Last night’s debate on happiness

It was Jeffrey Sachs and Betsey Stevenson against myself and Will Wilkinson on the topic of whether America is failing in the pursuit of happiness.  The Economist magazine was the sponsor and it was held in Gotham Hall in New York, which yes could have been out of a Batman movie.

As I had expected, Will proved to be the world’s best debating partner, or at least in the top two (my previous debate partner was Randall Kroszner, for a year in high school).

The initial tally of sentiment was about 67-33 in favor of the Sachs-Stevenson position that America is indeed failing at the pursuit of happiness.  By the end of the debate there was a slight margin in favor of the Cowen-Wilkinson position.  The crowd turned, I believe, in part because Sachs pursued attacks on the current administration rather than focusing on the defined topic at hand.  He was rendered shrill by the unholy madness of something or other, as Brad DeLong would put it.  Will and I don’t like current policy either, but we looked happy.  We were happy.  We are happy.  We also had a long array of facts and citations from the happiness literature and some pointed rebuttals to the so-called Easterlin paradox.

Many loyal MR readers were there, so of course your impressions are invited, even if you don’t usually leave comments.  Who else is to tell this story if not you?  Expect to see reports on Will’s blog and by Felix Salmon as well.

Addendum: Here is Will, Tyrone may weigh in soon.


"but we looked happy."

So, you're saying, style counted over substance? Snark!

Your divorce rate says you're not happy - or, at least, not happy with each other.

Overall, the debate went very well and it was well worth 30 dollars. Some observations....

The topic was too broad. I often found the two sides debating two different topics. "Is America failing at the pursuit of happiness" leaves a lot of wiggle room.

On the debaters:
Betsy Stevenson started off. Her voice was tinny and her rhetorical style seemed like something you would see/read in a highschool debate/paper. I had trouble hearing her all night long - except near the end where she nearly came undone, dropping bottles and even interrupting the other side at one point...

Jeffrey Sachs pulled no punches. He went straight to the jungular like some crazy left wing lunatic. He should write for the Daily Kos. Alas, unlike Betsy, you could actually hear what he was saying and he got some good points in. But overall, his argumentative style was not substantive, he tried to appeal to peoples' dislike of Bush and current politics.

Wil Wilkinson was by far the best debater. The quickest on his feet, most forceful, and most articulate. However, he did make some references that the vast majority of folks did not get, like a reference to cats causing schizophrenia... Also, he admitted that places like Sweden are ok despite the fact that they are nanny states. This seemed to cause tremendous delight to Jeffrey Sachs who spent the rest of the evening pointing out that someone from the Cato Institute said that a nanny state was not so bad.

Lastly, Tyler Cowen. He is much more low key than I thought he would be. Although it was hard to hear him at times because of this, it proved to make him more compelling because he did not seem as rabid as the opposing side. He used several of Betsy's own research points against her which was slick.

I went with a fairly large group of people and afterwards we went to get some beer and food. My final observation is this:

If you were not a rabid idealogue than Tyler and Wil, by far, did a more convincing job. Nearly all those at my table who did not have strong held views at the beginning came away agreeing with Tyler and Wil and even some of those who had strongly held views ended up agreeing with Tyler and Will.

Good Job! Hope to see more debates!

Sad to have missed this. Sadder still that you omitted the gory details. Is there not a web video? Podcast? Transcript? Summary story in the Economist?

*sigh*. As a (relative) leftist myself, I have to ask why is it that in these sort of debates, the left side always goes rabid? Do the debate organizers deliberately hire leftists who can only bombast, and not argue incisively?

If I was hiring, the first criteria for rejecting a possible debater would be "do you think the opposition is evil?"

On the topic of whether America is failing in the pursuit of happiness ... "By the end of the debate there was a slight margin in favor of the Cowen-Wilkinson position."

Does that mean we are only doing so-so?

I have to chuckle that some above seem to take a "slight margin" as a mandate ... what is this, Florida? I, the moderate, wonder what better plans for pursuit of happiness might look like.


Considering the location of the debate, I would have to say that Tyler and Will's slight margin (and the change in predebate sentiment is more significant than it might appear.

Sachs was over the top. Wilkinson came off a touch snarky at times and referred to "The Data" a little reverently, but generally was right on point. Tyler was calm, but also stepped up the intensity in a good way in his closing statement. Will and Tyler really started to win the crowd when they acknowledged that there were problems with America (education, some poverty) but that the answer isn't necessarily to enact Jeff Sach's personal policy agenda.

