Thursday, December 31, 2015

What does economics tell us about making New Year's resolutions?

Opportunity cost was the first thing that came to mind the other day after the thought occurred that I should perhaps consider making a New Year’s resolution. That was probably because I just happened to be paying attention on the day the concept of opportunity cost was explained when I was at university many years ago. 

Opportunity cost is just a label. If you haven’t had the benefit of studying economics you might still be aware that the time and effort you spend making resolutions and trying to keep them could possibly be spent doing something more enjoyable. You may also be aware that there are emotional costs associated with making resolutions and then failing to keep them.

On the other hand, by now some of you will be thinking that opportunity costs are just excuses for inaction. You might want to urge me to consider the potential satisfaction of making resolutions that might enable me to become a healthier or better person.

That is why my mind now turns to the law of diminishing marginal utility. That law says, more or less, that as you obtain more of any good, the additional happiness you obtain from each additional unit tends to diminish. Every wine drinker should know that a larger increment of happiness is likely to be obtained from the first glass of wine than from the second, and a larger increment of happiness from the second than from the third, and so on. If the truth of that observation is not obvious to you on New Year’s eve, it might well become very obvious on New Year’s day.

It seems to me that the law of diminishing marginal utility applies to New Year’s resolutions in much the same way as to other goods. For example, a person who swears a great deal might gain some satisfaction if she can refrain from using foul language in the presence of children. The further increment she obtains from refraining from swearing in front of people whom she knows to be disgusted by the behaviour, might be somewhat smaller. The increments in satisfaction could be expected to become progressively smaller as she adds further classes of people or situations.

All this brings to mind the image of a scissors diagram, regarded as a thing of great beauty by many economists of my vintage. The downward sloping line in the diagram below represents the declining marginal utility of resolutions and the upward sloping lines represent the rising marginal cost of resolutions (expressed in utility terms). If you are having difficulty viewing the quantity of resolutions as a homogenous good, think of the horizontal axis as measuring the extent to which you might consider reducing your use of a particular swear word over the next year. 

I have drawn two cost curves in the diagram to illustrate how the optimal investment in resolutions would change if it became less costly to make and keep resolutions. The initial optimum is at point A, where our subject makes a relatively small investment in New Year’s resolutions. If it became less costly to make resolutions, the optimum would move to point B. At that point she would make more resolutions - and her total utility would be higher.

So, what does economics have to tell us about how to reduce the costs associated with New Year’s resolutions? An obvious place to look is behavioral economics. It is not difficult to find articles on the internet suggesting how we can use behavioral economics to help us to stick to our resolutions. Much of the underlying research is more in the field of psychology than economics, such as the work of Roy Baumeister on willpower (which I discussed here).

In my view the area of economics that has most potential to help us to understand and reduce the costs associated with making and keeping resolutions is ‘identity economics’. The key idea of identity economics – as explained in a book of that name by George Akerlof and Rachel Kranton - is that individuals gain satisfaction when their actions conform to the norms and ideals of their identity. In the way Kranton and Akerlof develop the concept, identity is determined to a large extent by the groups to which individuals belong. 

However, when you think about your own identity, as an autonomous individual, you are free to think of it as being defined by the qualities you value most highly - or identify with. (There is some relevant discussion in a recent post in which I reviewed Russ Harris’s book, The Happiness Trap.) Recent research by Anthony Burrow and Nathan Spreng, which suggests that having a purpose in life tends to impede impulsivity, points to the potential benefits of keeping in mind the qualities we value most highly.

This brings to mind the potential to draw a possibilities diagram showing trade-offs between some of the things I value. On one axis is excellence and on the other axis is tranquility. I will leave it to your imagination.

On reflection, it doesn’t seem to make much sense to think in terms of trade-offs between excellence and tranquility. It might make more sense to think in terms of a trade-off between satisfaction with professional achievement and satisfaction with relationships, as shown below. An investment in emotional health might expand the possibilities available.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Why wish everyone a Merry Christmas?

Why not? It is that time of the year again. It is a custom I grew up with. It is a widespread practice in the country in which I live.

So, does that mean my seasonal good wishes are intended to apply only to people who share a similar cultural heritage?

Actually, when I think about it, most of those who share a similar cultural heritage will probably think I am just hoping that they enjoy the customary things that many of us enjoy at this time of year - attending parties, going on holidays, preparing for celebrations, meeting with family members, exchanging gifts, feasting, getting “merry” etc.

