Which happiness results are robust?

Timothy N.Bond and Kevin Lang have a report from the front:

We replicate nine key results from the happiness literature: the Easterlin Paradox, the ‘U-shaped’ relation between happiness and age, the happiness trade-off between inflation and unemployment, cross-country comparisons of happiness, the impact of the Moving to Opportunity program on happiness, the impact of marriage and children on happiness, the ‘paradox’ of declining female happiness, and the effect of disability on happiness. We show that none of the findings can be obtained relying only on nonparametric identification. The findings in the literature are highly dependent on one’s beliefs about the underlying distribution of happiness in society, or the social welfare function one chooses to adopt. Furthermore, any conclusions reached from these parametric approaches rely on the assumption that all individuals report their happiness in the same way. When the data permit, we test for equal reporting functions, conditional on the existence of a common cardinalization from the normal family. We reject this assumption in all cases in which we test it.

I can’t recall the last time a single paper so influenced my overall view of a field.  Their critique is even stronger than the abstract makes it sound.


Hmmm. I see several problems with this paper. They overstate the degree of agreement there is on several of these supposed "key results." There was already a debate here about the matter of the age-happiness curve. There is ongoing debate about the Eastelin paradox, about the impact of children on happiness, and to varying degrees some of the others. Some of these debates arise from the fact that there are several competing measures of happiness, or life satisfaction, which tend to be positively correlated with each other, but not perfectly so. Certainly most studies assume that respondents reply the same way for a given question, although quite a few recognize this may not be the case in a caveat, with this perhaps most important in cross-national studies where cultural differences are generally recognized as a serious issue. I think their arguments about assumptions about underlying distributions and also about social welfare functions of researchers not to be too strong. Sure, comparing across cultures or even across individuals over time in a given culture are problematic, but it is harder to reject panel data on individuals for a given question.

? I’m not one of the authors. I do, however, find happiness research to be trying to measure angels and pins.

What about their arguments about assumptions and social welfare functions do you find to be “not too strong”?

The big thrust of this paper, which has been kicking around unpublished since 2014. is that if one changes assumptions about underlying probability distributions of happiness (however measured), one can get different rankings across comparative aggregates cuah as nations or regions. But this is a vacuous charge. One does not need to make any assumptions. One can just go and estimate the distributions, and this has been done. So the UN studies under Helliwell find aggregate world happiness measured using the Cantril ladder is normally distributed. That also holds for East Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. Things get odd for high income nations. So the US is fit easily with a Beta distribution, while the distribution in Europe is very odd and not easily fit. So, well, this paper is relevant for Europe, whoop-de-doo. Then we have the issue that social welfare functions are only necessary if again one is making aggregate comparisons. If one sticks to panel data on individuals, one is fine in the ordinal utility tradition, and the paper essentially says that. However, of course, if one does want to impose a social welfare function, that is put weights on people, most are not too unhappy with just treating them equally. Really, there is not much to this paper.

Thanks, that cleared quite a bit of it up for me.

I always instinctively roll my eyes at this stuff, maybe that’s not completely fair to the literature.

Im wary in general of self reported survey data, especially given social desirability bias and especially with mood state survey data.

What are we actually measuring? Agreeableness ?

Depends on which question is asked in where and in what language and culture. Just to note that many ask how "happy" people are while some others ask how "satisfied with your life you are" and the Cantril ladder is a third question. Answers on happiness seem to be more focused on immediate attitudes, as in "how are you feeling right now?" life satisfaction seems to focus on a attitude. They correlate, but one area they differ is in income and social status, which seem to be more important for life satisfaction than momentary happiness.

We can't even measure pain reliably. Such subjective reporting data are entirely unreliable, and until we find a way to climb into another person's consciousness, it will forever remain entirely unreliable.

This research is a GIANT waste of time.

