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LQD: Buying Happiness

by technopolitical Mon Apr 7th, 2008 at 02:48:59 PM EST

Research on money, spending, and happiness continues. The facts (as usual) undercut various prevailing ideologies. Consider the recent research report in the journal Science:

Spending Money on Others Promotes Happiness

Can money buy happiness? A large body of cross-sectional survey research has demonstrated that income has a reliable, but surprisingly weak, effect on happiness within nations (1, 2, 3), particularly once basic needs are met (4). Indeed, although real incomes have surged dramatically in recent decades, happiness levels have remained largely flat within developed countries across time (5). One of the most intriguing explanations for this counterintuitive finding is that people often pour their increased wealth into pursuits that provide little in the way of lasting happiness, such as purchasing costly consumer goods (6). An emerging challenge, then, is to identify whether and how disposable income might be used to increase happiness.

Ironically, the potential for money to increase happiness may be subverted by the kinds of choices that thinking about money promotes; the mere thought of having money makes people less likely to help acquaintances, to donate to charity, or to choose to spend time with others (7), precisely the kinds of behaviors that are strongly associated with happiness (8-12). At the same time, although thinking about money may drive people away from prosocial behavior, money can also provide a powerful vehicle for accomplishing such prosocial goals. We suggest that using money in this fashion--investing income in others rather than oneself--may have measurable benefits for one's own happiness.

As an initial test of the relation between spending choices and happiness...

Experimental methodology, etc., follows, and then some meat:

Promoted by Migeru


Finally, despite the observable benefits of prosocial spending, our participants spent relatively little of their income on prosocial ends; participants in our national survey, for example, reported devoting more than 10 times as much money for personal as for prosocial spending each month. Although personal spending is of necessity likely to exceed prosocial spending for most North Americans, our findings suggest that very minor alterations in spending allocations--as little as $5 in our final study--may be sufficient to produce nontrivial gains in happiness on a given day. Why, then, don't people make these small changes? When we provided descriptions of the four experimental conditions from our final study to a new set of students at the same university (N = 109) and asked them to select the condition that would make them happiest, Fisher's Exact Tests revealed that participants were doubly wrong about the impact of money on happiness; we found that a significant majority thought that personal spending (n =69) would make them happier than prosocial spending (n = 40) (P < 0.01) and that $20 (n = 94) would make them happier than $5 (n =15) (P < 0.0005). Given that people appear to overlook the benefits of prosocial spending, policy interventions that promote prosocial spending--encouraging people to invest income in others rather than in themselves--may be worthwhile in the service of translating increased national wealth into increased national happiness.
---------------

Dunn et al., Science, pp. 1687 - 1688,  21 March 2008
(behind a subscription wall for 12 months)

So...

  • More money = more happiness? True for the world-class poor, not so much for others. Score minus points for growth-obsessed brands of conservative ideology and for distribution-obsessed brands of progressive ideology.

  • Uncompensated loss of wealth = loss of value? Not if the "uncompensated loss" is a gift. Score minus points for selfish brands of conservative ideology.

  • Giving to the needy = giving to the needy, regardless of the mechanism? Not unless paying taxes promotes happiness among the taxpayers. Score minus points for welfare-state brands of progressive ideology.

  • People know what makes people happy? No, people generally don't even know what makes them happy. Score minus points for just about everyone.

Perhaps reducing misery and fostering life satisfaction should get more attention, and income per se less. (And then there's promoting community, opposing dangerous concentrations of power, not cooking the Earth, seeking a stable peace, and so on.)

But about that happiness/utility thing, a few foundational concepts have shifted and need to be reconsidered -- and the intellectual cathedrals that tower above them may need patches applied to a few minor cracks.

Display:
Enough! It's to for me to go do some work.

Words and ideas I offer here may be used freely and without attribution.
by technopolitical on Sun Mar 30th, 2008 at 07:15:33 PM EST
Putting people in the position of responding to a question about What Makes You Happy, or What Would Make You Happy, is tricky -- knowing that it is a questionnaire or survey, people may respond with what they think is the correct or acculturated answer, much as respondents to surveys about "how often do you have sex" tend to answer what they think is close to the average answer of their neighbours, and so on.  A lot of field work is based on survey results that are presumed to be frank and honest when, in fact, a lot of other field work suggests that people routinely lie, or give rote/"acceptable" answers, to this kind of question :-)  which is one thing that makes anthropology and field sociology such slippery disciplines.