Even if none of that applies to you, I still wish you a merry Christmas.  No-one is excluded from the sentiments of the Christmas message: Peace on earth and goodwill to all. (That might or might not be an accurate translation of relevant scripture, but it is the one I read on Christmas cards – and it is good enough for a non-church-goer like me.)

Christmas gives me a convenient excuse to express my hope for you to enjoy tranquility and opportunities to flourish in all aspects of your life.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

How can we avoid the happiness trap?

The idea that pursuit of happiness can be futile has been around for thousands of years. In my last post, I discussed J S Mill’s contribution in the 19th Century. In this post I will discuss the contribution made by Russ Harris in The Happiness Trap: Stop struggling, start livingwhich was first published in 2007. This book is based on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) developed by Steven Hayes.

Russ Harris suggests that many people are caught in a happiness trap, which is based on four myths:
  1. Happiness is the natural state for all human beings;
  2. If you’re not happy, you’re defective;
  3. To create a better life, we must get rid of negative feelings; and
  4. You should be able to control what you think and feel.

It would be easy for me to become side-tracked into a discussion of how prevalent the happiness trap might be. The survey evidence suggests to me that in high income countries most people are actually fairly happy, but the picture that emerges does differ depending on the way happiness is measured. For example, at a national level high levels of positive emotion are not always accompanied by low levels of negative emotion. It is also possible for a substantial proportion of the population to experience chronic anxiety and depression at some time during their lives, despite the sustained existence of relatively high average happiness levels.

The important points are that too many people are falling into the trap of struggling to get rid of negative feelings and of attempting to control what they think and feel. I don’t think it is a myth that happiness is the natural state for most humans to be in: a majority of humans seem to have an inbuilt optimism bias. Nevertheless, there are times when it is natural, healthy and appropriate for humans to have negative thoughts and feelings. We cannot avoid having negative thoughts and feelings, but we can exercise a great deal of control over our responses to thoughts and feelings.

Harris argues that happiness has two very different meanings. The first refers to a feeling: a sense of pleasure, gladness or gratification. The second refers to a rich, full and meaningful life. The happiness trap is associated with craving the first form of happiness. If we seek to live a full and meaningful life at various times we can expect to experience the full range of human emotions, including sadness, fear and anger.

The author writes:
“The reality is, life involves pain. There is no getting away from it. As human beings we are all faced with the fact that sooner or later we will grow infirm, get sick and die. …”
But he provides grounds for hope:
“The good news is that, although we can’t avoid such pain, we can learn to handle it much better – to make room for it, rise above it and create a life worth living”.

So, how does the book suggest we go about creating lives that are worth living?  As I read it, the book does this by suggesting ways in which we can exercise and develop our personal powers (or capabilities) in relation to thoughts, sensations, values and goals. The underlying idea seems to be that if we manage to cope with unhelpful thoughts and unpleasant feelings, identify and endorse the values we want to guide us, set sensible goals for ourselves, act purposefully and engage fully in what we are doing, we will end up with lives that are worth living. That makes a lot of sense to me.

The approach suggested for coping with unhelpful thoughts or stories is to defuse them. The simplest technique suggested is to give yourself some distance from the thought by observing, “I am having the thought that …”. Many other techniques of defusion are suggested. One I particularly like is to thank my mind for the unhelpful advice it is giving me, and then ignore it.

The approach suggested for coping with unpleasant feelings and sensations is expansion -  that means making room for them rather than struggling with them. The three basic steps of expansion are: to observe the feelings and sensations in your body; breath into them; and let them come and go, or just stay there. If that sounds like Vipassana meditation, there are probably good reasons for that.
On the basis of my personal experience (as a consumer of self-help advice rather than a professional) I have doubts about the author’s recommendation to focus on the most uncomfortable sensation first. Acceptance of unpleasant sensations seems easier in the context of scanning my whole body, noticing and accepting all the sensations. Nevertheless, I particularly liked this comment:
“As you practice this technique one of two things will happen: either your feelings will change or they won’t. It doesn’t matter either way, because this technique is not about changing your feelings – it is about accepting them”. 

Russ Harris is of course not the first person to argue that we need to be guided by our values – our deepest desires relating to how we want to be and what we stand for – in order to have a rich full and meaningful life. For example, Aristotle emphasized the importance of values to individual flourishing, and Ayn Rand had John Galt develop a cogent argument leading to a definition of happiness as “that state of consciousness which proceeds from the achievement of one’s values” (Atlas Shrugged, p 1014). Harris underlines the importance of values by referring to Viktor Frankl’s observation that the prisoners who survived in Auschwitz were often not the physically fittest, but those who were most connected with something they valued such as a loving relationship with their children.

