Monday, June 18, 2007

Taking ‘Happiness’ out of the Science of Happiness, Part One

(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.


Justin Tiwald said...

Great inaugural post, Dan! I emphatically agree with just about everything you say here, and I like the way you lay it out.

That said, I'm not sure why we have to say anything about what happiness really is, whether in terms of hedonic states or otherwise. I would have thought the correct conclusion is that we shouldn't talk about happiness without stipulating which of the various senses of the term we're using, and that this would apply as much to hedonic state accounts as any other. The other accounts may be plagued with reporting problems in ways that the hedonic account isn't, but why does that make the latter account the correct one? I may care a great deal about one of the life satisfaction variants of happiness, even if I admit I can't say authoritatively whether I'm enjoying that kind of happiness.

Anibal said...

That´s exactly the role philosophers may play in the science of happines or well-being,
strive for a good account what it takes to be in a happy state.

Because there are many factors that determinate what is happinnes (i.g. cultural definitions, values, neural systems of reward, disease, policies, economic developemt in a country...) philosphers must deploy a proper definition first i think.

dan haybron said...

Thanks for your comments, Justin and Anibal! I agree with Anibal that, despite my concerns with the uses of 'happiness' in much of the empirical literature, there is still a need to determine the nature of happiness, in this sense: what are the things we use the term to denote, and what is their significance? I think some uses are more central, and answer more directly to the practical concerns people have with "happiness," than others. (I've argued for an emotional state view on these grounds. Don't know if it'll work, but I'll try to put a link

Since most people think about their lives and public policy in terms of "happiness," I think we need to understand what the term refers to and why it matters as well as we can. But as long as the term's meaning remains disputed and suspect to many, empirical research should avoid it where possible.

Finally, I actually think life satisfaction views of happiness have fewer problems with self-reports, and can more easily avoid the use of 'happiness': researchers can just speak of "life satisfaction" when studying it. My doubts about LS views of happiness stem not from self-report issues but (mainly) worries about the significance of LS. Maybe I'll say more about why next week....

Justin Tiwald said...

Thanks for setting me straight on the specific self-reporting issues, Dan. I must have read your characterization of the first problem differently. I thought the problem was that respondents have different implicit accounts of the nature of happiness, which usually (but admittedly not always) suggests that they use the term to denote different things. Thus, I assumed it wouldn't make sense to ask "what do we [=just about everyone] use the term to denote?" in the first place.

dan haybron said...

Thanks, Justin, you raise a good question. I think the diversity of folk conceptions of happiness does in fact indicate that people use 'happiness' to denote multiple things. To deal with that, we can either distinguish multiple senses of the term or decide that one of the uses is sufficiently central, and answers well enough to our practical concerns that we can identify a "primary" notion of happiness and perhaps stipulate that we use the term that way.

But diverse folk theories of happiness that drive self-reports *need* not undercut the idea of a "correct" account of happiness. Perhaps people normally use 'happiness' as an emotional state term, but *think* it actually refers to life satisfaction. Ie, their folk theory conflicts with their actual usage. Second, it may be that unreflective intuitions about the usage of 'happiness' are unstable: perhaps people often use 'happiness' to talk about life satisfaction, but given even the slightest reflection would switch to an emotional state usage (b/c that's what they really care about when thinking about happiness). This would I think be a reason to favor an emotional state view of happiness.

Justin Tiwald said...

Huh. That sounds like a sophisticated way of going about it, and interesting too. I'll have to read the paper.

StarliteJo said...

Hi Eric,
I found your blog page surfing google for "seeing things when I close my eyes" and after reading your post decided to join. I have tremendous interest in how the mind works and plan to read some of your writings (when I have some more time)