The Situationist

Something to Smile About

Posted by Adam Benforado on May 23, 2009

Smiley Face Suckers

Yes, I’m easily excitable, but I can’t tell you how happy it makes me to see mainstream newspapers publishing articles on hedonic research!  Lame (terribly clever) puns aside, there is a promising trend afoot.

In the last couple weeks, the New York Times and the Boston Globe have published articles exploring the implications of research on human happiness.

In the NYT, Situationist friend Dan Gilbert sought to shed light on “new survey results from the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index showing that Americans are smiling less and worrying more than they were a year ago, that happiness is down and sadness is up, that we are getting less sleep and smoking more cigarettes, that depression is on the rise.”

According to Gilbert, the explanation has to do with the discomfort of uncertainty.

* * *

Consider an experiment by researchers at Maastricht University in the Netherlands who gave subjects a series of 20 electric shocks.  Some subjects knew they would receive an intense shock on every trial.  Others knew they would receive 17 mild shocks and 3 intense shocks, but they didn’t know on which of the 20 trials the intense shocks would come.  The results showed that subjects who thought there was a small chance of receiving an intense shock were more afraid—they sweated more profusely, their hearts beat faster—than subjects who knew for sure that they’d receive an intense shock.

That’s because people feel worse when something bad might occur than when something bad will occur.  Most of us aren’t losing sleep and sucking down Marlboros because the Dow is going to fall another thousand points, but because we don’t know whether it will fall or not — and human beings find uncertainty more painful than the things they’re uncertain about.

But why?

A colostomy reroutes the colon so that waste products leave the body through a hole in the abdomen, and it isn’t anyone’s idea of a picnic. A University of Michigan-led research team studied patients whose colostomies were permanent and patients who had a chance of someday having their colostomies reversed. Six months after their operations, patients who knew they would be permanently disabled were happier than those who thought they might someday be returned to normal.

Similarly, researchers at the University of British Columbia studied people who had undergone genetic testing to determine their risk for developing the neurodegenerative disorder known as Huntington’s disease.  Those who learned that they had a very high likelihood of developing the condition were happier a year after testing than those who did not learn what their risk was.

Why would we prefer to know the worst than to suspect it?  Because when we get bad news we weep for a while, and then get busy making the best of it.  We change our behavior, we change our attitudes.  We raise our consciousness and lower our standards. We find our bootstraps and tug.  But we can’t come to terms with circumstances whose terms we don’t yet know.  An uncertain future leaves us stranded in an unhappy present with nothing to do but wait.

Our national gloom is real enough, but it isn’t a matter of insufficient funds. It’s a matter of insufficient certainty. Americans have been perfectly happy with far less wealth than most of us have now, and we could quickly become those Americans again — if only we knew we had to.

* * *

To read the entire article, click here.

For the Globe, Drake Bennett wrote about the potential policy implications of hedonic research.  Here are some excerpts.

* * *

In recent years, cognitive scientists have turned in increasing numbers to the study of human happiness, and one of their central findings is that we are not very good at predicting how happy or unhappy something will make us. Given time, survivors of tragedies and traumas report themselves nearly as happy as they were before, and people who win the lottery or achieve lifelong dreams don’t see any long-term increase in happiness. By contrast, annoyances like noise or chronic pain bring down our happiness more than you’d think, and having friends or an extra hour of sleep every night can raise it dramatically.

These findings have fed the growth of a burgeoning “positive psychology” movement focused on helping people enrich their own lives. But now some scholars are starting to ask a bigger question: shouldn’t this new understanding affect policy, too? A huge range of social systems, from tort law to urban planning to medical care, are built on assumptions about what makes people happy. Now, for the first time, researchers are claiming to be actually measuring happiness, to actually know what causes it. In a society whose Smiley Facefounding document asserts a basic right to the pursuit of happiness, that new knowledge could have far-reaching implications.

What we’re learning, these thinkers argue, should make us reconsider some of the basic rules by which government regulates behavior: how we litigate lawsuits and write contracts; how we zone neighborhoods; which medical research we fund, and how we prioritize healthcare. The findings of happiness researchers offer a new and potentially powerful set of tools to compare the impacts of various laws: how does it change everybody’s happiness if the minimum wage is raised, if the speed limit is lowered, if divorce laws are loosened?