Harris suggests that people identify their values in all domains of their lives: family, marriage, friendships, employment, personal development, recreation and leisure, spirituality, community, environment, health etc. Many of the questions involve asking what sort of person we want to be and what qualities we want to bring to our experiences.

The next step is to set goals and action plans relating to our values for each domain of our lives. When reading about it, the process seemed as though it might be just as boring as corporate planning, but that need not be so. Findings of recent neural research (by Christopher Cascio and colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania) indicate that a focus on things we value in life -  referred to as self-affirmation – is associated with greater activation in parts of the brain that are known to be involved in expecting and receiving reward (the ventral striatum and the ventral medial prefrontal cortex).  A focus on what is most valued in a future context also involves more neural activity in areas associated with thinking about the self (the medial prefrontal cortex and posterior cingulate cortex).

It is worth remembering that the point of acting in accordance with our values is about the quality of our journeys through life rather than about reaching ultimate destinations.  As Russ Harris puts it:
“When we move in a valued direction, every moment of our journey becomes meaningful”.

I have written enough to provide a few hints about the contents of the book. My one criticism of the book (as a consumer of self-help products) is its failure to recognize that some cognitive approaches, e.g. Neuro-Semantics, can help people to adopt the frames of mind that they value, without having to engage in a struggle against negative thinking. Leaving that aside, in my view, this book has great value in helping readers to work out what they have to accept in life, what they can hope to change, and what commitments they have to make to make their lives more meaningful.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Was J S Mill correct in his observation that happiness cannot be obtained by seeking it?

John Stuart Mill is often quoted as an authority on the question of
whether happiness can be obtained by seeking it. In Autobiography he wrote:
“Those only are happy ... who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way”.

How can that view be reconciled with Mill’s conviction “that happiness is the test of all rules of conduct, and the end of life”? That was no problem for J.S. Mill. In Utilitarianism he proposed:
“the happiness which forms the utilitarian standard of what is right in conduct, is not the agent's own happiness, but that of all concerned. As between his own happiness and that of others, utilitarianism requires him to be as strictly impartial as a disinterested and benevolent spectator”.
Mill enlisted the support of a widely-esteemed authority in support of that proposition:
“In the golden rule of Jesus of Nazareth, we read the complete spirit of the ethics of utility. To do as you would be done by, and to love your neighbour as yourself, constitute the ideal perfection of utilitarian morality”.
Mill might not have been a reliable exponent of the teachings of Jesus, but he was certainly an artful propagandist for utilitarianism.

Coming back to the original question, it seems important to be clear about the nature of the happiness that Mill claimed could not be obtained by seeking it. In his writings he seems to accept that some of the pleasures of life can be obtained by seeking them. As noted in 
my discussion of his views on pushpin and poetry (here and here) he regarded some pleasures as being higher than others.

Mill saw the development of “noble character” as intimately linked to the higher pleasures. At one point Mill seems to suggest that development of a noble character is an avenue to happiness. In Utilitarianism he wrote:
“... if it may be doubted whether a noble character is always the happier for its nobleness, there can be no doubt that it makes other people happier ...”.

Mill argued that some happiness could be obtained by cultivating tranquillity:
“the conscious ability to do without happiness gives the best prospect of realizing, such happiness as is attainable. For nothing except that consciousness can raise a person above the chances of life, by making him feel that, let fate and fortune do their worst, they have not power to subdue him: which, once felt, frees him from excess of anxiety concerning the evils of life, and enables him, like many a Stoic in the worst times of the Roman Empire, to cultivate in tranquility the sources of satisfaction accessible to him, without concerning himself about the uncertainty of their duration, any more than about their inevitable end”.

In saying that happiness cannot be obtained by seeking it, Mill possibly meant that tranquility of mind cannot be obtained by seeking pleasure. Mill’s personal experience is relevant here. He reports that he helped himself to regain some measure of happiness after suffering a nervous breakdown when he was a young man by reading the poetry of William Wordsworth. In Autobiography he wrote:
What made Wordsworth's poems a medicine for my state of mind, was that they expressed, not mere outward beauty, but states of feeling, and of thought coloured by feeling, under the excitement of beauty. They seemed to be the very culture of the feelings, which I was in quest of.