Though I was on Tyler & Will's side of the argument, *attending* this debate lowered my happiness. I was reminded that the average American views Jeffrey Sachs as some kind of heroic do-gooder whose policy proposals should be implemented as soon as possible.

Remember that public schoolteacher in the Q&A whose question focused on "freedom from debt," "freedom from student loans" and "freedom from health-care costs"? Um, show me those rights in the Constitution, ma'am. (She got a huge applause, of course.)

I was there. From my seat, I would say Tyler understates the change. I would guess a good 1/3 of the audience changed its position. This is with what I got away. Betsy-Jeffrey's point: we need government to make us happy. The current government is bad. Therefore we are unhappy. Tyler-Will's point: the diversity and freedom in the U.S. is such that we can be (and are) happy, despite bad policies and problems. Worst argument: relying too much on data. Data tells you what you want it to say (as it was well pointed out). Best argument: Betsy and Jeff claim to be happy, despite their position and their dislike of current policies + immigration flows into the U.S. not out...
It was fun and worthy. If Tyler and Will do it again, go. If you are not a New Yorker, come. You will have a good time. And you may even see Batman peeking out from behind the economist-red lid columns of Gotham Hall...

I was there. I thought there was an interesting disconnect between the two sides of the debate.

The affirmative took a narrow view of the topic and discussed what the US gov't is doing *right now*, and how these policies would affect the happiness of the nation in the future (clearly if current policies lead to en environmental apocalypse that would have a negative effect on happiness).

The negative, on the other hand, spent much more time discussing long term trends in US governance and institutions and showed (convincingly so) that these have led to a great deal of happiness in the US.

On a separate note, I felt that the audience question part of the debate was the least interesting (as I often do at these sorts of things). I was there to here the ideas of the 4 debaters (experts int their various fields) and not the rambling questions of random audience members.

Topic that wasn't touched on (very much) that I REALLY find interesting: If American's are less happy because they have anxiety about their futures (as the affirmitive claimed), but this anxiety is largely unfounded (see Bryan Caplan), then what (if anything) really needs to change to better promote happiness?

GENUINE HAPPINESS is a state of mind that CANNOT BE REACHED by endlessly acquiring external objects and "improved" relations to the physical world (past the point of basic sustenance of course).

The "need" to acquire objects and status are merely the result of a lack of contentment with oneself. Such a habit pattern of improving physical conditions may support your spiritual practice, but that is the extent of its help. So this debate in a large way was beating around the bush. It did not address the root cause of suffering here in America.

I suggest all those interested in actually being happy read "Genuine Happiness" by B. Alan Wallace and watch this video. Those are available at the following URLs:

Another useful resource is the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies.

Best of luck in your endeavors.

I have mentioned in past MR threads that I like Daniel Gilbert's book, "Stumbling on Happiness." I think it provides a good politics-free, economics-free, and policy-free foundation.

Happiness is (as some say above) biological. It is an internal "how am I doing?" thing. If you think you are doing good, you are probably happy. If you think you are doing badly, you might get sad. (See Glibert's book for interesting limits and feedbacks.)

I guess the frustrating thing, when you start from that foundation, is to see people on the right and left dancing away from happiness. They are literally less interested in being happy than in keeping their beliefs.

Left: If the data does not show that the government can hand out happiness, the data must be wrong.

Right: If the data does not show that ever increasing wealth brings ever increasing happiness, than the data must be wrong.

Both the right and the left (in those extremes) are ignoring the biology as they try to prevent their oxen from being gored (redistribution of wealth, or pursuit of wealth).

The sad bottom line might be that you need freedom (including economic freedom) to pursue personal happiness ... but that freedom does nothing to insure that you go about that pursuit in the right way.

BTW, how strong do you think the evolution vs. creation subtext is in this happiness discussion? My view is strongly evolution based. Perhaps the creationist happiness is common ... no that can't be true. If we were a strongly Christian and faith based nation surely we'd be less materialistic in our pursuit of happiness.

Oh yes. I have an explanation for why 1956 may have been the year of maximum happiness in the US.
If one accepts Kahnemann and Krueger that "intimate relations" (the term they used) is at the top
of the list of activities that make people happy, then I would note that 1957 was the year of all
time maximum births in the US. Hmmmmmm.... :-).

Anybody know how happiness correlates with credit card debt? That would be an interesting one.

