A neurotic reading of happiness research

Despite the huge and on-going advances of women by most objective indicators, feminism retains a neurotic aspect, an over-anxiety that the gains are going to be reversed.

One manifestation of this anxiety is strong reactions against even empirically true statements about gender, lest they conceal some normative agenda by the author, or suggest arguments that ‘traditional values’ conservatives might later use. I scored this kind of reaction last month. But I was being provocative and cannot complain that I got a response. But what did Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers do to deserve this spray in the Guardian, dutifully reprinted over the weekend in the Guardian of the south, aka The Age?

The prompt for the Guardian attack on Stevenson and Wolfers was the National Bureau of Economic Research publication of their research on the declining relative happiness of women, especially in the United States. I blogged on an earlier version of this paper in 2007.

The Stevenson and Wolfers paper is in standard NBER style, full of sentences like ‘the ordered probit normalizes the underlying distribution of happiness to have a standard deviation of one, and hence this shift amounts to about one-eighth of the cross-sectional standard deviation of happiness.’

It has no political agenda. It is just an honest attempt, using statistics, to try to work out why despite so many favourable objective changes American women are getting less happy, both absolutely and relative to men. Stevenson and Wolfers admit they can’t really provide a convincing explanation, but rule out several possibilities that might help conservatives, in finding that the trend is apparent for stay-at-home women as well as women in paid work, for women with children as well as without children, and for married women as well as unmarried women. The only group for whom it is not true is black women.

But Sady Doyle of the Guardian sees sinister forces at work

As Susan Faludi noted in her seminal work Backlash, one of the primary tactics of anti-feminists is the argument that the freedoms provided by feminist progress will ultimately ruin women’s lives. ….

…how infatuated the world at large seems to be with female failure!

Daly wonders why the paper focuses on white women, when white men are showing declines in happiness too. But from a social science perspective larger trends are more interesting than smaller trends, and women are a better test of the happiness research assumption that changes in objective conditions will flow through to changes in subjective feelings. If there is a political conclusion to be drawn from this paper – and its authors don’t try to make one – it is that we should be sceptical about using policy to promote happiness. To see it as anti-women requires considerable paranoia.

29 thoughts on “A neurotic reading of happiness research

  1. “If there is a political conclusion to be drawn from this paper … it is that we should be sceptical about using policy to promote happiness.”
    .
    Maybe not. I can’t remember us having a Minister or Department of Happiness. When the government doles out money to support some festival or the like it’s never said that it’s because ‘people will really enjoy themselves’, but because it will bring economic benefits to the area etc etc
    .
    Women didn’t get equal wages, or acess to legal and safe abortions, in order to make them happier. These policy changes were based on justice, equity …..
    .
    Instead of being sceptical about using policy to promote happiness, maybe we should give it a go. But if we do, let’s do the research more along the Hugh Mackay lines, rather than this economist’s numbers and tables affair.

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  2. “if we do, let’s do the research more along the Hugh Mackay lines, rather than this economist’s numbers and tables affair.”

    I’m not knocking Hugh Mackey, but your suggestion is not really research at all. How could you possibly test any hypothesis relating to happiness in a meaningful and useful way without “numbers and tables”?

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  3. Brendan, you’re right, after sending out your 50 interviewers to do 50 in-depth interviews, you are going to see if there are similarities, patterns etc in the accounts, so there will be numbers, sort of. But in your report, if you lack a convincing explanation, you can at least quote some of your subjects own explanations for why they are less happy than their mothers. (Maybe the Wolfers paper does – I only got to page 11 before the bizarreness of talking about happiness like that became overwhelming. – the cult of economics I guess)
    .
    The neurotic feminist has a point – there is a sort of implication, if no other explanation for the decline in happiness is given, that the changes mentioned (better employment opportunities etc) could be the cause. It leaves me, as a reader, to think “but what about ….” and then gives me nothing. That’s where Mackay’s interview accounts give a richer result – there might not be an ‘answer ‘ but you’ll be a bit further along in thinking about the issue.

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  4. I wouldn’t call The Age “The Guardian of the South”, perhaps it wishes it was that, but The Guardian is much much better!

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  5. “Instead of being sceptical about using policy to promote happiness, maybe we should give it a go”
    .
    We do — we try and knock off the left tail of the (un)happiness distribution via medicare funded psychologists and GPs dishing out publically subsidized anti-depressants on the PBS scheme. These drugs are in fact the top PBS scheme drug used by women in some of the younger age groups (more than the pill).

