by Don Boudreaux on March 13, 2011

in Seen and Unseen, Self-deception, Standard of Living

Water likely does nothing to make a fish consciously happy – but take that water away from him and you’ll witness a most miserable mackerel.  Here’s a letter to the New York Times:

Roger Cohen writes that “British research has suggested that money itself does not confer happiness, although wealthier people tend to be happier; that employment is critical to self-esteem; that women tend to be happier than men; and that people need something beyond the material for fulfillment” (“The Happynomics of Life,” March 13).

No doubt.  It’s too long a leap, though, from these (unsurprising) facts to Mr. Cohen’s conclusion that we would be just as happy living in an economy that is less materially productive, but that has more leisure, than the economy that we live in now.

Economist Dwight Lee, who studies happiness research deeply, speculates realistically on “what conditions would prevail if no one possessed the ambition to work hard to achieve an illusory … happiness.  In such a world, everyone would choose to occupy the slow lane.”  While it’s true that we’d spend more time enjoying our families and friends, this “easy life would not be nearly as attractive”* as Mr. Cohen and other denizens of today’s world imagine it would be.

One example: the reduction in medical research would cause mortality to rise.  It’s not at all clear that a salesman who lives in a more leisurely world but whose child dies of pneumonia would be just as happy as a hard-driving salesman living in today’s world in which physicians, researchers, and profit-grubbing pharma executives – motivated by personal ambition – stress themselves out and work long hours to supply the medical care that relieves parents of the constant worry that diseases such as pneumonia and influenza will kill their kids.  Likewise for many other features of our daily lives that we take for granted but that we enjoy only because of the ambitious striving that capitalist incentives promote – features whose disappearance from our lives would make us most unhappy.

Donald J. Boudreaux

* Dwight R. Lee, “Who Says Money Cannot Buy Happiness?The Independent Review, Vol. 10, Winter 2005, pp. 385-400; the quotations in the letter are from page 388.

Be Sociable, Share!



34 comments    Share Share    Print    Email


Sam Grove March 13, 2011 at 12:12 pm

What is happiness?

Is it akin to satisfaction?

If we were perfectly happy/satisfied with the way things are, what would we do?

Life requires a great deal of maintenance, which is the cost of living.

Some people are unhappy about paying that cost, but the necessity of paying can’t be avoided.

An option is to accept the necessity of costs and to be satisfied that we can pay them relatively easily.

Form and enjoy your relationships and don’t let idiots, who are unhappy if you don’t see things their way, spoil it for you

Ike March 13, 2011 at 6:59 pm

What is happiness?

Happiness is merely a manifestation of unreliable Animal Spirits, and therefore has no place in a sound economic equation.

Ike March 13, 2011 at 7:00 pm

(the previous comment did not accept my Sarcasm tag)

Sam Grove March 13, 2011 at 7:48 pm

Don’t use brackets, as in /sarcasm.

vikingvista March 13, 2011 at 10:32 pm

I think HTML 6.0 is supposed to support sarcasm.

Methinks1776 March 14, 2011 at 9:00 am

These are the moments I wish I had a “like” button.

George Paras March 13, 2011 at 12:28 pm

This discussion is missing a very fundamental principle: The society and economy we are a part of is not the result of some set of policies that result in happiness/unhappiness. What we observe is the result of 300 million people individually living their lives according to their own priorities and desires. If this results in a hard working society (US, Japan) or a more leisurely society (Europe), this is what each of us has determined is the best path to happiness. There is no way to change us that would increase happiness, because we already consciously try to do what makes us happy. It is not, therefore, believable that people either work against or actively circumvent their own happiness (unless a clinical condition exists).
Roger Cohen or anyone else (of any political persuasion) is engaging in pure hubris to think that they can somehow determine that we are not happy enough according to their metrics, or that some change in people would make them better of, if only they would listen to him/them.

Juan Carlos Vera March 13, 2011 at 1:58 pm

Yeah, I agree…

muirgeo March 13, 2011 at 2:14 pm

” The society and economy we are a part of is not the result of some set of policies that result in happiness/unhappiness.”

