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Affective happiness as described herein is a shining example of the Uncertainty Principle: measuring it changes the value. Imagine a white coat with a clipboard bursting into the bedroom; "Excuse me, is either of you happy now?

Studying happiness is all very good fun, but perhaps the effort would be better directed toward human misery, which, besides being much more important, is certainly easier to quantify: infant mortality, life expectancy, malnutrition, fecal coliform in water, murder rate, days/month with incoming ordnance... the list goes on

So the takeaway here sounds like marriage doesn't necessarily mean happiness?

Along these lines, you should read an obscure little book by G.B. Shaw, The Quintessence of Ibsenism.

Joseph - "but perhaps the effort would be better directed toward human misery"

Here's a couple of reasons why it's a good idea not to limit the focus of public policy to alleviation of misery. First, it makes it easy to ignore first world problems - to reason that, if people aren't malnourished, and the infant mortality rate is low, then there's no need for public policy interventions to improve the quality of people's lives. Not true. Good policy still has a role to play in making people's lives better.

Second, people have been trying to reduce infant mortality and increase life expectancy for decades. There's political value in framing the issues in a new and more positive way - people can start to feel jaded struggling with the same old problems; happiness research is something new(er).

Jim, thanks.

Happiness seems like something that has its limits. Being perpetually ecstatic sounds like a mental problem or drug addiction. Even neutral could be quite happy, and memories of recent happiness and expectations of future happiness could seem to affect it for both better or worse. I wonder if unhappiness may be better starting point, each being unhappy in their own way.

An onteresting sidelight (although it may be paywalled) at History Today:


The authors are careful in their definitions. They use the word “happiness” in a technical sense which the authors explain. While the word “happiness” might have a variety of colloquial uses, this state of affairs is no different than how economists use technical words like “efficient” or “affordable” different from everyday parlance. Physicists know that electrons do not literally spin, and mathematicians know that monstrous moonshine has nothing to do with massive illicit distilling, but they nevertheless use these terms to convey a specific meaning.

You say, “I think I'm less paternalistic than John is.” Really? You say in your comments, “First, it makes it easy to ignore first world problems,...then there's no need for public policy interventions to improve the quality of people's lives. Not true. Good policy still has a role to play in making people's lives better.” Hmmmm..., making people's lives better. At whose expense? Under whose definition of better? Who decides how much Pareto optimality to sacrifice in the quest for “better lives”? Sounds pretty paternalistic to me, just of a different sort. We are way beyond, “hey, let's just all chip in for public goods”.

"Sounds pretty paternalistic to me"

Sounds like a libertarian troll to me. But maybe I'm just grumpy 'cause I had to change a burnt out headlight (requires removing the air filter box and scraping knuckles in tight corners) in -20C.

First, let me say that I agree with you about reading survey questions carefully. Small changes in wording can make a huge difference in responses, even when they do not seem to change the meaning of the question much, if at all. Also, when you deal with pollster surveys, there is a lot to criticize. I remember once looking at some political survey questions, and it was possible to predict which alternative would get the higher rate of agreement by simply counting the number of words in the question. The longer alternative elicited higher agreement. (As I had expected. ;))

Second, the word "happiness" is ambiguous in the vernacular. I, for one, interpret it in the context of marriage and happiness pretty much as the authors intended. Happiness means something different when you ask if marriage makes you happy than when you ask if chocolate makes you happy. At the same time I am not, err, happy when social scientists appropriate ordinary words and assign them a technical meaning that is close to the vernacular. "Action" in physics does not on its face have much to do with "action" in the vernacular. Nor does "energy". There is not much chance of confusion. But "happiness" is likely to be misunderstood, if it is used as a technical term. You can even get arguments about what happiness means when someone insists that the technical meaning is the only correct meaning.

Bella DePaulo's article in Psychology Today (saying there are numerous countries where single people are happier) raises an interesting question: what if you live in a society where, on average, the institution of marriage is unlikely to be satisfying? What if you live in a place like China where single people over 27 are subjected to routine private and public shaming?

Perhaps the research, if accurate, says that Western countries have managed to craft a relatively successful institution by making it more appealing to educated people with above-average incomes. When marriage rates among lower-SES groups are falling (as in the US), it can only lead to having the institution populated more by those with plenty of other things in their favor. Perhaps a study on the impact of knowing a good interior designer on happiness would yield a similar result.

On the other point of happiness versus satisfaction, there are certainly lots of people with few material complaints and decent health who would say their lives are unfulfilling. Surely there's a compelling case for economists to measure to what extent people believe they have made the best of their lives and their abilities.

Well, it's clear that marriage doesn't make everyone happy, as two-thirds of all divorces are requested by women (http://bit.ly/1BJn1aw). many it just makes us happy for a while. According to sociologist and author Pepper Schwartz, 53 percent of U.S. women aged 18 an older are single and many may stay that way for good. Why? She suggests that marriage just isn’t a good deal anymore for women, especially now that we have so many options (http://bit.ly/1Bvuyya), not just in the States but throughout the world. I imagine if single people could be financially secure, have good friends and connections with their community, and have sex whenever they want it -- and still have their freedom -- marriage would not be seen as the way to have a happy or even satisfying life.

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