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  6. Though not under the heading ‘happiness policy’, we do try to target many well-established causes of individual misery, eg illness including mental illness and unemployment. However happiness arguments are redundant in these cases, an added justification when no more justifications are needed. My scepticism is more about the idea that policy can easily affect the well-being levels of the vast majority of people who at any given time report happiness levels within the range generally considered normal (7+ on a 0-10 scale). I am even more sceptical when the policies involve broad social changes that have little or no individual level evidence of efficacy (eg lower material consumption), or are highly reliant on invididual perceptions of complex social relationships, eg it is claimed that we would be more happy with less inequality, but as Will Wilkinson argues this appears to be ideologically mediated (inequality is not harmful unless you think it is) and is hard to address via public policy via things like income redistribution because people’s subjective view of their position in the income distribution is often at odds with their objective position.

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  7. “…report happiness levels within the range generally considered normal (7+ on a 0-10 scale). ”
    .
    That reminds me of what I didn’t like about the Wolfers paper. We start out learning from experience, then we get 12-20 years of education: being taught to abstract and to be logical – powerful tools. But maybe not so useful for thinking about happiness. Experience and imagination might be better. By the time Wolfers has abstracted the concept to the nth degree you can’t even imagine what happiness could mean.
    .
    We could probably run some computer program across The Oxford Book of English Verse and find out all sorts of things about average syllables per line or whatever – we just wouldn’t learn anything about poetry. It’s that old saying, to a man with a hammer every problem looks like a nail. Let’s keep economists away from the subject of happiness – they don’t have the right tools. I’ll stop before I start quoting Desiderata or Khalil Gibran.

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  8. But how do you collect the ‘data’ – if you ask someone to apply a numerical scale to their level of happiness, you’ve made them think in a way that might not be meaningful to talking about happiness. Then you aggregate all this ‘data’ and see broad social patterns. I think the basis is too shonky to be meaningful.

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  9. In the main survey Stevenson and Wolfers use, I think they just translated ‘very happy’ into 3 points, ‘happy’ into 2 points etc. There is a fair bit of methodological literature on this issue, which finds that self-reports match what friends say and other ways of checking data against other sources. 0-10 however allows more shades of feeling.

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  10. Hmmn, I’m sure that within the social sciences paradigm the methodology etc etc is close to perfection. Wolfers has gone as far as he can, but the approach gives us just one limited way to understand ‘happiness’, and perhaps hasn’t told us very much. Other ways of exploring the concept might give us richer perspectives.

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  11. Is happiness a zero sum game? I was just prompted by your post to think about my recent sunny state of mind, caused by being able to vote NO to daylight saving, and the majority was NO; being able to vote YES to the Greens Adele Carles as my local MLA, and she was elected; and reading that RMIT has become a FairTrade organisation (thanks go to Sinclair for raising the profile of this important issue at his own institution).
    But in each case my happiness will have a flipside of people depressed with this progress. More research required.

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  12. All the research suggests that right-wingers are happier than left-wingers, so I doubt your little victories will cause corresponding unhappiness. Indeed, maybe I can add this to my theories of right and left happiness, that placing high importance on a zero-sum activity like politics is bad for well-being, and left-wingers are more likely to do this than right-wingers.

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  13. “caused by being able to vote NO to daylight saving, and the majority was NO”
    .
    Politics aside, this one is just odd unless you like sunshine at 4am in the morning.

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  14. “We could probably run some computer program across The Oxford Book of English Verse and find out all sorts of things about average syllables per line or whatever – we just wouldn’t learn anything about poetry.”
    .
    Actually, if you did it on Tang Dynasty poetry, you would not only learn about poetry, but you’d learn a lot about aspects of the Chinese metrical system, even aspects with no audible form.
    .
    If you did it on English poetry, you’d learn a lot too.
    In case you’ve got a bit of time, why not read This I think it’s fascinating.
    .
    I think you’ll find that some types of non-obvious analysis can lead to profoundly great insights. Perhaps the happiness research doesn’t, but I wouldn’t completely dismiss it. (you can thank public universities for those two linguistics things incidentally).

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  15. “You’ll learn a lot from doing analysis of things”
    .
    or not, depending on your limits. I tried, Conrad, I read sentences two and three times over, but eventually I had to shout at the screen “Why are they doing this? What is this for?” and give up.
    .
    Actually not too different from my experience with classical Chinese poetry, Tang and the rest. Back in the days when university education was properly done, I did a unit in classical Chinese which was one-on-one, just the head of the department and my poor self every week – a terrifying semester of which I remember very little. Linguistics and Chinese poetry are something I will leave ’till another life, I’m just not equipped for them now.
    .
    But, yes, I do love the sun coming up at 5.00 am on a fresh summer morning.

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  16. Russell,
    .
    the reason they did it was to gain insight into the phenomena at hand (They are in fact both classic articles). If you wanted to know why you couldn’t write good poetry, for example, that would help you in ways that simple introspection couldn’t. It’s just an example showing how what you and many others think is completely meaningless (counting syllables — your example), isn’t. The same is true of many of these studies that use aggregate social statistics that you were complaining about. Sure, at some level they don’t seem meaningful, but that doesn’t mean to say they arn’t to some people, even if they superficially appear so to you (not doubt some are useless, but I’m sure you get the point).

