Would you take a happy pill?

Our friends at the Australia Institute have put the results of their happiness survey online, with a few points worth noting.

As reported in the SMH at the weekend, nearly 40% of Australians think that the overall quality of life in Australia is getting worse. I offered a couple of theories as to why on Saturday: the information bias concerning what’s happening to other people, and the cognitive difficulties we experience in comparing over time. But perhaps partisan sentiment also plays a part in these judgments. Labor voters were nearly twice as likely as Coalition voters to think that things are getting worse (51% versus 26%), just as Labor voters are much more pessimistic than Coalition voters about their standard of living over the next six months. To some extent this could be confusing cause and effect – people may have become Labor voters because they think things are going downhill. And perhaps Labor voters are more likely to genuinely believe that things are not as good as they used to be (less union power etc). But when unexpectedly asked to make judgments without being offered any assisting factual information it would not be surprising if people resorted to their party allegiance to help them give an answer – if my party is in power, things must not be going too badly, but if the other lot is in then things must be getting worse.

Very usefully, there is a surprisingly rare direct question about what factor the respondent believes ‘is most important to you with regard to your own happiness and well-being’. Only 4% rated ‘money and financial situation’ as the most important thing, with ‘partner/spouse and family relationships’ the clear winner on 59%. When asked about aims over the next five years back in 2005 money did somewhat better, with 22% nominating a higher income as their first choice. The results aren’t inconsistent: if you are already happy with your family life, more money might be what you need to improve well-being overall, even if it is not the most important factor contributing to your happiness.

My favourite question, however, was this:

If there was a legally available drug that could be bought over the counter, that made you feel happy, and did not have any side-effects, do you think that there would be occasions when you would take it?

This is putting to the general public a version of a question that has been put to many philosophy students, most famously via Robert Nozick’s Experience Machine that would make us happy, even though we would not actually be doing anything. As Wikipedia puts it:

Nozick seeks to attack hedonism by means of a thought experiment. If he can prove that there is something other than pleasure that has value to us and affects our well-being, then hedonism can be seen to be defeated.

And the answer from the Australian public? Overwhelmingly, they would not take the happy pill, with 73% saying no. The only partial exception are the Ecstasy-taking 18-29 year olds, with 18% saying ‘definitely yes’ and another 21% saying ‘yes, probably’. I often think the public gets it wrong, but on this question I agree with the majority.