All of this research carries lots of caveats. But it must be noted that there is now a very large amount of data, with that data based panels of individuals we can somewhat seriously, supporting certain conclusions, most of them sort of what we would expect, such as people report being happier when employed, getting an unexpected increase in income, being healthy, having reliable friends and family, and some others. There are other areas where there is much more debate and ongoing study, such as how much a nation's increase in income raises happiness levels in it, what is the relation between age and reported happiness, and issues related to gender and children. Careful researchers always make it clear they are reporting on certain specific measures while properly caveating on the limits of what these may mean. But, your claim that this is a GIANT waste of time looks off as indeed some fairly robust findings have been founs.

"We show that none of the findings can be obtained relying only on nonparametric identification."

Any explication available of this intriguing but puzzling sentence?

Non-parametric = no assumptions about the "true" underlying distribution of the data. It means the trends can't be identified if we don't make assumptions like normally distributed data, or some other distribution that is handy for a parametric test.

Let us be blunt: Americans know they must silence those who oppose their pro-totalitarism policies. It is Munich all over again.

My problem with Leonard's view is that it assumes that the POV of the top brass in China is indeed one of awe and wonderment, because (a) as far as I can see, he has hardly any direct quotes, and doesn't seem to have spoken to anyone particularly high up and (b) if this is in fact their understanding of Trump's strategy, shouldn't their response reflect that? To me, China's response to Trump's threats does not strike me as the response of a party that holds the view that Leonard seems to suggest they hold.
None of this is to say that no one in China holds this view of Trump... I just don't think this is the final consensus view in China.

The zero tariffs deal with Europe will prove that Donald Trump listened to worldwide wisdom of Porfirio Diaz and Tony Abbott. If the world accepts his wise proposal for zero tariffs worldwide Donald Trump will go down in history as the progenitor of empirical free trade just as Adam Smith or Ricardo (or whoever it was so many hundreds of years ago) was the progenitor of theoretical free trade.


China’s respect for Donald Trump’s strategic ‘creative destruction’ seems to suggest that China understands Joseph Schumpeter and how to ride the capitalist long wave far better than almost all the economists and all the political scientists in the West’s anti-Western citadels of learning the university sector.


I wouldn't wish to encourage Mr. Trump's "creative destruction", but this is what Robert Gilpin wrote in 1981 about hegemonic decline: "He argued that over time, the costs to the hegemon of maintaining the status quo would rise relative to the benefits, for several reasons. First, the leading economy eventually hits a growth slowdown because of lagging innovation. Second, the cost of leading military technologies continues to escalate at the same time that an affluent population loses its “martial spirit.” Third, personal and public consumption supplant more productive forms of investment spending. Fourth, the shift of the economy into the service sector makes productivity gains that much harder. Fifth, Gilpin warned about the “corrupting influence of affluence” on the hegemon. See if this sounds familiar:

Perhaps the most pernicious aspect of this “corruption” (a term used in its classical sense to mean decay) is the generation in the minds of a dominant people of the belief that the world they (or, rather, their forebears) created is the right, natural, and God-given state of affairs. To such a people the idea that the world of their rule and privilege could be otherwise becomes inconceivable. The goodness and benefits of the status quo, as they know it, are so obvious that all reasonable men will assent to its worth and preservation. With such a state of mind, a people neither concedes to the just demands of rising challengers nor makes the necessary sacrifices to defend its threatened world."

That is from Daniel Drezner's column in the WP yesterday paying tribute to Mr. Gilpin, who died last month. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/posteverything/wp/2018 /07/25/robert-gilpin-r-i-p/ Cowen's term for the "decay" that leads to hegemonic decline is complacency. Me, I'm more of the Kenneth Waltz "balance of power" kind of person (on which the liberal world order that Trump wishes to destroy is based). That's the discussion we should be having: Gilpin's vision or Waltz's vision.

One, The FDA approves the paper as a cure for insomnia.

Two, More mental masturbation.

And here I thought happiness was dependent on your national team winning the World Cup.

Au contraire. Winning the World Cup makes you so unhappy that you burn down your cities.

