The Idiocy of the Ivory Study

I just finished reading a review by Tom Nagel in The New York Review of Books of books by Sissela and Derek Bok on happiness and I can tell you one person who isn’t happy–me. Did you know that one of what Nagel considers the “interesting results” of empirical research on happiness is that “almost all of the most pleasurable activities of the day take place outside of work.”

Wow, who would have thought! But I’m being facetious, of course. What blithering idiot doesn’t know that? That remark reminds me of a documentary I saw recently on PBS about happiness which reported that this really long and expensive study of happiness revealed that interpersonal relationships were the single most important factor in determining how happy a person was. Oh, really? We needed a long and expensive study to tell us that? Haven’t we known that since, you know, ancient Greece! Why is solitary confinement considered inhumane? Come on, we are spending money on studies like this? Could our situation get more absurd?

An “unexpected finding” observes Nagel of all this empirical research on happiness is that “greater economic equality of a society is not correlated with higher average happiness.” I’ll bet that was a surprise, and why, because it is flat out false. Who designed that study? My guess is that it was the guys who ruined the economy.  Don’t worry, I can just hear them say, however unhappy you are now, you’d be no happier, really, even if you could pay your bills.

Yeah, right. If you want to convince me that we are just as happy as, for example, Danes, then you’ve got to convince me that happiness is compatible with seething rage. Danes don’t shoot people who cut them off on the highway or take their parking spaces. I’ve feared for my life in this country when I just accidentally stepped in front of someone in a line. In fact, I’d have to say that the undercurrent of anger in this society was so obvious to me when I first moved back here from having spent eight years living in Denmark that it was the single most striking difference to me between the two cultures.

And you know why people are angry? Bok observes himself that Americans work more hours “than almost any other advanced industrial nation.” Yet he doesn’t see what ought to be the obvious implication of that fact–Americans don’t have time for “almost all the most pleasurable activities of the day.” The long hours point doesn’t cohere with the claim that we are as happy as people in countries where there is greater economic equality. That is, most of the people in those countries are working fewer hours and thus have more time for those “most pleasurable activities of the day that take place outside of work.” Since they have more time for them, one can reasonably assume they are having more of them. Most people probably don’t need that spelled out in such detail, but you never know, Derek Bok could be reading this.

“Opinion surveys,” observes Bok, “show that Americans are twice as likely (60 percent) as Europeans (29 percent) to believe that the poor can get rich if they only try hard enough.” He then goes on to observe that “lower-income Americans are less likely to blame society when inequality grows and more inclined to believe that persons of great wealth must deserve their good fortune.” Bok suggests, unless I have misunderstood Nagel’s presentation of his point, that this is a good thing, as if blaming yourself for your inability to pay your bills is going to somehow make you happier than being able to blame someone else.

“Any incremental [increase in] happiness for the poor is likely to erode,” writes Bok, “as beneficiaries grow accustomed to their income and adjust their aspirations upward.” Give a guy a shopping cart and the next thing you know, he’ll be lusting after a refrigerator box. People are just never satisfied with what they have! “Moreover,” continues Bok, “as researchers have discovered, taking money from one group creates much more distress than the added happiness gained by giving the same amount to another.” Oh yeah, I forgot, we certainly wouldn’t want to “distress” the super rich just to keep people from having their houses foreclosed upon.

Bok, et al. would do well to come out of their ivory towers, or ivory studies, as the case may be. It is absurd to conduct empirical studies on happiness in a country where increasing numbers of people are sinking into a debt so deep that they will likely never be able to dig themselves out of it. Yeah, sure, fine, a raise may not make someone happier who is already able to meet the basic requirements of life, someone who doesn’t need that raise in order to be able to keep his house, or keep his kids in college. But our current challenge is not solving the mystery of why people are never happy with what they have, even when by most reasonable objective standards what they have is more than enough. Our challenge is solving the problem of the multitudes in this country who don’t have enough by such standards. Bok would do well to remember Dickens’ lines from David Copperfield: “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pound ought and six, result misery.” And just think, Dickens figured that out all by himself, without the aid of an empirical study.

This essay appeared in CounterPunch on 1/24/2011.

4 responses

  1. Happiness is in the eye of the beholder. One of the foundations of the United States was the pursuit of happiness, which according to the eye might have 300 million different definitions. Where is your or my definitional straw in this hayfield? The only way we will know if we agree is to ask each other. These studies attempt to place parameters on these definitions by asking people on what they agree upon. Whether such studies are useful in doing this will depend on the wisdom and creativity of the researchers, as in any area of study. Whether such studies studies should be funded is also up to the beholder. Politicians are always telling us they know what makes us happy so perhaps the best study on happiness would compare their ideas versus the rest of us.

    • You make some excellent points here. I’m very interested in the issue of what constitutes happiness and would never want to discourage anyone from doing research into it. Some of this purported “research” appears, however, to be reinventing the wheel. We DO know some things about happiness. We know, for example, that although money doesn’t necessarily bring happiness, at least beyond a certain point, being able to pay one’s bills does. I think there is some good research on happiness, but I don’t think we’re ever going to be able to reliably quantify it.

      I think your suggestion that we ought to survey politicians on their conceptions of happiness and compare those conceptions with those of the general public is an excellent one. I would love to see that!

  2. Thanks, MG. There is much research which is not necessarily reinventing the wheel as much as trying to come up with ways to describe a circle! Some of these studies are just advertisements for the researchers; ways to justify their funds but every once in awhile, a statement is made which can send an area into a new line of thought. Sometime the statement is trite and our minds say,” I can do better than that”, which is where we both find ourselves in reading many of these studies. We are all interested in happiness, of course and want to know how others feel about it. This is a known market which leads to money and publication space being lent to these studies. PS. I was led to your blog by a comment in the NY Times and thank-you for your offering, it was (a) muse for me on this subject.

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