And now that the auto plants are laying off their well-paid successors those folks are doing
what? I will also note that the original studies by Oswald and crew were in Great Britain, where
the chronic unemployment in the heavy industrial sector has been in the north of England and in
southern Scotland. Those areas are now finally turning around, but they experienced declining
employment, especially of those high paying, unionized industrial jobs, for a many decade period.
Sure, they could move away (and so can all those Michigan autoworkers), but a lot of people are
not all that happy about moving away from their home, and in any case, in this economy many of
those people lack the skills to get a job that will pay as well.

And for that matter, you do not know that all the others did something else. The evidence is
well established that during periods of rising unemployment, things like spousal abuse rates and
suicide rates go up. Some of these people conveniently kill themselves, and so we do not need to
worry about them anymore. This went on big time during the US recession of 1982, which saw a
permanent and large decline of employment in the entire coal-steel-auto complex of the US economy.
This decline in this union-heavy sector, perceived to be at least partly tied to auto imports,
was what triggered the AFL-CIO, and eventually much of the Democratic Party, to go protectionist.

David Roberts,

It is hardly a strawman to write that some want government to manage happiness. Indeed, someone above wrote the following:

it seems obvious that to the extent government policy can be geared to producing circumstances conducive to life satisfaction, it should

Now, if that person meant that govnernment should place no barriers in front of people's personal pursuit of happiness, then I might be willing to withdraw my objection, but I doubt that is what was implied. Which do you think it was?

I was there, and loved it. First off, the highlight of the whole day for me was Kal's lesson on drawing Bush. I've been perfecting it all weekend!

Second, I thought Sachs was entirely underwhelming. Betsy sounded a tad confused, and pretty much gave you (Tyler) arsenal for attack.

Will was persuasive, although his trembling hands seemed to betray a certain lack of confidence.

Tyler, you were articulate and persuasive - although you could've spoken closer to the mic.

In the end, I think I still believe that 'America is failing in its pursuit for happiness'. The reason I was one of the people who changed their vote from Sachs-Stevenson to Wilkinson-Cowen is that in the end, your arguments were better, you were more persuasive and they were completely off the point.

Regarding unemployment and happiness, I shall make a further point. There are two aspects
of this, a short-term one and a longer term one. A general finding of the happiness lit
is that most people, most of the time, have a reference level of happiness to which they
tend to return. It is unexpected events, up or down, that tend to move them away from that
up or down. But then they tend to drift back to their reference level, if nothing else

So, getting laid off, especially without warning, is definitely one of the worst of the
negative shocks, and makes people very unhappy. However, like the death of a spouse, this
is one of those shocks that tends to wear off after awhile.

However, if it is a permanent shock, structural unemployment, with the person in question
not finding themselves able to shift to something else nearly as good, they will suffer a
decline in income, and in relative income and status also, fully documented by Easterlin
and everybody else to tend to lower one's satisfaction, if not moment-to-moment happiness,
although this new reference level will be higher than that reached in the immediate aftermath
of the initial layoff.

Clearly age and circumstance has a lot to do with this. Someone in their 20s or even 30s
is generally much more able to get retrained or move or do something else and get themselves
readjusted to get some kind of reasonably decent job, if not necessarily one quite as good
as they had. Also, for the much older who are near retirement age, well, they just effectively
take early retirement. Those hardest hit are likely to be in their 40s or early 50s, not
close enough to retirement, but perhaps at a higher level at their old job, and not able to
retrain or move to get anything close to that level.

A curious parallel to this is the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union. In case
anybody does not know, happiness levels plunged with that event. People were not en masse,
overjoyed by the end of Communist rule, although the plunge in happiness was probably driven
more by the collapse in living standards that happened (and indeed as Pew reports, happiness
levels are rising in those countries now as income levels are rising). Along with these
measured levels of happiness, there was a widespread increase in suicides. Who increased
their suicide rates the most? Males in their 40s.

Clearly, Will and Tyler had the rhetoric skill on their side and their opponents were weak. The evidence, however, is not so clear. As Michael Foody rightfully points out above, the immigrants into the US are the strong in their country who are favored by the American system: healthy, ambitious and a large group of them well educated. Who is left behind are the weak---people who are ill or lack education. Most of them grew up in this country!

People tend to compare their lot to the (perceived) national average. Therefore, the huge inequalities in the US play against the happiness of the average population. This can probably not be alleviated significantly by higher unemployment support or other government hand-outs. But better access to high-quality education and better protection from health risks would most certainly help.