Famously in 1950 after Uruguay won the World Cup in a stunning upset over Brazil, 2 separate people committed suicide and explained in their notes that they were so ecstatically happy that they knew the rest of their lives would be a let down, so they decided to go out on top.

I'm not convinced happiness is even well-defined scientifically. There are vague associations with the term that make it less than useful. It might be better to see people as having various preferences, sometimes shifting in time, and to investigate mechanisms how to coordinate their most valued preferences. I'd rather people take my prefereces seriously than imposing someone's misguided definition of happiness on me.

superior genetic background>intelligence>wealth=happiness

What could be simpler?

Rich, smart people can also be unhappy.

If we all had meters connected to hormonal secretions, the definition would be precise. The issue is with obtaining a non biased proxy for this demonstrable condition.

Your proxy measurement might be more precise, but it wouldn't solve the definitorial issue, and especially the possible miscommunications that occur when people associate different aspects with the concept.

Also the proxy still wouldn't be perfect. Presumably the exact wiring of a brain matters more than hormonal secretions.

Indeed, if someone takes say cocaine, by chemical measures their happiness skyrockets. But most people, including the addicts themselves at least the ones who are trying to quit, would not call that a state of happiness.

I'm positing the existence of a real world happiness meter, perhaps with Star Trek technology. Such a meter can distinguish and control for drug intake, I.e. artificial vs natural happiness. But why distinguish drug use from, say, eating a good meal or having sex? Drug use is clearly connected to ones subjective view of happiness.

And this notional metric relies on more than spot estimates. It not only measures your happy state during a drug high but between them, and the weighty consequences of drug use including perhaps prison time.

I'm not asserting the realism of the perfect happiness meter, but its physical possibility, and hence refuting the notion that happiness doesnt really exist or has no well defined meaning. We can define it in minute detail, although that is currently beyond our capabilities.

I would still argue that looking only at the chemical level ignores differences in brain wiring. If we ever define happiness formally, it will almost certainly be reducible to information processing in the brain or equivalent systems, and hormonal secretions are an imprecise proxy for that. Different brains could have different absolute happiness levels at similar hormone profiles.

Of course, all of this is moot if we don't have a formal definition of happiness or some reason why we should even care. :-)

Of course happiness is situational. Eating a sumptuous meal on a first date is happy. Eating your last meal on Death Row isnt. There are countervailing hormonal reactions differentiating these two situations. Happiness, whatever it is, is a chemical state. Chemicals can be measured with precision.

'I'm not convinced happiness is even well-defined scientifically.'

Prof. Cowen is an economist, meaning that he is unconcerned whether something is well-defined scientifically.

(Is there anything wrong in moon shot mission control? It seems as if the desired stability has not been achieved yet - possibly due to personnel training issues.)

Uh Oh,

If utility equals happiness,

Economists are in big trouble since the assertion is that happiness cannot be defined or measured.

http://www.econ.yale.edu/~shiller/behmacro/2006-11/kimball-willis.pdf (discussion of utility and happiness)

"Son, it's faster cars, younger women, older whiskey, more money." Tom T. Hall

The lyric is actually "faster horses," not cars.

Right. I modernized it. Although, at the race track . . .

It's hard to disagree with money and vintage spirits. But younger women? Depends on what you mean by "younger". Do you know how dumb and annoying some of them are? Maybe when they hit 27-28 they'll be agreeable.

Don't get me started on the 'track. Last time I went (for a fundraiser) I saw a lot of miserable lowlifes. And the crowd I WASN'T there with weren't a whole lot better.

I'd rather hunt or hike.

For 34 years , I've lived adjacent to Belmont Race Track, NY. I have never been to the races.

It's a young man's "game."

At 68, the "universe" of younger women is expansive. I've been married to the same woman for 40 years. As I remember, the 50+ years-old timeframe was OK.

I rather fish, hike and hunt, while still I can.

