Happynomics versus econobollocks

Tim Harford investigates the field of "happynomics" through which economists attempt to devise policies that make people happier, and does an excellent job of sorting the evidence-based approaches from the trendy rubbish that's part ideology and part wishful thinking. Bottom line: beware the "focusing illusion"; count your blessings to reverse your habituation to the good things in life; set things up so that doing the things you want is easier than doing the things that make you unhappy, and, finally, understand that you probably can't be happy all the time.

If this stuff interests you, I strongly recommend Stumbling on Happiness, an excellent book about the state of psychiatric research into happiness by Daniel Gilbert, head of Harvard's psych department.

The focusing illusion was splendidly captured by a pair of questions asked of college students by researcher Norbert Schwartz and others: “How happy are you?” and “How many dates did you have last month?” The research team discovered that people having a lot of dates also say they’re feeling very happy – but only if asked about the dates first. If the happiness question comes first, there’s a far smaller correlation between the answers. Those students asked initially about their love lives continued to think about them when pondering their happiness. Otherwise they might have been worrying about money, career or exams.

The focusing illusion lies in wait for us whenever we make a decision. Nattavudh “Nick” Powdthavee, an economist and author of The Happiness Equation, says that we have to try to “look beyond what’s salient about an experience”. Don’t just think about the obvious when making decisions; think about how day-to-day life is likely to change as a result – if it changes at all.

The four lessons of happynomics

(Image: Happiness / 20100117.7D.02031.P1.L1.BW / SML, See-ming Lee, CC-BY-SA)

Notable Replies

  1. I think it's a testament to the times we live in that so-called "economists" have been entrusted with determining "happiness" and other social metrics. When did the sociologists yield the floor to these nutcases who think everything can be quantified in fractions of a dollar? It's a sad state of academic affairs, I tell you, when sociology has become entirely qualitative.

  2. Some of the ground has arguably been legitimately lost (much of the theoretical basis of 'economics' as practiced is nonsense; but you can at least expect reasonably high level numeracy, and mathematics is a powerful tool, one not always as widely available as it ought to be in fields that draw more heavily from the humanists); but there seems to be some sort of internal siren call, tugging at economists, that compels some of them to go a bit off the rails and start pushing laughably naive work in disciplines that they know nothing about; but think can be captured by a model they find mathematically tractable.

    (In fairness to economists, this disorder is known to affect physicists as well and it's arguably similar to the 'What's with all the engineers in creationism and assorted fringe theories of climate?' matter.)

    Economics has an unhealthy number of dangerously naive (and/or ideologically blinkered) and overconfident number crunchers who are apparently content to ignore all sorts of confounding factors that other fields discovered long ago if their model is pretty enough; but they aren't likely to lose ground to the more humanistic types if they are reliably much more facile in attacking the (genuinely nontrivial) mathematical problems that arise when trying to do population level work as something other than psychology and extrapolation.

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