Wordsworth’s poem “Imitations of immortality from recollections of earlychildhood” might provide an example of what Mill was writing about.

What should be make of Mill’s suggestion that to be happy people need to fix their minds on some object other than their own happiness? In his autobiography Mill reports that he came to that view after his nervous breakdown. It has been suggested (for example by Kieran Setiya) that Mill displayed a lack of self-knowledge because he became unhappy even though he had already met his own condition of aiming not at his own happiness, but at the happiness of others.

However, my reading of Mill’s account suggests that he saw his problem as stemming from the moment when he asked himself whether he would be happy if all his objects in life were realized. Mill implies that his mistake was to question his own happiness:
“Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so. The only chance is to treat, not happiness, but some end external to it, as the purpose of life. Let your self-consciousness, your scrutiny, your self-interrogation, exhaust themselves on that; and if otherwise fortunately circumstanced you will inhale happiness with the air you breathe, without dwelling on it or thinking about it, without either forestalling it in imagination, or putting it to flight by fatal questioning”.

Under what conditions would a person who was fully absorbed in a major social or political movement be likely to be made to feel depressed merely by asking himself if he would be happy if all the objectives of that movement were realized? It seems to me that one set of circumstances in which that outcome might make sense is if the person concerned had been indoctrinated into the movement from an early age and had not previously considered the extent to which “his” objects in life were consistent with his own personal values. Those conditions may have applied in the case for JS Mill, who was educated by his father to become a propagandist for utilitarianism.

That explanation fits with Mill’s account that the first "small ray of light broke in upon [his] gloom" when he "accidentally" read the passage from Marmontel's MĂ©moires that relates his father's death and the sudden inspiration by which he, then a mere boy, felt as a result of his increased responsibilities. It strikes me that Mill might at that moment have been inspired to see himself as an autonomous individual rather than a creation of his father (James Mill) and Jeremy Bentham (his godfather).  

So, after all that, was Mill correct in his observation that happiness cannot be obtained by seeking it? The answer depends on what we mean by happiness. The small amount of wisdom I have gained from my reading in this area suggests that it makes sense to pursue the things we (as autonomous individuals) value most highly in all domains of our lives. Whether or not that brings us great joy, it is likely to give us the satisfaction of knowing that our lives are meaningful.

Note: This is a revised version of an article posted on this blog in 2008. I have revised it because my views have changed.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Why donate through Opportunity International Australia?

It must have been over 15 years ago when I first began making modest monthly donations to Opportunity International Australia. Opportunity is a microfinance organisation that provides small loans to help people in low-income countries break the poverty cycle by starting their own small businesses. It also offers its clients other financial services including savings accounts and insurance.

What attracted me to Opportunity the most was the potential for money donated to be recycled to help more people as loans are repaid. Over the years I have obtained satisfaction from the information that Opportunity has sent me about transformations that have occurred in the lives of individuals who were being helped. There have been many heart-warming stories about donations being used in ways that help poor people, mainly women, to build better lives for themselves and their families.

Nevertheless, the sceptical old economist in me has been muttering that he would like to see such stories backed by more empirical data showing how the economic and social prospects of Opportunity’s clients have improved as a result of the help that they have been given.

The enthusiasm of development economists for microfinance seems to have waxed and waned over the years, but recent research findings suggest that it can be an effective way to expand the opportunities available to people living in poverty who would otherwise be unable to obtain credit (or would have difficulty servicing loans at interest rates reflecting the high credit risks conventionally perceived to be involved). One particular study I have in mind, undertaken by Shahidur Khandker and Hussain Samad for the World Bank, uses over 20 years of panel data for Bangladesh. This study found that microcredit programmes resulted in increases in income, expenditure and net wealth, and increased participation in education. The results suggest that microcredit has been a particularly effective tool for reducing poverty among women.

In terms of global microfinance, the Opportunity International Network is a relatively small player, but a recent Social Performance Report indicates that it now has 3.6 million loan clients and its gross loan portfolio stands at $US 841.6 million. As indicated in the chart below, most of those loans have been made to India and other parts of Asia.

Those priorities seem appropriate from an Australian supporter’s perspective, but I would personally like to see Opportunity also establish a presence in Papua New Guinea.
Information in the Social Performance Report also indicates to me that Opportunity has been fairly effective in targeting assistance to those whose needs are greatest. A high proportion of new clients have been living in poverty, using $2.50 per day as the benchmark; new clients often have had no previous access to loans or savings facilities with a financial institution; and 94% of clients are women.