I was never involved in an entangling, extracurricular dalliance. My experience, women can be joyfully brilliant and lovely . . . until you marry one. Be aware.

The proliferation of happiness research as well as the general obsession with individualism and license in modern America suggests that Americans have lost touch with their Founders, and do not grasp what the Founders meant when they used the expression - "pursuit of happiness".

Let's examine Washington's inaugural address, and this extract in particular -

"I dwell on this prospect with every satisfaction which an ardent love for my Country can inspire: since there is no truth more thoroughly established, than that there exists in the economy and course of nature, an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness, between duty and advantage, between the genuine maxims of an honest and magnanimous policy, and the solid rewards of public prosperity and felicity"

Notice the fact that he is talking about the "indissoluble union of happiness and virtue".

To Washington atleast, if not the other founders, happiness meant virtue. Not license. Not individualism.

Pursuit of happiness meant pursuit of those actions that satisfy the soul, not the bodily needs.

This extract suggests the founders were very much grounded in classical philosophy and were not merely products of modern philosophy and Enlightenment, as often supposed.

They valued virtue first and foremost.

They valued money and property a lot, too.

Of course, the most virtuous acts are those that respect and coordinate individual preferences instead of gunning them down, like collectivists and autocrats do.

Demonizing individualism is self-defeating, as everyone you will ever communicate with is an individual. It is the ultimate irony that suppressing individualism only works by convincing enough individuals to do the necessary dirty work.

If only Americans worshipped Satan and cows, imagine how virtuous they would be!! After all, there is no true, the important thing is doing what is expedient. Worship that devil in that village, worship this other devil in this other village. Who cares about the real truth as long as all the superstitions are fulfilled.
Maybe Satanists should try to create a civilization before badmouthing the one that actually exists.

1. Your countrymen at home should stop defecating in public places.

2. Your countrymen here should brush their teeth at least daily.

1) Defecating in public spaces is actually very virtuous.
2) Tooth decay is very virtuous.

I disagree somewhat. Washington didn't equate happiness with virtue. He said explicitly that they go hand in hand. In other words, "Make good choices, receive good results." And virtue has a way of getting people through unexpected or undeserved hardship.

He might be wrong about this fact, but what he said is not what you said.

Excellent comment by you shrik. I learned something I didn’t know about Washington, although he is probably channeling Adam Smith Theory of Moral Sentiments or ideas generally current then. By the way I saw no indication you thought he actually equated virtue with happiness. I would think it’s acceptable to make a little language shortcut in a friggin blogpost.

"To Washington . . . happiness meant virtue." This is not supported by your quotation, which says, rather, that happiness and virtue are distinct, but "indissolubly" united, which probably just means positively correlated. Washington also thinks "the solid rewards of public prosperity and felicity" (which is pretty much just general happiness) is indissolubly united with "the genuine maxims of an honest and magnanimous policy"; so we have more than one positive correlation here.

"I can’t recall the last time a single paper so influenced my overall view of a field. "

By the field do you mean happiness research, or all of social psychology?

I do not understand the methodology at all. Anyone want to explain, or better yet show by an example, what is going on here?

I find it mildly amusing that Tyler seems to have jumped from one side to the other on the matter of happiness research. A little while ago he was all gung ho on the U-Curve book that made strong claims about age and happiness. I caused a kerfuffle by raising doubts about the strength of those results. Now he is enamored and impressed by this paper that tries to throw lots of happiness research in doubt, even suggesting that it has thrown all of it in doubt, which it most definitely has not.

Let me suggest for al of you that happiness research is an important topic of research, but that as with any other area, studies and claimed results should be carefully and critically examined with people avoiding making unwarranted statements based on them. Unfortunately, the media is interested in this stuff, so we get a lot of popular reports based on this or that study that way overexaggerate certain claims while ignoring the many caveats and disagreements involved.

BTW, I am sorry this blog seems to be suffering from attacks by seriously obnoxious trolls. I am not sure what they are trying to do or prove, but I do think this is a valuable blog where serious ideas do get debated.