Is it really that people don't know what makes them happy, or that the unhappiness of feeling out of step with the received culture is sharper than the unhappiness of not having what makes you happy?

In our culture, money is a religion or a cult.  Values outside of the fungible money nexus are derided.  Even our language, basic figures of speech, imagery, cognitive tools, are skewed towards market metaphors and images (much as an earlier epoch's cognitive toolset was skewed towards agrarian or maritime metaphors and images).  We talk without the least embarrassment about "investing" in a friendship, saying "you can take that to the bank" (meaning a promise you can rely on), and so on.  I could easily have written, above, that values outside the money nexus were "discounted."  I think people inside the cult of money answer "money would make me happy" in much the same way that, say, a well acculturated peasant or townsman in the 11th century in most of Euroland would have said that the goal of life was to get into Heaven.  Any other answer is heresy.

I guess most of us have heard the old anglophone joke, "if you're so smart, why ain't you rich?"

maybe our new edition of this should be, "if we're so rich, why ain't we happy?"

I guess we should really link this thread back to that incredibly, delightfully insane quote someone recently posted... the one from the economics paper that suggested that for really well-adjusted persons, happiness is not the point of being alive;  "success" and wealth should be far more important.  anyone remember that one?

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Mon Mar 31st, 2008 at 01:59:42 AM EST
I think people inside the cult of money answer "money would make me happy" in much the same way that, say, a well acculturated peasant or townsman in the 11th century in most of Euroland would have said that the goal of life was to get into Heaven.  Any other answer is heresy.

brilliantly put, as per.

there have been so many situations where the difference between life and death depended on having money, the most obvious and recent being that of jews trying to escape hitler before the pogroms, that i don't find it surprising that money is seen as prime mover of happiness in most peoples' eyes.

also children absorb values through the skin, and if they see their parents mentioning money and its magical powers to bring more santa surprises to a household, 'we can't afford it, darling', etc, it also doesn't surprise me that, until they learn better, that economic success becomes, and remains, the main driver for most peoples' lives, and symbolises 'success' to the point of insanity, expressed as glitz and flash ala las vegas.

this message is driven home even more cruelly through the teenage years, when positional goods become crucial to a young consumer's identity, and still young enough to be hyper-impressed by the lures of advertising, while also having the most disposable income demographically.

society abounds with cautionary tales about money not being able to buy happiness, but their hale influence is dwarfed by the 'sauce bernays' laid on so thick in a new media world, from their tv to their googlephone.

so, ignorant, spellbound, and armed with cash, they advance into an entitled adulthood only to learn that few get to have 'fuck-you' money, once they have to move out of home and manage their own funds.

in 1500 you had to die to find out if you were going to heaven...

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Mon Mar 31st, 2008 at 08:16:33 AM EST
[ Parent ]
sauce bernays

snort

good one melo

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Mon Mar 31st, 2008 at 12:33:09 PM EST
[ Parent ]
A classic--the saucy comment I will borrow, If you don't mind.

Capitalism searches out the darkest corners of human potential, and mainlines them.
by geezer in Paris (risico at wanadoo(flypoop)fr) on Tue Apr 1st, 2008 at 04:08:48 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Perverse relationships between happiness-related expectations and outcomes have been found to be widespread, and the evidence is robust. This is the sort of result that no one believes until it is hammered home by many examples and many methodologies. The overall pattern of perversity makes additional instances (like the one in the article) more credible because they are now less surprising.

I'm less sure of the quality of cross-cultural comparisons, but the general ability of people to be deluded seems universal. Think of the (only somewhat overrated) hedonic treadmill concept.

Words and ideas I offer here may be used freely and without attribution.

by technopolitical on Mon Mar 31st, 2008 at 02:54:06 PM EST
[ Parent ]
This seems conceptually related to risk homeostasis -- a perfectly self-evident yet oddly controversial topic (controversial I think because it makes a mockery of micromanagement attempts, particularly risk micromanagement by technocratic intervention).

The theory of risk homeostasis, which has been ably expounded by J Adams and G Wilde (separately), is that each invididual has an internally calibrated "riskostat" which is set to a comfort level idiosyncratic to that person.  So for example, if you tell that person that they driving a car equipped with superb automatic anti-lock braking, air bags, a secure seat belt system etc -- they will simply drive faster and more aggressively until their internal, subjective riskostat evens out again.