Information on the impact of loans and other assistance is currently patchy, but efforts are being made to develop appropriate indicators. The Social Performance Report provides evidence of a substantial reduction in the proportion of clients in poverty in the Philippines and of substantial job creation in clients’ businesses in African countries. One statistic which must imply impressive economic performance by clients is the repayment rate of loans – it is reported that 98% of Opportunity loans are repaid.

Rather than rounding off this post with a conclusion that any two-handed economist might be proud of, I want to do something I have never done before. I urge readers to spare $6 or more (hopefully much more) each month to make a regular donation to Opportunity. You might get a warm inner glow by giving money to other charities, but it would be hard to find anything more deeply satisfying than giving a hand-up to poverty-stricken people who seeking to build better futures for themselves and their families.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Will the Swedes maintain their positive attitudes toward non-European immigration?

Attitudes toward non-European immigration are much more positive in Sweden than in other EU countries. This is illustrated in the following chart, based on a Eurobarometer survey.

EU countries in which the highest proportion of the population have positive feelings toward non-EU immigration

Note: SE = Sweden; DK = Denmark; FI = Finland. Norway is not a member of the EU.
Source: Eurobarometer 82; Survey Nov.2014; QA 11.2 (Abridged)

The high proportion of Swedes who have positive attitudes toward non-Western migration sits somewhat oddly with the difficulty that Sweden has had in integrating such migrants. That is apparent in Michael Booth’s book, The Almost Nearly Perfect People, which I began to discuss in my last post. Booth writes of “newly arrived immigrants being shunted off to places like RosengĂ„rd, where they are given just enough money to live on but often face insurmountable obstacles to progressing further in society”. He suggests that the Swedish welfare state creates “ghettos” for “clientification” of new arrivals. I guess clientification has come to describe the process by which people become dependent upon welfare because government welfare agencies pretend to run businesses in which welfare beneficiaries are viewed as clients.

Michael Booth notes that newly arrived migrants becoming dependent upon welfare is in sharp contrast to the situation in the US, for example, where immigrants generally have to work hard to survive. That comment presumably refers specifically to illegal Mexican immigration into the US. It brings to mind Milton Friedman’s comment to the effect that illegal Mexican migration is a good thing because illegal immigrants are not eligible for welfare benefits. Friedman also made the more general point that it is not possible for a welfare state to maintain open borders because that would disproportionately attract the kinds of migrants who are likely to become eligible for welfare benefits. (He was, of course, more favourably disposed to open borders than to welfare states.)

It is worth noting at this point that immigration programs are sometimes seen as making a net contribution to welfare systems. Immigrants to Australia have tended to be of working age and to have useful skills, so that, on average, their tax contributions have tended to exceed the welfare payments made to them. That probably reflects immigration policies designed to attract migrants with useful skills and would not apply under an open-borders policy with migrants immediately eligible for welfare benefits.

It would be difficult for anyone to argue that the ongoing positive attitudes of the Swedes toward non-European immigration stems from social cohesion that has been created by the welfare state. The Scandinavian countries with less positive attitudes to immigration also have large welfare states. Moreover, the weight of evidence seems to support the view that high levels of trust and social cohesion in the Scandinavian countries prepared the way for the welfare state, rather than vice versa. Michael Booth tends to support that position – he reports interesting interviews with protagonists on both sides of the debate.  The international evidence that I have presented in an earlier post supports the view that people in high trust societies tend to have greatest support for moving toward a more humane society, with more redistribution of income to reduce inequality. 

Michael Booth makes the point that many Danes take pride in the fact that they pay a lot of taxes. This is apparently a way for them to say how successful they are. Booth notes that the pride that Danes take in paying tax does not prevent them from evading tax by shopping enthusiastically on the black market. Evidence from a tax audit suggests that many Danes also engage in income tax evasion when they have an opportunity to do so.

It would be reasonable to expect that a high proportion of Danish taxpayers are proud of the support that they provide to other Danes who rely on welfare payments. High levels of inter-personal trust would be likely to make such sentiments more common in Denmark and other Scandinavian countries than in most other parts of the world.

However, different attitudes seem to apply in Denmark when tax revenue is used to pay welfare benefits to newly arrived migrants. In recent years Denmark has taken the path of applying a two-tier welfare system with different provisions for new arrivals. Denmark has also adopted a more restrictive approach to immigration.