I would say it is either to different people. The same might be said of laws against assualt.

I think a clear principle would be that your pursuit of happiness, however you define it, cannot impinge on another's pursuit his/her own. Where I have problems is the way the definition of "impinge" seems to be far too elastic for many people, maybe even a majority of people. Am I impinging on a person's pursuit of happiness by having a higher income, for example?


You clearly did not read my last comment, especially the last paragraph. It was not just
the Soviet Union but pretty much the entire former Soviet bloc where happiness levels plunged
after the fall of the Wall and the end of Communist rule, and in 1991, the end of the Soviet Union.
But there is good reason to believe that major chunks of that were due to the massive recession/
depression that hit all of those countries, to varying degrees however. Real incomes fell,
unemployment rose, inflation rose, inequality increased, benefits disappeared, and so and so forth.

This decline in real incomes and rise in unemployment was especially extreme in the former East
Germany because of the unification of the currencies occurring at a one-to-one rate, when it was
pretty clear that a three-to-one rate would have been more reasonable. So, the industries in the
former GDR found themselves operating with a wildly overvalued currency, in a newly competitive
framework. As a result, between September 1989 and September 1991, industrial output plunged over
50% and layoffs by 2nd quarter of 1991 amounted to a third of the labor force. No wonder people
were unhappy.


Apparently you did not read the full comment. People have reference levels of happiness tied to expected
reference levels of income, with relative incomes being very important.

So, in the old system, they were the top of the heap within the Soviet bloc, selling high tech goods to the
other CMEA countries. Then, when the Wall fell, they were no longer in comparison with their former CMEA
members, but with the West Germans, the Wessis, who it is known almost immediately began looking down on them,
the Ossis. And then their incomes collapsed, reducing their living standards, even if those remained above
most of those in the former Soviet bloc, which was now buying the East Asian competitor goods formerly
purchased from the former GDR. To add injury to insult, many East Germans were fired from their jobs for
political reasons (many teachers, lawyers, and so forth), and Wessis even moved in to take over many of the
better paying and managerial and higher level jobs. They were reduced in both real income, relative income,
and status. So, they had plenty to be unhappy about, although things have been improving in more recent
years, and the happiness levels have been going back up again, if still well below those in western Germany.

Barkley, it seems to me that for the most part we violently agree. Here is the main point I think we both try to make: The East Germans were better off than the other East European countries, yet they were very unhappy because the baseline for their self-assessment changed from Soviet bloc countries to West Germany, thereby moving up and making them look poor in comparison.

The one point I'm not so sure about:
> They were reduced in both real income
So you are saying their incomes in absolute terms were lower after the unification than before? Note that the loss in competitiveness was offset by the large transfers of aid money from the West---a treat that was not available to any other country in the former Soviet bloc.

I find it mind-boggling that people who have thought long and hard on this subject can cast America's collective approach to pursuing happiness (i.e. politics) as off-topic!

To think that an individual pursuing his or her happiness/security/satisfaction is somehow unrelated to the collective effort (i.e. politics) strikes me as ... I don't know ... bizarre.

It was a shame that you didn't engage in this critical component of the topic (and that Sachs used the dirty word in the first place).

Barkley, the numbers I find paint a different picture. Incomes in East Germany rose by more than 20% by October 1990 and another 50% by Fall 1991. According to the Halle Institute for Economic Research (IWH) the transfers between 1991 and 2003 amount to about 1.2 trillion Euro---other estimates are even higher. The East German GDP in 1989 was only 208 billion Euro. The one-to-one currency conversion in 1990 alone cost more than 130 billion Euro.

Thanks to the transfers, the absolute wealth of East Germany improved with the unification---in spite of the plunging economic output. East Germans were unhappy in spite of their improved financial situation.

JF, it's interesting isn't it? We pursue some political goal because we may think it will improve our (or the collective) happiness, but we rarely frame it that way. Politicians don't say "vote for me, I'll make you happy." It is all indirect, and one step removed. It's "vote for me, I'll cut taxes" or "vote for me, I'll improve medical care."

A lot of confusion about dates. The major collapse came after the
unification of the currencies in mid-1990, prior to political unification
several months later.

Barkley, Yes! I completely agree with your conclusion. I suspected that we agreed on the main question all along. Thank you for your persistence. :-)

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