Joy division

COLBY COSH on the unquantifiable happiness of Canadians

When someone asks you “How ya doin’?”, do you answer “3.5, thanks”? If you do, you may be impressed by that new Centre for the Study of Living Standards paper claiming to have measured happiness in various parts of Canada and inferred the social and economic factors that determine it. The study features a great deal of impressive mathematics, but at heart it’s predicated on the idea that “3.5” makes complete sense as an answer to “How ya doin’?”. The dataset pretty much consists of the results of asking that question 70,000 times in various places and calling the answer “happiness”, rotating and manipulating the resulting numbers as though they were interstellar distances or commute times.

There is a great deal of excitement nowadays, among the gormless, about “happiness” research of this nature. I’ve mentioned before that I think “food miles”/”locavorism” represents one trendy, naïve attempt to create a modern-day alterna-Marxism and establish a quasi-religious standard of value not founded in economic exchange. “Gross national happiness”, which is popular with greens and Europeans looking for alternatives to odious “Anglo-Saxon” neoliberalism, is surely an analogous phenomenon. The correct public policies, you see, are really the ones that create the most net happiness, as opposed to necessarily being those that create GDP growth; so isn’t it the most natural thing in the world to just ask people how happy they are and use regression techniques to sniff out the underlying factors?

This is, after all, more or less how we find out what foods are healthy or what child-rearing practices are proper. The problem, of course, is that there are objective measurable proxies for public health or for economic well-being; there aren’t any for “happiness”, or if there are, they would involve expensive neurological exams. “Happiness” is defined in the CSLS study as “life satisfaction”, and even that semantic move is really a Evel Knievel-grade canyon leap.

The Centre found out in what parts of Canada people gave the highest average numerical answer to a life-satisfaction question on a 1-5 marketing-type hedonic scale, where “1” represented “very dissatisfied” and “5” was “very satisfied”. So how do we know the study isn’t simply measuring the relative strength of the word “very” in various regions of Canada? We don’t. (And, in fact, French speakers were presumably presented, not with “very”, but with “très”.) How do we know people are capable of reporting their subjective happiness correctly? We don’t, although we can check such reports for statistical validity and reliability. The differences between communities in the CSLS study are remarkably small: how do we know there weren’t transitory local confounders that weren’t corrected for (good weather, Habs on a win streak, etc.)? We don’t. Isn’t it true that people may report high happiness largely because of cultural predispositions to optimism or stoicism? It is. Could regions accurately reporting high temporary happiness be like Ireland—pursuing policies that promote welfare in the present at the cost of a terrible socio-economic shock later on? They could be. (Alberta-haters note: we did very well in the study.)

There is something sneakily attractive about cutting through all these philosophical questions and saying “OK, but it can’t hurt to just go out and ask people about their happiness, surely? You might find something interesting or surprising.” And you might, but you have to be responsible about it. Happiness research of this kind tends to confirm the intuition that higher incomes make “us” (i.e., many or most of us) happier only up to a surprisingly low point at which diminishing returns kick in. This is thought to be a powerful argument for the redistribution of wealth, but one must remember that when the authors of these studies mention the happiness yield from higher income, they are talking only about the yield that’s left when other factors positively correlated with income, like health and education, are factored out.

Money won’t make you happy, they say—but they’re not really referring to the whole package of benefits of having money; they’re talking about an artificially isolated, Unca-Scrooge’s-vault kind of enjoyment of money for its own sake. And guess what: money actually still turns out to be pretty damn good at making people happier, even when you do your best to reduce it to nothing but the sight of chains of zeroes in a bankbook or the ability to purchase a nice stereo.

If you don’t think money really makes people happier, try offering five-dollar bills on the street, and see whether your wallet runs out before folks stop taking the cash. The gross-national-happiness proponents will be tempted to reply that the results of such an “experiment” may reflect a delusional, unhealthy, socially cultivated preoccupation with money; in other words, they’re willing to accept self-reports of people saying “I feel about a 2 today”, but totally unwilling to accept the gold standard of revealed preference. This is economics upside-down, all right: as along as it yields the political result you want, real-world human behaviour can be dismissed as socially constructed, but frivolous questionnaires must be deemed to represent truths as objective as the temperature of the sun. (I don’t want to think about what fraction of the world’s social-science research I just summarized in that sentence.)

Even on its own terms, the CSLS study is a pretty flat draught. The Centre’s report says that two of the three most powerful factors influencing “satisfaction” with one’s life are self-reported mental health and self-reported lack of stress. Has someone alerted the Ministry of Duh? These terms are perilously close to synonymous with “satisfaction”; their presence in the study amounts almost to a finding that being happier makes you happier. Leaving aside the profoundly insane, most of whom can’t report accurately on interior states of consciousness anyhow, do we really have an objective standard of mental health that doesn’t implicitly incorporate happiness or the lack thereof as an endpoint? Mental health conditions pretty much come in two flavours: ones that in themselves consist of relatively intractable unhappiness, and ones that impair the reason and judgment and end up leading to unhappiness for the sufferer in the end.

It’s the same with “stress”. Sidney Crosby is under inconceivable “stress” when he’s slashing through the defence and attacking the net in a close game, but that’s not the kind of “stress” that will show up in a survey like this. Practically, only stress-leading-to-unhappiness is counted: surprise! It’s correlated with unhappiness! Where’s your neolib messiah now?