have sympathy for Arnold’s larger point. Over the past year I have become much less trusting of someone’s own introspections. I appreciate much more the role of signaling. And basically think that a lot of people just don’t know how they feel, or what they want, or what actually makes them happy. In business, this is why focus groups ("What kind of product do you want"?) are notoriously unreliable. In life, this is probably why relationships fall apart or communications break down.

7 Responses to “How Happy Are You?” Is Unreliable

  1. Heather Duey says:

    The problem I find with this type of research is that everyone really is so different that what makes each of us happy should be just as diverse. I am the only woman I know who doesn’t “love chocolate”. I don’t hate it, I just prefer sweet tart-type of candy. I’ve never been a fan of “people who do xyz are happier” because, frankly, I often don’t like xyz, and I consider myself just as happy as (if not happier than) everyone else.

    I think the fallacy is that these studies approach us as humans as a whole, rather than as happy individuals. Not being hungry (not starving) makes me happy – and I assume the same is across all humans – but I don’t like pizza with everything on it (I’d prefer to starve, thank you). We’re not lab rats; there is much more to life than just getting the cheese.

    Or, maybe I just pride myself on being too different?

  2. Chris Yeh says:

    At some point, I need to write a longer essay about this, but I think that we are now in an age of personalization and choice.

    In the past, the technology didn’t exist to get granular, and we simply had to rely on ad hoc information.

    With the rise of the Internet, things like Digg and Amazon’s reviews allowed us to tap into the wisdom of crowds.

    But as technology progresses, we’ll move more and more into personalization.

    In “Stumbling on Happiness”, Gilbert argues that using surrogates is a better predictor of whether or not taking an action will make you happy.

    ExperienceProject.com (a startup from some Stanford GSB guys) uses technology to make finding surrogates easy.

    Everyone’s individual happiness equation differs, but expect technology to help us find more and more relevant and personalized hints to help us on our quest.

  3. David Zinger says:

    I think it is very important to pay attention to happiness.

    I am the parent of twins born 5 minutes apart. They are not identical, a boy and a girl. But it is not about my twins it is no one is identical yet we can use what we learn from others and see how it applies to us.

    I follow the happiness research closely yet see how it applies to me.

    Even the Buddha said: we must be a lamp unto ourselves.

  4. Krishna says:

    “I like the sense of control and listening to music or audiobooks. Or getting to talk on the phone. I now consciously associate driving with my happiness.”

    May be your eyes are on the road while you listen to music, audio books or talk on the phone while driving. But certainly your mind is off it. Remember it’s the mind that tells you to slow down or veer off. It’s not smart to do something that deflects your attention and weakens your reflexes while driving – certainly not while dwelling the context of happiness.

    Be happy; take those earplugs off.

  5. a0z0ra says:

    A little bit off-track; coming from a third-world country complete w/ an obedient mindset, I’m not completely happy if I have full control. I would feel lost & nervous. I’d like to have someone to lead me the way, or at least give me continuous feedback. And you know what, that is what lead me to follow your blog.

  6. Nicholas Monroe says:

    i think that some people that thrive on being in control are the ones that are able to make significant changes in they way things are perceived in their eyes. Just as driving is now viewed as something that invites happiness into your life, there could possibly be other day to day activities that wouldn’t be viewed as a portal to happiness. Anything that is done can be viewed that way.

    An almost laughable example could be showering. Your probably sitting there wondering what showering has to do with happiness. Regardless of the fact that i consider this to be completely over-thinking, showering could be a form of cleansing yourself for a fresh start every morning. Giving yourself the ability to wash away the negative from the previous day or even challenge yourself to achieve and surpass the positives from the previous day.

    The only significant point i’m attempting to make is that even the most monotonous day to day tasks can be viewed as things that make you happy…it is your mindset that will be the determining factor.

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