(by guest blogger Dan Haybron)
For my first blog post anywhere, I should probably begin by thanking Eric for inviting me to guest on his blog. I’ve enjoyed his work a lot and think it’s about time his excellent “Unreliability of Naive Introspection” paper was published! So. . .
A fascinating conference on happiness and the law at the University of Chicago a couple of weeks ago made it clearer than ever that there’s lots of interesting philosophical work to be done on policy issues relating to the science of happiness. An obvious worry is that a lot of people still don’t take this research very seriously, making it harder to bring it into the policy arena. Here I want to consider one source of such doubts: studies asking people to report how “happy” they are. These kinds of studies do provide useful information, but they have problems that, given the publicity they receive, can undercut the credibility of the whole enterprise. Perhaps happiness researchers should largely discontinue the practice of asking people how happy they are (as many investigators have already done). Let me note three problems here.
First, we can’t assess the significance of such studies unless we know what people are referring to when they say they are “happy.” Is it life satisfaction, a positive emotional condition . . .? We can be certain that people vary in how they interpret the question, particularly across languages and cultures. Such studies don’t tell us (directly) how happy people are; they tell us, rather, how people think they measure up to their folk theories of “happiness.” This can be useful to know, but it isn’t that useful. For the most part, researchers should probably decide what they want to measure—life satisfaction, affect, etc.—and then measure that.
Second, asking people if they are happy or unhappy is a bit like asking them if they are ugly or stupid, or if their lives are a failure. The question is so emotionally loaded that we should not expect people to think very clearly about it. Americans, e.g., apparently think you’re more likely to go to heaven if you’re happy. Even ascribing (un)happiness to other people is a loaded matter, and can seem judgmental. Less emotionally laden questions should used where possible.
Most importantly, it is only on certain very controversial life satisfaction views of happiness that we should expect people to judge reliably how happy they are. If happiness is a matter of hedonic or emotional state, then people have to aggregate and sum across many states over long periods of time. Then they have to know what balance of affect is required to be (very) happy or unhappy. There is plenty of reason to doubt that people will perform this difficult task with great accuracy. (As readers of this blog may well know. Research on “duration neglect,” e.g., indicates that people basically ignore the duration of experiences when recalling how pleasant they were.) Indeed, I think people are probably dubious judges of how they feel even at the present moment.
If you think of happiness in terms of hedonic or emotional state, as I do, then you can assess it without asking people how happy they are. While there are lots of problems with measures of affect, there seems to be much less skepticism about them. Depression measures, e.g., have their problems, but people don’t generally regard them as meaningless, and most doubts concern the criteria for calling someone depressed rather than the accuracy of the mood measures. In my next post, I’ll suggest that the science of happiness faces a similar problem about the criteria for calling someone happy, versus unhappy. Researchers may be well advised to stop making claims about whether people are happy or not, period.
Monday, June 18, 2007
(by guest blogger Dan Haybron)