That’s non-sense. It’s absolutely policy driven. And if the American people had proper representation we would likely have a universal health care system and taxes on wealth would be higher, we’d have more public transportation ect ect… .based on poll after poll showing people want the government to do more not less AND to be more efficient with less subsidies that favor corporations and the wealthy over people. You are completely wrong… IT IS POLICY DRIVEN.

Seth March 13, 2011 at 3:33 pm

Looks like muirgeo would be happier if he were the dictator. It’s good to know that he’d rule by polls. At least the polls that agree with his worldview.

Ike March 13, 2011 at 7:04 pm

poll after poll showing people want the government to do more not less AND to be more efficient with less subsidies that favor corporations and the wealthy over people

What a shocker.

However, your interpretation is wrong.

“Poll after poll” will show that the Average American wants the government to do more for HIM, at the expense of others… and the Average American wants fewer subsidies to other organizations from which HE does not stand to directly benefit.

The fact that we want beyond our means does not give us a way to cheat the math and will it to happen.

Sam Grove March 13, 2011 at 7:49 pm

Reading comprehension fail.
(Not to mention economics comprehension fail.)

Stormy Dragon March 13, 2011 at 1:40 pm

Why is your RSS feed suddenly delivering the articles from Marginal Revolution rather than from this blog?

Juan Carlos Vera March 13, 2011 at 2:28 pm

I see that this site is not working well for about 4 days…

Seth March 13, 2011 at 3:30 pm

I agree. Some wires are getting crossed in Tyler’s and Alex’s conversion to Wordpress.

Juan Carlos Vera March 13, 2011 at 2:02 pm

What happen with CAFE?…Has been hacked this site?…

muirgeo March 13, 2011 at 2:07 pm

Just finished John K Galbraith’s The Affluent Society. He nails it on so many points. The key related to this post is that conventional economic wisdom is to promote maximal material capital when we should be promoting the maximal human capital. I mean this is what Julian Simon pushed but all the evidence suggest a libertarian society would NOT do this. We had relatively unbridled economies in the past and they resulted in large segments of the population living in poverty and never getting to work much less develop their talents.
These unplanned economies because they left so many people out of productivity and left their talents unfulfilled were / are much less efficient and much less happy.

Really more people working and more people being educated seems like a common sense approach… a no brainer.

jjoxman March 13, 2011 at 2:16 pm

No he doesn’t. He nails absolute fallacies that those who are blind or deliberately dense will fall for.

Do you get that marginal labor productivity increases because we build productive capital? No you don’t. You are deliberately obtuse. Go back to your leeches.

Methinks1776 March 13, 2011 at 3:49 pm

I will say this for JK Galbraith – he knew his target audience.

cmprostreet March 14, 2011 at 2:17 am

What you are suggesting is analogous to saying we don’t to maximize the number of tires at the cost of wheels, we need to maximize the number of wheels at the expense of tires. A more appropriate thing to say would be that we want more transportation, and wheels and tires are necessary inputs to achieve our goal.

Ed Bosanquet March 13, 2011 at 2:38 pm

I have to say I find your position to be confusing. Aggregating hours worked by a salesman and a medical researcher is not something I can easily swallow.

I already have the choice to work more (second job) or less (part time employment) although my compensation may not remain linear per hour worked in these cases. I live in the US.

From what I have seen of Europe (England specifically), people aren’t as easily able to work as many hours at their primary profession due to the tax structure. Instead, people often work at second jobs often not directly paid. They work in child care (watching their own kids/grand-kids), construction (remodeling their own house), food preparation/entertainment (cooking their own dinner parties) or other such activities.

One can argue that people are happier doing a wider variety of jobs but that is clearly less efficient and moving towards specialization.

Ultimately, hours worked in either counter seems similar to me. In the US, I get paid directly by the same company. In England, the compensation is more diverse and often not included in economic data.

Thank you,

E.G. March 13, 2011 at 3:46 pm

“One example: the reduction in medical research would cause mortality to rise”

Not necessarily, or even at all.