This brings me to politics. The Danes, Norwegians, Finns and Swedes all have anti-immigration parties that poll a substantial proportion of the popular vote (over 20 percent for the Danish People’s Party). The Swedish Democrats have been less influential than the xenophobic parties in the other Scandinavian countries. They obtained a lower percentage of the vote (13 percent in the last election) but the main reason they have been less influential is because they have been shunned by the other parties in Sweden. My source for this information is an article by Alberto Nardelli and George Arnett on the rise of the anti-immigration parties in the Nordic States (published in The Guardian, 20 June 2015).

I hope the vast majority of Swedes will continue to set an example to the rest of the world by maintaining strongly positive attitudes toward non-European immigration. However, that looks to me to be a forlorn hope - unless they can find a sensible way to restrict welfare benefits to immigrants (perhaps accompanied by special policies to assist refugees to find jobs). In my view, other countries, including Australia, should also consider moving toward a two-tier welfare system. Immigration to countries with costly welfare systems has a lot in common with having new members join a club that exists to provide benefits collectively to its members. It is much easier for current members to remain positive about having new members join if they are required to make appropriate contributions before being eligible for the full benefits of membership.  

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Are the Scandinavian countries almost nearly perfect?

This question is prompted by Michael Booth’s book, The Almost Nearly Perfect People. The author is English; he is married to a Dane and lives in Denmark. The subtitle (of the version I read) suggests that the author has exposed “the truth about the Nordic miracle”. The book is indeed informative, but the author’s main aim seems to be to entertain readers with his observations on the different character traits of the people in the five Nordic countries – Sweden, Finland, Norway, Denmark and Iceland - and what they think of each other.

The book could be viewed as essential reading for people thinking of spending time in Scandinavian countries. Visitors might need to be warned, for example, that Swedes tend not to be as well-mannered as observers of the on-court behaviour of Swedish tennis players might expect. Booth describes their behaviour when boarding public transport as “breathtaking rudeness” (but he comes from a country in which people do tend to apologize excessively).

The book also has much to offer people, like myself, with an interest in explanations for the high average happiness levels of these countries (as recorded in numerous international surveys) and those attempting to understand why Scandinavian welfare states have not yet collapsed.

The book was recommended to me by Jim Belshaw, an old friend and fellow blogger, because of my interest in happiness research. Jim has recently visited Denmark and has written on his blog about hygge – which translates as cosiness and has some similarity to the Australian concept of mateship – as well as about ethnocentricity and migration.

Michael Booth is bemused that the Danes tend to be consistently close to the top the world happiness rankings: even by comparison with the British they seem to be “a frosty bunch”. He suggests that the Danes are among “the least demonstrably joyful people on earth, along with the Swedes, the Finns and the Norwegians”. The author suggests that many Danes are themselves similarly bemused: “they tend to approach the subject of their much-vaunted happiness like the victims of a practical joke waiting to discover who the perpetrator is”.

It is often difficult to know when Booth is being serious, but he offers several more or less plausible explanations for the apparent contentedness of the Danes. These include low expectations resulting from their turbulent history, and a facility for denial of the costs of being Danish - including the high taxes and the loss of freedom of expression and individualism associated with hygge and Jante Law (the social norms of a small town). Such speculation is fun, but it may not be necessary to an understanding of why the Danes tend to be relatively satisfied with their lives. The relatively high average happiness levels of the Danes and other Scandinavians can be largely explained (statistically at least) in terms of such variables as average income, social support (having someone to count on in times of trouble), healthy life expectancy, perceived freedom to make life choices, generosity and relative absence of corruption. There is a good discussion in World Happiness Report 2015 (pages 21-26).

There is another possible explanation for Scandinavian happiness that I was hoping Michael Booth might have had some fun with. Last year Eugenio Proto and Andrew Oswald published exploratory research findings suggesting that cross-country differences in happiness are associated with “genetic distance from Denmark”. Apparently, the closer a country is to the genetic makeup of Denmark, the happier are the people in that country, other things equal. The study seeks to control for a fairly wide range of other variables. One part of the study is based on information on the incidence of people with short alleles (those who draw the short straw in terms of the serotonin-transporter gene) who have a genetic predisposition to overreact to stressful events. I was hoping that Michael Booth might have speculated about whether there might be something in the cultural heritage of the Scandinavians that could explain their genetic makeup. Unfortunately, the research paper was probably not published before his book was finished. When Booth did comment he cast doubts on the validity of the research findings, citing “the Dane’s record high consumption of antidepressants, which would appear to contradict the report’s assertions regarding clinical depression”. Well, who knows? More research might be required.