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  17. As editor of a journal that is a major outlel for happiness papers (JEBO), I read more of them than I want to and am all too aware of their problems and foibles. The following is I think useful to keep in mind.

    The least believable happiness studies are those comparing happiness across societies using cross sections. So, Denmark is supposed to be very happy (8.1 on the 10 point scale) and Russia is very unhappy (more like 3-4). So what? Different cultures have very different views about saying they are happy or unhappy. Danes have a high suicide rate, and they are happier than anybody else?

    Somewhat more believable, but still with a lot of problems, are time-series within a given society, but involving different people over time. As near as I can tell, this is what the Stevenson-Wolfers study is: comparing what women today in the US say compared to what women said in the past. We are comparing over different people who may have different attitudes about saying whether they are happy or not. So, maybe women today are more willing to say they are unhappy than their pathetically meek mothers who had do as they were told and pretend they were happy when they were not (or, well, who knows?).

    Most believable are those based on panel data in which specific individuals are tracked over time so one is seeing the same people reporting on their own happiness over time.

    Hope this is ueful.

    Oh, another variation that does not seem to be in this study involves “satisfaction.” It is highly correlated with happiness, but not perfectly so. Thus, people’s income and status tend to show up as more strongly important for satisfaction than for happiness, especially moment-to-monent happiness.

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  18. I’m an economist with a background in psychology. I agree with Barkley above — there’s just too much unexplained variation in happiness reporting across countries (the Danish example is an excellent case in point) to have a lot of confidence in interpretation of the results when reported happiness is the left-hand side variable.

    The downward trend in female reported happiness (absolutely and relative to men) is interesting, and the authors have some interesting findings, but like Barkley above I think it’s pretty unclear from their research whether women are actually unhappier, or just more likely to report dissatisfaction than their mothers were.

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  19. Clearly there are cultural elements to ‘happiness’. Most people will probably feel less happy if their lives do not meet what is culturally expected in their society or does not meet the expectations they have formed themselves. That’s the assumption behind the ‘hedonic treadmill’ theory of the stability of happiness over time (and despite the Stevenson and Wolfers research, the more striking thing about the happiness stats is how little they vary over long periods of time), ie that we adapt to higher living standards and so don’t gain long-term happiness from them. It’s also an assumption behind the inequality thesis, that though at any given point in time rich people are happier than poor people, societies gain only slight happiness improvements as they get richer. The explanation is that rich people set the expectations or standards, and people who don’t meet them feel less happy, even if they are wealthy compared to people in other countries or in their own country at earlier times.

    However this does not mean that the emotions felt are not real.

    One theory about women’s happiness is that they have undergone a much bigger change in expectations (personal and cultural) than men, and that these expectations are unrealistic. Women have higher expectations of men, higher expectations of education and work, and still want to be good and successful mothers. In earlier times, the expectations were more modest and thus more achievable. The reason stay-at-home mothers in the Stevenson and Wolfers research are showing the same trend is that feminists have made this a less acceptable option, and the reduced income has made it harder to reach the material living standards set by dual-income households.

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  20. Russell has missed the point about all this stuff, and the way he’s missed it is familiar to those who try and garner hard knowledge on subjects where people prefer mysticism.

    Yes, we should be aware that reductionist analysis and hard evidence always have limits. But experience – the whole history of science, in fact – teaches us that those limits are sometimes further away than people think. And, critically, you don’t really know where those limits are until you test them.

    Also I have to say I’m unimpressed with arguments along the lines of “well I don’t understand it, so it can’t be any use”.

    Just as an aside, Andrew, you should be happy (sic) to get blog comments from such a figure in the field as Prof. Rosser.

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  21. “the whole history of science, in fact – teaches us that those limits are sometimes further away than people think. And, critically, you don’t really know where those limits are until you test them”

    This sounds like a great strategy for climate change (another success story for economics).

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  22. No, I do like quantification and modelling of things like carbon, I just don’t think the same quantification is the only way to talk about subjective states of being.

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  23. “No, I do like quantification and modelling of things like carbon, I just don’t think the same quantification is the only way to talk about subjective states of being.”

    Russell – Nobody believes that quantification is the only way to talk about subjective states of being. You are the only person trying to limit the ways of understanding.

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  24. No, I don’t want to limit the ways of understanding, and I take Conrad’s point that looking at things in … unconventional … ways can offer new perspectives.
    But I do want to remain alert to the domination of the social sciences/statistical paradigm of ways of thinking about everything. Wolfers can table this and equation that, but it might not be the most productive and efficient way to use his time. I think he’d be better off sticking to more measurable things.
    Most economists did not see the elephant in the room – that our economy is fast destroying the world. Somehow they didn’t bother to measure that. It’s time to put economics back in its place and look again at where we’re going, and want to go, though the lens of history, imagination, ethics …..

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