Monday, July 16, 2007

Feeling bias in the measurement of happiness (by guest blogger Dan Haybron)

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?


Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks, Dan, for a delightful and interesting series of posts!

I'm inclined to think of happiness as about actual feelings rather than dispositions to feel -- how I'd react hypothetically were something bad to happen doesn't seem central, to me, if my life is well-protected from rude shocks. But the DRM as you describe it does seem shockingly naive about the accuracy of retrospective reports! Just for examaple (and in Kahneman's own terms), it will be highly subject to availability biases, I'd think! The most memorable event or events may have much more of an impact on one's rating than general, less memorable, background mood and feeling -- and yet the latter may have much more to do with happiness, in general, than the former.

dan haybron said...

Thanks, Eric! I would agree that some dispositions, eg having a certain temperament or personality, aren't relevant to happiness--happiness involves your emotional state actually, now, being a certain way. But I think this is only partly a matter of feelings. Much of your current emotional state is, I think, unconscious, becoming apparent only in the way it disposes you to respond to things. This doesn't quite meet your point, though.

Gluttons for punishment can find longer arguments for this stuff in my "on being happy or unhappy" paper, and in further detail in ch.6 of the book ms on my website.

I like your point about memorable events, and was also surprised to see Kahneman using such methods. I think he's aware of the problems but feels they are balanced by the greater ease and lesser expense of using the DRM.

But think of two notable results they got with it: the pleasantness of watching tv and the unpleasantness of watching the kids. It isn't hard to see how peak-end effects would exaggerate these results: the peaks watching tv tend to be unusually good, while those of watching kids tend to be unusually nasty!

Anonymous said...

Happiness can only be defined by an individual. When an individual is "unhappy," in general, then I would argue that the unhappiness is the result of their mistaken pursuit of someone else's definition of happiness.

The most obvious example of my point is with the idea that money can "buy" happiness. Americans, especially, enjoy the both the best and worst of what freedom and capitalism can bring. Just take a look at the current mortgage crisis. People "chased" their lavish desires by purchasing "bigger, better" homes because they were not satisfied with their perfectly suitable homes. The "sub-prime" lenders capitalized on that weakness and now the financial markets are reeling because of its own overreaching consumption of greed.

If individuals simply defined what happiness means to them, they would greatly reduce the chance of becoming "unhappy" by chasing the proverbial carrot of happiness.

As Epicurus said, "If thou wilt make a man happy, add not unto his riches but take away from his desires."


unenlightened said...

your 'Gluttons for punishment' might cause a few measurement problems of their own; one does come across people who seem to be happiest when they are hard done by/ miserable/ suffering...
I think I am probably happiest when I am not thinking about how happy I am, but busy attending to something else. Afterwards I might think back to how happily absorbed I was, but there again I might not, in which case it would be lost to Kahneman, though the benefit may linger in me unconsciously. I have a feeling(a happy one) that happiness is immeasurable. I like that Epicurus quote, but in practice most people lacking desires are just depressed. How about something like - Happy is the man who is easily satisfied.