I shall dare to make a comment on the now shut down thread on immigration. An important difference between the US and Europe is that the US is fundamentally we are a nation of relatively recent descendants of immigrants, even if in some locations people forget this. But throughout Europe in most local communities one has a longstanding base of one or a few groups that have been there for a very long time, centuries, if not longer. This means the US is somewhat better at handling immigration surges than is Europe.

"BTW, I am sorry this blog seems to be suffering from attacks by seriously obnoxious trolls. I am not sure what they are trying to do or prove, but I do think this is a valuable blog where serious ideas do get debated."
By stopping all comments, MR has lost the War against Trolls. But one can understand the frustration of dealing with the trash the trolls are dishing out.

It's really curious why they don't just install some simple password system instead of surrendering. I guess the comments don't matter so much to them.

Agreed. The comments are one of the best aspects of the site.

It is curious. I think you could get a grad student or 5 to moderate also, but guess not.

Simple pw would eliminate the problem.

Otoh the Vox crowd is vocal about how comments sections ruin websites, maybe Klein convinced him to stop.

A good thinker should be able to entertain an idea without accepting it.

A better thinker will accept tomorrow what he rejected yesterday upon the presentment of sufficient evidence.

He should play Deguello at the end of the lecture.

(Posts don't have borders, do they?)

It would be much more entertaining without the "brief breaks". And what if he doesn't wear briefs?

I must have missed something: what is this comments ban about?

Too many troll and sock puppet commentors.

I don't get the point of barring comments on some links but not others.

Aside from that I'll just note that I've had some college lectures that seemed like 30 hours

"I don't get the point of barring comments on some links but not others."

Worse, I've been expending time wondering about why Tyler and Alex are banning comments on those specific links, such as the seemingly innocuous link to the Texas history lecture. Whereas other more controversial topics have commenting permitted.

Maybe it's the very innocuousness of the Texas lecture link? There's not a lot of substantive commenting that any of us could do, so Tyler figured why not ban all comments on that link?? (But sometimes the non-substantive comments are the best ones.)

'Worse, I've been expending time wondering about why Tyler and Alex are banning comments on those specific links'

Likely, there is no reason related to post content. It would appear that the author of a post needs to take an extra manual step or two to turn off comments, and while Prof. Tabarrok was able to do it flawlessly on his single post since the comment closure announcement, for whatever reason, Prof. Cowen found it more a challenge. For example, possibly because queued posts that are automatically posted according to a schedule (which this place has had for years - a very convenient one for somebody on CET), were not properly closed for commenting.

Don't think content, think competence.

And consider the fact that the latest post with open comments (some predictably ugly, though it is impossible to know whether such sentiments are sincere or trolling) was likely queued, while all the other recent closed posts were likely when Prof. Cowen posted them manually.

It is obvious to me that happiness can not be projected onto a scalar metric. Few if any 6 year olds care how often they have sex, but you can't argue the same is true for 25 year olds. There are obviously differences in physiology, genetics, culture, socio-economic status, gender, and age, and possibly education that alter what is likely to matter in terms of happiness. And of course, there's personality. I really doubt that "happiness" can be measured and mapped to a metric space vector, let alone a (metric) scalar. Doesn't the measurement of happiness require (i.e. imply) that unhappiness is also measurable? Good luck with that.

I was going to say that this disagrees with Tolstoy's famous quote: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

But upon reflection it probably is supported by the quote. Happiness according to Tolstoy isn't even measured as a scalar; instead it's a point. But a point that lies in a multi-dimensional, possibly non-metric, space. Hence the wide variety of unhappy families, and hence the challenge of trying to measure unhappiness.

Reading the comments on posts here is half the reason I come. It is the most engaging and intelligent comment section I've ever come across, and I enjoy entertaining all arguments. Some are trolls, but most are good. The readers are smart enough to discern between the two.

Popsci.com banned comments several years ago, and I quickly left. I've taken a few looks since then, and the posts are increasingly obtuse.

