Thursday, June 19, 2008
Denmark wins the happiness race
I know how much Justin loves happiness surveys; here's the transcript of a story that ran on 60 minutes last Sunday trying to figure out exactly why Denmark continually is the happiest country. I won't argue on the margin of why we're even declaring places "happiest"-- let's just assume there is some value. The article hints at one of the crucial shortcomings of the happiness research: Expectations. Happiness is at least partially a function of how close you are to what you were expecting. At the extreme, if you're expecting horrible things and get just really bad, you could conceivably rank higher in happiness than someone who expects the world and gets just better than average. Expectations could come from culture or history or any of a number of sources, but it certainly plays a role. Comparing surveys across countries assumes either that they don't matter or everyone has the same foundation form which they judge their happiness.
Bob Lawson had a terrific blog post on happiness over at Division of Labour a little while back. In his eyes, and I agree completely, happiness is a flow variable, not a stock variable. I eat a sandwich now, I'm happy. I'm hungry in a few hours, I'm not happy. I can't build up on happiness from the previous two days to make me feel less unhappy about my hunger. Asking how much happiness a country has is like asking how much energy a country has. Well, you can say how much energy a country uses, or its rate of electric generation, but you can't really describe electricity as a stock variable.
Happiness surveys, though treat happiness as a stock variable. They count how much happiness units everyone has, stack them up (Arrow be damned) and see who has the most. It doesn't really work like that.