The thought of Scandinavians as being “almost nearly perfect” raises the question of how well these countries rate in terms of the “good society” characteristics, which I have previously proposed on this blog (in my most popular post) and in Free to Flourish as criteria that nearly everyone would consider to be important. For convenience, relevant information is summarised in the table below. The table shows data for the top 20 countries, according to their average ranking on the three criteria: peacefulness, individual opportunity and economic security. The shading - from green, through yellow to red - denotes levels of performance on each criterion from relatively strong to less strong for these top performers. (The indexes combine 15 indicators, using methodology described in Free to Flourish.)

It is obvious from the table that the Scandinavian countries are relatively good societies - according to the criteria I espouse. They rank very highly in terms of peacefulness and economic security - although, apart from Norway, they do not rank so highly in terms of individual opportunity. Equal weighting of the criteria might not be appropriate. If I had to choose whether it would be better for my grandchildren to live in a country offering greater individual opportunity or greater economic security, I would choose individual opportunity. However, my personal priorities are probably not widely shared in the Nordic countries. I wonder to what extent those priorities are shared among the large numbers of people who have migrated to Sweden in recent years.

The more contentious issue is whether these societies will remain “good” in the future. Michael Booth provides some hints in his discussion of productivity in Denmark:
I have read numerous articles in Danish newspapers of which the gist has been ‘Well, things are going well for the other Scandinavian countries so they will probably go well for us too,’ in which no mention is ever made of Norway’s colossal oil wealth or Sweden’s manufacturing supremacy and major public sector reforms. Denmark’s economy is far, far weaker than its neighbours’, and the country is facing far more serious problems, but the Danes are oddly reluctant to address their private debt levels or their gigantic welfare state”.

So, what about Finland and Iceland? There is apparently more to the Finns than taciturnity, modesty, trustworthiness and binge drinking. As well as Santa and forestry, they have a substantial electronics industry (think Nokia). Research and development spending is relatively high as a percentage of GDP and relatively little of this is public money. The Finnish education system seems to be relatively good by OECD standards (average PISA scores are very high) for reasons which seem to be related to the high regard for teaching as a profession and the simplicity of the Finnish language. The future economic growth prospects of Finland have been rated highly by the World Economic Forum, among others.

Iceland’s economy was almost wiped out by the GFC, but it now seems to be recovering. That is an interesting story, but it doesn’t deserve space in this post because the population of Iceland is tiny (about 330,000). That is less than the population of Canberra (which is admittedly somewhat bloated).

Since I have mentioned population I should note in passing that world-wide interest in the Nordic countries seems to be disproportionate to the size of their populations. The total population of the Nordic countries is only about 25 million – not much larger than Australia's. Sweden is largest, with 9.6 million people; the populations of Denmark, Finland and Norway (5.6, 5.4 and 5.1 million respectively) are all smaller than that for Victoria (5.8 million).

Coming back now to the question of whether the Nordic countries will remain good societies, it looks as though Norway will continue to be helped along for a few more decades by the rents from oil resources, while the Swedes and Finns will probably get by without too much trouble on the rents from their past investment in intellectual capital. All the Nordic countries will be helped by their high levels of social capital (trust) which seems to make changes in policy direction relatively easy to achieve as they endeavour to make their welfare systems more affordable. At this point I should mention the impact of immigration.  (So, I have mentioned it.)

Before I end this long post I want to give you a better indication of the flavour of the book by referring to some of the author’s comments on what the people in the different Scandinavian countries think of each other. According to Michael Booth, their Danish neighbours regard the Swedes as stiff, humourless, rule-obsessed and dull, and the Finns see them as “slightly foppish”. These days the Norwegians have enough money to rise above ancient resentments – they pay Swedes to wait on their tables and peel their bananas (to make a sandwich spread). The Swedes, who are wealthier than their other neighbours, tend to remain aloof from regional resentments, but they are inclined to make sanctimonious comments about anti-immigrant policies adopted by the Danes.

The overall impression I am left with, however, is that the lingering resentments among the Nordic countries are fairly tame by comparison with those among the different national and regional groups in the British Isles.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Do humans have an inbuilt potential for realistic optimism?

In order to think clearly about this question it is helpful to remember that the opposite of optimism is pessimism. Realism is not the opposite of optimism.
My understanding is that realists seek to base their estimates of the probability of future events on evidence of one kind or another. Optimists tend to over-estimate the probability of positive future events. Realistic optimists are aware of their optimistic tendencies when they make predictions and important decisions.