Comments are the "checks and balances" to the posters, who dare not get out of hand with the army of commenters. Without the commenters, there will surely, eventually, be some subconscious negative effect.

Bad move Tyler & Alex, I'm very and indescribably disappointed by this move.

I agree.

I get the sense that Tyler & Alex aren't very sophisticated when it comes to tech and they just don't want to deal with it. This site looks like it was deigned in 1994. There is even a tacky icon to print blog posts. The comment section is pathetic. You can't edit your posts. There is no moderation. Etc., and so on, und so weiter.

I get that maybe a libertarian state of mind led them to allow all comments, with the expected consequences. So their solution is to ban all comments!?

I'm pretty disappointed. This feels like the end of an era. Bye-bye Marginal Revolution...

Just re-read the "GDP will rise" post and saw it says "for the time being" the comments will be turned off.

So hopefully they're just off until they can figure out how to moderate the new trolls better.

I like SSC but there are times it could use a few cuck jokes. Rationalist altruist cuck jokes, of course

It was all me buddy! I did it! The "trolls" there is no "s": I did it all!!! I played all the sock puppets in a masterful performance. I ran amok! I have caused Tyler to close the drawbridge. I made a desert and called it peace. I ran Art Deco off this blog and I achieved total victory!

"I get the sense that Tyler & Alex aren't very sophisticated when it comes to tech and they just don't want to deal with it"

You're absolute right and I love how they are simultaneously (especially Alex) absolute gullible, clapping seals when it comes to any wizz-bang claims out of Silicon Valley. They don't know anything about it, but they're sure all this tech stuff is going to save everything.

Especially when it's a solved problem. Just switch to Disqus or some other commenting system that already comes with tools for dealing with trolls. Slatestar is also on hand-rolled WP comments, it just blows my mind.

Good point about Disqus.

SSC, on the other hand, is non-standard. There is a fair amount of customization going on. Scott has access to some tech people (bakot) willing and able to help him.

Still, it would require a very small effort to fix this problem with technology.

Who is complacent??

'Comments are the "checks and balances" to the posters'

Whatever would lead you to believe that people involved in swaying public policy debates have any interest in checks and balances?

This is a PR site in the end, and unconcerned about anything else. What is amusing, in a certain fashion, is just how much effort must have been expended in cleaning up comments (likely by hand over the years) when such a variety of tools already exist. What a time sink that must have been for someone, though unlike several times in the past, it was definitely not a round the clock effort.

Basically, the worst abuses seemed to happen at overnight - or morning, CET. It is quite possible that since Trump's election that a more significant amount of new European readers (though pretty obviously not commenters) were being exposed to the various games being played here - the bots prominently among the more unusual, though the teenage crudity was just juvenile.

And obviously, at least one person (likely a couple, though as the operators of this site already know, IP numbers are no help, even if browser fingerprinting might be - https://amiunique.org/) is playing at impersonation, whether for personal amusement or another purpose (such as having comments turned off?) being fairly obvious to regular commenters.

Such false modesty! The comments have been closed in no small part because of the army of people who come here every day to rudely insult the hosts. You of course are the leader of that army.

This blog sucks now that the comments are closed.

I have to agree. I'm surprised they opted for a ban instead of a market-oriented approach: paid subscriptions. They've even posted about the negative externality caused by people being able to offer opinions for free.

My children dramatically increase my happiness.

...Except during a 1-hour period after their "bedtime" and during any 30 minute period after I say "time to leave the house".

BTW, regarding all the claims that happiness cannot be objectively measured, maybe it can be. Neurological examination blood oxygen flow seems to be positively correlated with these self-responses, although imperfectly.


Happiness is the subject matter of psychology/sociology. How the monetary economy works is the subject matter of economics. Economists, though, do not even know what profit is. For more on this scientific aberration see:

Economics is NOT about Happiness but about Profit


Egmont Kakarot-Handtke

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