Some skeptics think it’s premature to let happiness research dictate policy: much of the data is still provisional, and some findings seem to contradict each other. And, more fundamentally, some argue that no amount of data could justify the sort of paternalism that would be required for the government to force people into some happiness-maximizing choices. It’s part of a broader debate that has preoccupied thinkers since the dawn of philosophy but been rekindled by the new research: how do we define happiness, anyway, and how much should we value it?

[S]ome psychologists have begun to argue that you can, in fact, reliably measure happiness: all you need to do is ask people. Because we so badly mispredict and misremember how happy something made us, however, the trick is to ask people to rate their current happiness, and then track the changes over time. Many recent studies have subjects keep happiness diaries; others give them beepers and have them rate their happiness whenever beeped.

Perhaps the best known study in the literature was published in 1978 by the psychologists Philip Brickman, Dan Coates, and Ronnie Janoff-Bulman. They compared the self-reported happiness levels of lottery winners, paralyzed accident victims (both paraplegics and quadriplegics), and people who were neither. What they found was that lottery winners didn’t report themselves appreciably happier than the control group, and while the paralyzed did report themselves less happy than the controls, the difference was not as dramatic as the researchers had expected. More recent and rigorous studies have yielded results broadly similar: getting married or getting a raise or a new house all give a boost to our happiness, but eventually we drop to levels near where we were before. By contrast, happiness dips and then rebounds after people lose a limb, their sight or even – though the data is more conflicting here – a loved one.

For Daniel Gilbert . . . the implications for policymaking are straightforward. Lawmakers, judges, doctors and managers alike should take the growing happiness literature into account as they decide what behavior they want to encourage or discourage. “Before we get people to do X, we ought to know that X is actually a source of happiness for them,” he says.

The field that has taken this most to heart so far is the law. A few scholars have begun arguing, for example, that the damages we award in lawsuits need to be rethought in light of work like Gilbert’s. Last year Cass R. Sunstein, a Harvard Law School professor who is now the Obama administration’s nominee for “regulatory czar,” published a law review article in which he argued that our inability to predict how well people adapt to traumas leads to excessively large awards in personal injury lawsuits. Jurors and judges overcompensate plaintiffs for their suffering, he argued, because they are unable to believe that a disabled life can be a happy one. At the same time, Sunstein pointed to evidence that people are actually better at adapting to physical disabilities than to mental illness or chronic pain – conditions that, because they are not visible, don’t tend to elicit the same sort of reaction from juries. Because of that, he argued, our misunderstanding of happiness shortchanges those plaintiffs.

* * *

Other legal scholars are concerned not with the misallocation of award money, but with how the legal process itself may hurt people who have already suffered a trauma by impeding their natural ability to adapt. Samuel Bagenstos and Margo Schlanger, law professors at Washington University in St. Louis, co-wrote a law review article in 2007 suggesting that the emphasis on lost enjoyment of life in jury awards actually makes it harder for the plaintiff to recover. Better, they argue, to focus remedies not on the lost happiness, which in many cases will take care of itself, but on specific lost capabilities, and on mitigating their effects through rehabilitation. And to the extent that disabilities do cause unhappiness, it’s often from social factors like isolation and discrimination – so paying people off just for their disability may be counterproductive, since it can leave the real causes of unhappiness unaddressed.

In the legal world, these ideas have triggered some pushback. Among the more specific critiques was one offered by Peter Huang, a law professor at Temple, and Rick Swedloff, a visiting associate professor at Rutgers. In a law review article published this spring, they take on what they call the “legal hedonists,” cautioning that happiness research was still too uncertain to justify large-scale legal changes. What’s more, they argue, juries and judges often display a subtler intuitive understanding of hedonic adaptation than Sunstein allows.

* * *

To read Bennett’s worthwhile piece in its entirety, click here.   For related Situationist posts, click here.

Thanks to Julian Darwell for his assistance with this post.

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3 Responses to “Something to Smile About”

  1. [...] Adam Benforado, The Situationist Something to Smile About [...]

  2. [...] read the rest of the piece, click here.  For a related post, see Adam Benforado’s Somthing to Smile About.  To review a collection of Situationist posts exploring the causes and consequences of happiness, [...]

  3. [...] Philip Brickman, a forefather to the Positive Psychology movement, predominantly referenced for his study comparing the self-reported happiness levels of lottery winners and paralyzed accident vic…, ended his life but four years after that work was published. This pattern hit a little closer to [...]

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