For starters, I want to thank Eric for letting me guest on his blog. This has been a lot of fun, with great comments, and definitely converted me to the value of blogging! Thanks to all. Now...
Suppose you think of happiness as a matter of a person’s emotional condition, or something along those lines. If you don’t like to think of happiness that way, then imagine you’re wanting to assess the emotional aspects of well-being: how well people are doing in terms of their emotional states. What, exactly, would you look to measure?
An obvious thought is feelings of joy and sadness, but of course there’s more to it than that: cheerfulness, anger, fear, and worry also come to mind, as well as feelings of being stressed out or anxious. So if you’re developing a self-report-based instrument, say, you’ll want to ask people about feelings like these, and doubtless others.
Here’s what Kahneman et al. (2004) use in one of the better measures, the Day Reconstruction Method (DRM): “Positive affect is the average of happy, warm/friendly, enjoying myself. Negative affect is the average of frustrated/annoyed, depressed/blue, hassled/pushed around, angry/hostile, worried/anxious, criticized/put down.” Also measured, but not placed under the positive/negative affect heading, were feelings of impatience, tiredness, and competence. (I’d be inclined to put the former two under negative—detracting from happiness, and the latter under positive—adding to happiness.) Another question asks, “Thinking only about yesterday, what percentage of the time were you: in a bad mood, a little low or irritable, in a mildly pleasant mood, in a very good mood.”
I think these are reasonable questions, but doubtless they can be improved. First, are these the right feelings to ask about? Second, should each of these feelings get the same weight, as the averaging method assumes? But third, should we only be looking at feelings?
Exercise: think about the most clearly, indisputably happy people you know. (Hopefully someone comes to mind!) Good measures of happiness should pick those individuals out, and for the right reasons. So what are the most salient facts about their emotional conditions? How do you know they are happy? Did you guess the integral of the feelings listed above over time? I doubt it! In my case, the first thing that comes to mind is not feelings at all, but a palpable confidence, centeredness, or settledness of stance. (BTW, the most blatantly cheerful people I know don’t strike me as very happy at all; their good cheer seems a way of compensating for a basically unsettled psyche.) For the people I’m thinking of, I’m guessing they’re happy because of what seems to me to be their basic psychic orientation, disposition, or stance. They are utterly at home in their skin, and their lives.
If this is even part of the story, then affect measures like those above appear to exhibit a “feeling bias,” putting too much weight on feeling episodes rather than matters of basic psychic orientation. How to fix? I don’t know, but one possibility is to use “mood induction” techniques, e.g. subjecting people to computer crashes and seeing how they respond. A happy person shouldn’t easily fly into a rage. But this won’t work well for some large surveys. And what about occurrent states like a constant, low level stress that doesn’t quite amount to a “feeling” of being stressed, or at least not enough to turn up in reports of feeling episodes, yet which may have a large impact on well-being? And how do you tell if someone is truly centered emotionally?
I believe that in the psychoanalytic tradition little stock is put in sums of occurrent feelings, much less reports of those feelings, since so much of unhappiness (and by extension happiness) in their view is a matter of the unconscious--deep-down stuff that only came through indirectly, in dreams, reactions to situations, etc. I think this is roughly right. But how do we measure that?
Basically, my question is, how should the sorts of affect measures used in the DRM be changed or supplemented to better assess happiness, or the quality of people’s emotional conditions?
Monday, July 16, 2007
For starters, I want to thank Eric for letting me guest on his blog. This has been a lot of fun, with great comments, and definitely converted me to the value of blogging! Thanks to all. Now...
Thursday, July 12, 2007
Two posts back I suggested that people may have evolved with psychological needs for which they lack corresponding desires, or at least strong enough desires given the significance of the needs. For certain needs may have been met automatically in the environment in which we evolved, so that there wouldn’t be any point in having desires for them. Today I want to suggest a possible example of this: a need for close engagement with the natural environment.
Biologist E.O. Wilson and others have defended the “biophilia” hypothesis, according to which human beings evolved with an innate affinity for nature. They have noted a variety of results pointing to the measurable benefits of exposure to natural scenes, wilderness, etc. (E.g., hospital patients with a view of trees and the like tend to have better outcomes.) To be honest I have not read this literature extensively, but the root idea strikes me as very plausible.
Indeed, I suspect that human beings have a basic psychological need for engagement with natural environments, so that their well-being (in particular, their happiness) is substantially diminished insofar as they are removed from such environments. And yet we don’t perceive an overwhelming desire for it, because the need was automatically fulfilled for our ancestors.
I can’t offer much argument here, but one reason to believe all this is that dealing with wilderness places intense cognitive demands on us, presenting us with an extremely rich perceptual environment that requires a high degree of attentiveness and discernment. (I don’t mean enjoying a hike in the woods, perceived as a pleasant but indiscriminate blur of greens, browns, and grays—I mean *knowing* the woods intimately, because the success of your daily activities depends on it.) The selection pressures on our hunter-gatherer ancestors to excel in meeting these demands must have been intense, and I think this is one of the things we are indeed really good at. Moreover, it is plausible that we really enjoy exercising these capacities (recall Rawls’ “Aristotelian Principle”). Insofar as we fail to exercise these capacities, we may be deprived of one of the chief sources of human happiness (see, Michael Pollan’s excellent “The Modern Hunter-Gatherer.”) I suspect that most artificial environments (think suburbia) are too simple and predictable, leaving these capacities mostly idled, and us bored. (Perhaps many people love cities precisely because they come closer to simulating the richness of nature.)
At the same time, we are obviously social creatures, most of whom have a deep need to live in community with others. Living alone in the forest is not a good plan for most of us. Distinguish two types of community: “land communities,” where daily live typically involves a close engagement with the natural environment; and “pavement communities,” where it does not. Virtually all of us now live in pavement communities.
Here’s a wild conjecture: human flourishing is best served in the context of a land community. Indeed, only in such a community can our basic psychological needs be met. Call this the “social biophilia hypothesis.” Plausible?
I suppose this will seem crazy to most readers, and maybe it is. For one thing, there is a conspicuous paucity of discussion of such ideas in the psychological literature. Why isn’t there more evidence for this hypothesis in the literature? I would suggest there are two reasons. First, current measures of happiness may be inadequate, e.g. focusing too little on stress and other states where we would expect to find the biggest differential. Second, psychologists basically don’t *study* people in land communities. Almost all the big studies of subjective well-being, the heritability studies, etc., focus on populations living in pavement communities. And there is virtually no work comparing the well-being of people closely engaged with nature and those who are not (but see Biswas-Diener et al. 2005). If the social biophilia hypothesis is true, then this would be a bit like studying human well-being using only hermits as subjects. (“Zounds, they’re all the same! Happiness must be mainly in the genes.”) The question is, how can we study the effects on well-being of living close to nature while controlling for other differences between people who do so and people living in pavement communities?
Tuesday, July 03, 2007
Germs, dirt, and relationships: why people may not want what they need (by guest blogger Dan Haybron)
It is widely thought that happiness depends on getting what you want. Indeed, the switch in economics from happiness to preference satisfaction as the standard of utility was originally based on the idea that the latter is a good proxy for the former: happiness is a function of the extent to which you get what you want. Even if you don‘t believe that, you might accept this weaker claim: basic human needs will normally be accompanied by desires for goods that tend to satisfy those needs; and the strength of those desires will reflect the importance of the needs. Thus human psychological needs will be reflected in people‘s motives. Call this the Needs-Motivation Congruency Thesis (NMCT). Hunger would be a typical example: we strongly desire food because we strongly need food (not just for happiness, of course).
I see no reason to believe that this is true. Among other things, there‘s an in-principle reason we should not expect the NMCT to hold: common human motivational tendencies will largely reflect the needs of our evolutionary ancestors. We want food because such a desire contributed to inclusive fitness: if you didn‘t have that desire, your genes didn‘t go very far. But here‘s another physiological need humans
apparently have: we seem to need early exposure to germs and dirt. Without it, we develop various allergies and immune deficiencies. Yet most people don‘t have a particular attraction to germs and dirt (as such!). If anything, it‘s the reverse. Why? Because such a desire would have done nothing for inclusive fitness when humans evolved: you couldn‘t avoid encounters with lots of germs and dirt. If anything, it
would have been adaptive to limit exposure to such things. So we need a dirty childhood, but don‘t want one; kids are happy to sit in an anti-septic environment playing video games all day, puffing on albuterol inhalers.
The same thing may happen with happiness: we may need certain things for happiness but either have no particular desire for them, or our desire for them is weak compared to the need. Relationships may be an example. Good relationships are the strongest known source of happiness, and are clearly a deep psychological need for human beings. Now normal people do, clearly, desire social relationships. Yet many
if not most of us choose to live in ways that compromise our relationships, often to the net detriment of our happiness. E.g., people often choose lucrative jobs at the expense of time with friends and family. It is easy to see how a strong desire for wealth and status might have been adaptive for early humans, whereas we probably
didn‘t need proportionately strong desires for friendship and family: you got those automatically. So our desire for wealth and status trumps our desire for a more important need, good relationships.
Next up: biophilia as another possible counterexample to the NMCT.
Wednesday, June 27, 2007
A lot of people think of happiness in terms of life satisfaction, and take life satisfaction measures to tell us about how happy people are. There is something to this. But no one ever said “I just want my kids to be satisfied with their lives,” and for good reason: life satisfaction is very easy to come by. To be satisfied with your life, you don’t even have to see it as a good life: it just has to be good enough, and what counts as good enough can be pretty modest. If you assess life satisfaction in Tiny Timsylvania, where everyone is crippled and mildly depressed but likes to count their blessings, you may find very high levels of life satisfaction. This may even be reasonable on their part: your life may stink, but so does everyone’s, so be grateful for what you’ve got. Things could be a lot worse.
Many people would find it odd to call the folks of Tiny Timsylvania happy. At least, you would be surprised to pick up the paper and read about a study claiming that the depressed residents of that world are happy. If that’s happiness, who needs it? For this and other reasons, I think that life satisfaction does not have the sort of value we normally think happiness has, and that researchers should avoid couching life satisfaction studies as findings on “happiness.” To do so is misleading about their significance.
So are life satisfaction measures are pointless? No: we might still regard them as useful measures of how well people’s lives are going relative to their priorities. Even if they don’t tell you whether people’s lives are going well, for reasons just noted, they might still tell you who’s doing better and worse on this count: namely, if people whose lives are going better by their standards tend to report higher life satisfaction than those whose lives are going worse. This might well be the case, even in Tiny Timsylvania. (Though caution may be in order when comparing life satisfaction between that nation and Archie Bunkerton, where people like to kvetch no matter how well things are going.)
This kind of measure may be important, either because we think well-being includes success relative to your priorities, or because respect for persons requires considering their opinions about their lives when making decisions on their behalf. The government of Wittgensteinia, populated entirely by dysthymic philosophers who don’t mind being melancholy as long as they get to do philosophy, should take into account the fact that its citizens are satisfied with their lives, even if they aren’t happy.
Note that the present rationale for life satisfaction as a social indicator takes it to be potentially important, but not as a mental state good. Rather, it matters as an indicator of conditions in people’s lives. Concern for life satisfaction is not, primarily, concern about people’s mental states. So rejecting mentalistic views of well-being is no reason for skepticism about life satisfaction.
Friday, June 22, 2007
The popular media often highlight studies purporting to show that some (usually very large) proportion of people are happy, whereas some other (usually very small) proportion are unhappy (e.g., here and here). I suspect that not many people really believe such assertions, and that they are a major source of skepticism about the science of happiness.
Such claims seem mainly to rest on three kinds of studies: self-reports of happiness (which I critiqued in my last post), life satisfaction surveys, and measures of affect such as the balance of positive versus negative affect. Today I want to focus on this last source of evidence, assuming for the sake of argument a hedonistic or emotional state theory of happiness. Affect balance measures can only support claims that people are “happy” given some view about the threshold for being happy: what balance of positive to negative is needed to count as happy?
Traditionally, the answer has been this: a bare majority of positive affect suffices for being happy. Greater than 50% PA, you’re happy; less and you’re unhappy. (Note that you must have precisely 50% PA vs. NA to fall in the category you might have thought many of us fit: neither happy nor unhappy.) If you are enraged for several hours a day, or cry yourself to sleep every night, you may still be happy if your negative affect doesn’t hit 50%. Perhaps you could be depressed and count as happy on this sort of view.
This seems deeply implausible to me: life probably has to be pretty awful for negative affect to literally be in the majority. When a family member dies, we usually aren’t happy, yet the laughter sometimes outweighs the tears (the unhappiness perhaps revealed more by the ease with which the tears come rather than by their frequency). In informal surveys of students in my classes, a majority refused to ascribe happiness in cases where the percent of NA was significantly less than 50%. Recent work by Fredrickson et al. claims that a 3:1 ratio of PA to NA is needed for people to “flourish”; much less and they “languish.”
I think the correct standard for happiness, even on hedonistic or emotional state views, is less than obvious. Researchers should not just assume the 50% threshold; it needs some defense. (How can we determine the right threshold?) But if the threshold for hedonistic/emotional state happiness is an open question, then we have no basis for saying whether people are happy given such views. This seems to me correct: the science of happiness has taught us a lot, but we really have no idea, except for our hunches and obvious cases like depression, whether people are happy or not. (My hunch: people probably aren’t as miserable as intellectuals tend to think, but most people still probably aren’t happy.)
Perhaps researchers should drop absolute claims about whether people are happy, and focus on relative levels of happiness: who is happier and why? Isn’t this what we mainly care about?
Monday, June 18, 2007
(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.