"Safety engineers" loathe this theory to bits, because they prefer a reductionist world where human actors are a static term in a mechanical model:  put hard hat on human, make human wear dayglo vest, make human wear seatbelt, and it's as simple as that -- instant injury/risk reduction.  However, in the real world all complex systems (including individual humans and societies/clans/neighbourhoods of humans) are interactive and have equilibrating behaviours;  they push back, as you might say, and adjust to new circumstances.  Critics of reductionist safety engineering sometimes refer to this as "consuming the safety margin".

Stats from the early days of seatbelt introduction -- when they were required only for drivers -- showed a sharp uptick in the number of injuries to passengers.  Drivers with seatbelts on felt safer and more secure, hence those with a medium to high riskostat setting consumed that benefit by driving faster and more aggressively;  those with a low riskostat setting benefitted by feeling less frightened and anxious while driving, i.e. they were lifted into their risk comfort zone rather than boosted out of it.

One of the best known RH studies is iirc the Berlin Taxi Driver Study, in which some percentage of drivers in a taxi fleet were told that their new taxis had state of the art ABS, and the rest were not told this.  (All the new taxis were in fact upgraded with ABS, to the best of my recollection.)  The taxis were equipped with GPS and accelerometers, so that speed and violence of manoeuvring could be recorded.  The upshot was not surprising;  the drivers who were told that their taxis were now "safer" and substantially improve, drove faster and braked a lot harder and later.

Another classic fingertrap of this kind is the "safe road" concept dear to traffic engineers, which means a road with extended sightlines (a euphemism for "no trees or other features anywhere near the roadway", very wide surface, very gentle graded curves, etc.  This road is supposed to be "safer to drive on" by presenting fewer surprises and obstacles to the progress of a motor vehicle.  However, in practise (and not surprisingly) motorists tend to "consume" these improvements by driving faster, until they reach their riskostat setting.  The only result of the road widening, tree removal, etc (aside from blighting the urban or rural environment around the roadway) is to set a de facto higher speed limit for the road, resulting in more risk to animals, pedestrians, cyclists, etc.

There's a suggestion in the literature that after basic needs are met (no one is very happy if they are involuntarily cold, hungry, or at physical risk), individuals may have personal "felistats" which recalibrate to a equilibrial level of happiness;  and that absolute material wealth is far less important than positional perception.  A chunk of evidence -- very intriguing stuff -- suggests that perceived inequality, i.e. having one's nose rubbed in the much greater wealth and privilege of other people, has a significant effect on general physical health as well as mental attitude;  that perceiving others as "ahead" or "better off" all the time produces in a large sample of people a generally elevated stress response, with attendant insomnia, indigestion, depressed immune system function and so on.

All fascinating stuff, but I think (OK, I have a bee in my bonnet on this, I admit it) the salient lesson in each case is that complex systems are self-equilibriating and respond to single-factor tweaks in ways that often defeat the tweakers' intent.  The human ability to adapt scares the bejeezus out of me, to be quite honest.  It is already "normal" for kids growing up in southern California that more than half the beaches they know of are closed for health/safety reasons due to urban effluent.  That's just how things are, and they're used to it.

This is the problem of the "shifting baseline" which has perplexed and saddened many a social justice or environmental activist;  that we adapt and become inured very quickly to conditions which only a generation (or less) earlier would have stirred outrage and a demand for action.  Almost anything can become normal, ordinary, background noise -- already many people are accustomed to the idea that e.g. the US has occupied Iraq and "there's a war going on" and why not?  That's just how it is.  The (deliberate?) shortness of attention span of US media, the cultivated amnesia and decontextualising of information, surely contribute to this problem...

Hmmm, I think I'm rambling.  But by now everyone is accustomed to that, right?  ;-)

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Mon Mar 31st, 2008 at 09:01:13 PM EST
[ Parent ]
There's a suggestion in the literature that after basic needs are met (no one is very happy if they are involuntarily cold, hungry, or at physical risk), individuals may have personal "felistats" which recalibrate to a equilibrial level of happiness;  and that absolute material wealth is far less important than positional perception.

Yes- occasionally discussed lately. But I think that's a problem of a superficial, insufficiently nuanced definition of "happiness". We're really talking about a family of feelings here.
In my diary quoting Layard, I revere his work though I think his definition is also too simple. But you gotta start somewhere.

Capitalism searches out the darkest corners of human potential, and mainlines them.

by geezer in Paris (risico at wanadoo(flypoop)fr) on Tue Apr 1st, 2008 at 04:26:14 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Quote:
The human ability to adapt scares the bejeezus out of me,
-----
Yeah...really that's my case nowadays...

Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind...Albert Einstein
by vbo on Tue Apr 8th, 2008 at 12:31:59 AM EST
[ Parent ]
DeAnander:
decontextualising of information

That is the source of 90% of the collectively overmediated public's cognitive dissonance.

Zooming from shots of starving children, genocide, tsunamis etc to catfood commercials and breezy blandishments that are discrete phenomena, weaves them into a narrative that is purely horizontal, an emotional levelling to lowest common denominator, a baseline-zero lake of infinite width and no depth at all, a mirage.

A world with no meta, no concentration, no insight, no depth of field, all surface-mirroring, where the endocrine psycho/neuro shock and desire buttons are both jammed in a permanent state of on, and this becomes the new 'normal'.

Logic and reason, and even more universal compassion, need time to respond, integrate, cohere phenomena.

The decontextualisation you speak of is tantamount to moral strip-mining, sucking conscience and critical thinking out of the brains of those to whom the virtual has replaced (virtually) all else, Truman show, mission accomplished...

DeAnander:

S and accelerometers, so that speed and violence of manoeuvring could be recorded.  The upshot was not surprising;  the drivers who were told that their taxis were now "safer" and substantially improve, drove faster and braked a lot harder and later.

Jeavon again. He's like Kilroy!

DeAnander:

Hmmm, I think I'm rambling.  But by now everyone is accustomed to that, right?  ;-)

Trailblazing.

There are huge supply lines of information backing you up!

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Tue Apr 8th, 2008 at 06:22:16 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I pretty much gave up television-watching in they early 1970s or so, living where the TV (if any) is dead or in a closet. What I see of it (usually in a hotel room) often strikes me as bizarre.

A world with no meta, no concentration, no insight, no depth of field, all surface-mirroring,...

That's the slow poison, or perhaps more like starvation by force-feeding of a nutrient-free pseudo-food.

...where the endocrine psycho/neuro shock and desire buttons are both jammed in a permanent state of on...

Indeed. The attempts to inflame desires are mostly absurd, in my eyes, but the shock stuff I can't even watch -- It's calibrated to stir up viewers who are desensitized by years of exposure, and viscerally repellent if you're not.

My shockostat has an incompatible setting.

Words and ideas I offer here may be used freely and without attribution.

by technopolitical on Wed Apr 9th, 2008 at 03:17:19 AM EST
[ Parent ]
DeAnander:
In our culture, money is a religion or a cult.

No, in our culture positional status is a cult, and money is the means by which status is displayed and calculated.

The US constitution should really say 'The right to pursue status' because that has always been the core Anglo value. 'Freedom' correlates to the ultimate positional good, which is the utter lack of responsibility or personal accountability for one's actions.

Once you crack the code statements which seem hypocritical or irrational suddenly start to make sense.

Money = status = power over others = freedom from personal consequences = 'happiness'

Economics is really a kind of giant civilisation-wide Rorshach blot - it can't be about rational planning or resource management, because it's based on these unconscious irrational motivations.

What's really being calculated is intangible, socially defined and faith-based, which is why it has such a bizarre aversion to reality.

This is why pogressives get such a screaming hard time from the status fundamentalists - we have an insane idea that people should act responsibly to each other and to the environment, and that's the last thing the fundamentalists want.

When people including presidential candidates genuflect in front of America, or Wall St, or the City what they're really worshipping is the cult of power over others and over physical reality. When the Economist sneers at people who don't want 'reform', it's making a positional claim to being on the inside of the citadel with the dispossessed starving hopeless masses outside - and that's exactly how it wants things to be.

It's a completely autistic world view. And historically it's mostly been the norm, which is why it's unfair to single its current incarnation as being unusually bad.

What's unusual this time around is that there's a semi-organised intellectual narrative for cooperation competing with it - not just in theory, but in practice, supported by political actions.

It's taken a serious battering in the last few decades, but it's not dead yet, and might yet surprise everyone.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Mon Apr 7th, 2008 at 04:59:56 PM EST
[ Parent ]
BTW -- here's a challenge.  what makes us happy?

not just amused or entertained, but really deep-down happy?

I'm gonna have to go off and think about that one for a while myself, though recent decisions and changes in my life have a lot to do with trying to answer that question (or deal with the implications of the answers to that question).