Methinks1776 March 13, 2011 at 6:36 pm

If medical research were reduced at the time AIDS became more prevalent, would mortality have risen? What about Hep-C? What about the next disease that we have not yet imagined?

Likely, mortality would not rise immediately, but it will over time.

E.G. March 13, 2011 at 7:25 pm

Most medical research has nothing to do with deadly diseases or increasing longevity.

Methinks1776 March 13, 2011 at 10:45 pm

Oh, all the medical research is focused on developing Zeltiq machines? Well, then there’s no problem if we stop all medical research. How silly of me.

Slocum March 13, 2011 at 3:51 pm

And yet somehow, in the one poll that really matters, American voters don’t choose politicians promising wealth taxes and public transportation spending (nor do they choose public transportation when it comes to their personal lives). Odd, isn’t it?

Methinks1776 March 13, 2011 at 4:41 pm
indianajim March 13, 2011 at 4:20 pm

I think Lee’s notion that individuals’ pursuits of greater incomes can be thought of as creating positive externality is correct TO THE EXTENT that the individuals’ pursuits are in the competitive marketplace. (This IS, no doubt, what Dwight had in mind). But, when individuals pursue greater incomes by way of increasing the size and/or scope of centralized governmental design, exactly the opposite may well occur; that is, such pursuits may well be a negative externality. So the pursuit by individual private citizens of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” can certainly be dampened/destroyed by the Leviathan. Since I think Lee is correct, I think our founders’ recommendation of limited government is amplified.

indianajim March 13, 2011 at 4:39 pm

Another thing I agree with Dwight about is the weakness of the relative income (income as pollution) argument, but I think a key reason has been largely overlooked. A colleague and I hypothesize that it is relative wealth relative to one’s peer group that matters. For Frank and others the “reference group” is the entire population. But the peer group hypothesis is that people substitute into (self-select) into groups of like wealth. Having peers of like wealth makes sense because the ability to provide reciprocal aid in times of distress (or celebration) depends on it. While I might like to be friends with Bill Gates, the question arises: What is in it for Bill? So the negative externality envisioned by those who take the reference group to the population is largely negated by reformations of peer groups of similar-in-wealth individuals.

hanmeng March 13, 2011 at 5:28 pm

Chuang Tzu and Hui Tzu were strolling along the dam of the Hao River when Chuang Tzu said, “See how the minnows come out and dart around where they please! That’s what fish really enjoy!”

Hui Tzu said, “You’re not a fish – how do you know what fish enjoy?”

Chuang Tzu said, “You’re not I, so how do you know I don’t know what fish enjoy?”

Hui Tzu said, “I’m not you, so I certainly don’t know what you know. On the other hand, you’re certainly not a fish – so that still proves you don’t know what fish enjoy!”

Chuang Tzu said, “Let’s go back to your original question, please. You asked me how I know what fish enjoy – so you already knew I knew it when you asked the question. I know it by standing here beside the Hao.”

donitabd hogoson March 14, 2011 at 1:55 am

It seems that each person’s individual happiness is of primary importance to the individual, especially these days when everyone is “out for number one”.
Lean Muscle X

JohnK March 14, 2011 at 8:10 am

Are people in poverty unhappy?
I’m thinking that they must be happy, or at least satisfied.
If not then wouldn’t they do something to change their situation?

N. Joseph Potts March 14, 2011 at 12:34 pm

I know I’m being simplistic here, but I BELIEVE (this IS a belief) that the greatest “aggregate happiness” comes from the greatest aggregate freedom. Take leisure or work hard – it’s YOUR CHOICE.

Yes, social pressures act on that choice, but that fact does not mean that artificial pressures from the government have the slightest possibility of alleviating those pressures. Quite the contrary – and greatly so.

ajlenze March 15, 2011 at 10:49 am

I don’t know whether a “reduction in medical research would cause mortality to rise.” Mortality might not fall quite as quickly, but why would it rise?

Previous post:

Next post: