“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.

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