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Mon Mar 31st, 2008 at 02:02:32 AM EST
happiness is composed of moments that exceed or defy expectations.

strung like beads on the string of a lifetime, they make a necklace of contentment.

it takes many little notes to make a great symphony.

for me happiness is when, for reasons usually unplanned and unknown, my consciousness drills down through the crust of the banal, and finds the motherlode.

the best kind is also the quickest to disappear!

the more i learn to control the animal response of trying to grab and hold it, the longer it stays.

the more i learn to accept it without remark or condition, the more often it flies into my lap.

i take this shit very seriously! unhappiness was connected to money fetishisation very early, which helped to vaccinate me against mammon per se, yet i can see how money has a place in a good life, though it took me a long time to understand the correlation/causation factor, jaundiced as i was from seeing so many fucked up dysfunctional family situations, where less money might have been a very good thing.

a whole lot more philosophy would have met the problems way upstream and made the money issue moot, but the cookie didn't crumble that way, alas.

so many suicides of children in my parents' world, that demographic called the upper-middle, or those who were aspirants to upper class, but doomed never to get there.

and yes money was the only metric they used for satisfaction, its power supplanted their own, they became defined by money...

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Mon Mar 31st, 2008 at 08:33:18 AM EST
[ Parent ]
melo:
happiness is composed of moments that exceed or defy expectations.

strung like beads on the string of a lifetime, they make a necklace of contentment.

What a lovely expression....

melofluous I call it.....

"The future is already here -- it's just not very evenly distributed" William Gibson

by ChrisCook (cojockathotmaildotcom) on Mon Mar 31st, 2008 at 08:18:17 PM EST
[ Parent ]
lol!

when i reread it later, i thought 'too hallmark', specially for this blog.

it's true though...maybe we need sap like trees do.

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Mon Mar 31st, 2008 at 09:47:01 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Beware of introspection! Research indicates that becoming paraplegic doesn't make people very unhappy, long term. It seems that the mean level of happiness depends more on ones makeup than on events. (Bummer.)

Words and ideas I offer here may be used freely and without attribution.
by technopolitical on Mon Mar 31st, 2008 at 02:58:30 PM EST
[ Parent ]
See above comment.
And please write about it--

Capitalism searches out the darkest corners of human potential, and mainlines them.
by geezer in Paris (risico at wanadoo(flypoop)fr) on Tue Apr 1st, 2008 at 04:27:25 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Quote:
BTW -- here's a challenge.  what makes us happy?
------
I am 53 and my answer is very clear : peace of my soul. If I can only have it.There is no single material thing that I need, let alone that would make me happy.I would like life to be as simple as possible (but I am not that lucky thanks to my adult children's actions)...
Maybe I am just older then I should be at 53...

Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind...Albert Einstein
by vbo on Tue Apr 8th, 2008 at 12:41:27 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Looked at all your links- good stuff, but not easily accessible in several ways.
There is no more important question than this, for future policymakers of today.
Here's an excellent set of lectures that deal directly with the idea of buying happiness. They begin to lay the foundation for survivable policy in this area.

Happiness:   has social science a clue?

happiness and money, #2

happiness and money, #3

I think in many respects these are more directly relevant to the question of-- "what now?"- now that stuff has been revealed (surprise, surprise) as the death of our world as we know it.

--One fruit fly to the other-- " Geez, Fred-- stop worrying. It's a big bottle, and this here green stuff is quite good. just cool it, and eat up, before someone else gets there first."

Capitalism searches out the darkest corners of human potential, and mainlines them.

by geezer in Paris (risico at wanadoo(flypoop)fr) on Mon Mar 31st, 2008 at 05:49:03 AM EST
deAnander, Sven-- have you seen these lectures? Was gonna diary them, but they're so good already that I could'nt bear to cut them up.

Capitalism searches out the darkest corners of human potential, and mainlines them.
by geezer in Paris (risico at wanadoo(flypoop)fr) on Mon Mar 31st, 2008 at 05:52:21 AM EST
[ Parent ]
bruno-ken:
money does make you happy after all:

This week, however, two of the brightest up-and-coming economists in America have produced a forthcoming paper that argues that the Easterlin Paradox doesn't exist. Wharton's Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers have combed through masses of international and historical data on happiness. They conclude that we do, in fact, become happier overall as our country becomes richer. This is true over time - as generations get richer they get happier; and over space - people living in rich countries are happier than people in poor countries. They also refute the concept of a "satiation point" or the belief that, beyond a certain income threshold, further increases in national wealth cease to increase national happiness.

Financial Times: Wealth of the nation

It seems that for every economic study there's another economic study contradicting it...

When the capital development of a country becomes a by-product of the activities of a casino, the job is likely to be ill-done. — John M. Keynes
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Mon Apr 7th, 2008 at 02:43:26 PM EST


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