The idea that humans have an inbuilt tendency to be optimistic is supported by neurological research discussed by Tali Sharot, a neuroscientist, in her book The Optimism Bias. Brain imaging studies show that the brain structures that are engaged when people recollect the past are also called upon when they think about the future. The author’s research suggests that when people think about their futures there is normally also a tendency for activation of neural pathways associated with optimism (the rACC and the amygdala). Healthy people expect the future to be slightly better than it ends up, and thus tend to be less accurate when predicting future events than are people with mild depression. (The line of argument in the book is summarised in an extract published in The Guardian.)

Tali Sharot suggests that the optimism bias has evolved because it encourages people to try to transform their predictions into reality:
“The brain is organized in a way that enables optimistic beliefs to change the way we view and interact with the world around us, making optimism a self-fulfilling prophecy”.

Sharot recognizes that optimism can be a health and wealth hazard when it causes people to make risky choices. She suggests:
“if we are aware of the bias, we would should be able to remain optimistic – while at the same time being able to promote action that will guard us from the pitfalls of unrealistic optimism”.

One point that occurred to me while reading The Optimism Bias is that this bias may often compensate for other common biases such as risk aversion and loss aversion, which tend to pull in the opposite direction. (I doubt whether I am the first person to think of this. It occurred to me that the logical place to look for a discussion would be Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, but I couldn’t find it even though his chapters discussing the optimism bias and loss aversion are in close proximity.) The research by Robb Rutledge, which I discussed in “What is the secret of happiness?” seems relevant. If we have chosen a particular strategy because of its potential to yield high average returns over the longer term, it is often better to stick with it even if outcomes are disappointing in the short term. Under those circumstances, realistic optimism would help us to reject the temptation to avoid further disappointment by lowering our expectations and adopting a low-risk/low-return strategy.

A point that should be emphasised is that optimistic expectations can only become self-fulfilling if they induce people to change their behaviour in ways that make them self-fulfilling. There is support for that view in recent research by Elizabeth Tenny, Jennifer Logg and Don Moore. This research suggests that the benefits of optimism lie mainly in encouraging people to increase their effort in order to improve performance.

Similar findings were obtained in research by Gigi Foster and Paul Frijters (abstract here) comparing the expectations of Australian students about the grades they were likely to achieve with the grades they actually achieved. Individuals with high self-esteem were found to over-predict their outcomes and to put in more effort than fellow-students with otherwise similar characteristics.

Humans do seem to have an inbuilt potential for realistic optimism that enables them to set goals that are not far beyond their reach and then inspires them to work hard to attain those goals. However, potential is like a glass half full. The processes that function autonomously within us do not necessarily ensure that we remain optimistic or that our optimism is tempered by realism. In order to attain and maintain realistic optimism we need to become sufficiently self-aware and equanimous to avoid the pitfalls of pessimism and unrealistic optimism.

I am having second thoughts about the extent to which an optimism bias should be considered normal. The short allele variant of the 5-HTTLPR, which is associated with stronger attentional bias toward negative stimuli, is apparently present in almost half of the population of countries for which data is available. Most of us view optimism as desirable, but many of us have to exert some effort in order to maintain an optimistic outlook.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Why should we expect a close association between autonomy, realism and happiness in a worthwhile life?

Winton's amateurish artwork
Neera Badhwar writes:
“The main argument of my book can be stated in the following five propositions:
(i)    Well-being as the HPG (highest prudential good) consists of happiness in an objectively worthwhile life;
(ii)   Someone who leads such a life must be characteristically autonomous and reality-orientated, that is, disposed to think for herself and seek truth or understanding about important aspects of her own life and human life in general, and disposed to act on her understanding when circumstances permit;
(iii)   To the extent that someone with these traits succeeds in achieving understanding and acting on it when circumstances permit, she is realistic.
(iv)   To the extent that she is realistic, she is virtuous.
(v)     Hence, well-being as the HPG requires virtue”. 
"Wellbeing:Happiness in a Worthwhile Life", 2014.

I don’t have many problems with the first three propositions. Those propositions have been briefly discussed in my last two posts: “Is human well-being subjective or objective?” and “Is there a close relationship between autonomy and realism?” It is important to be clear that a realistic orientation is consistent with optimistic (hopeful) appraisals of future opportunities. Indeed, healthy human functioning seems to be characterized by realistic optimism. I will write something about that in my next post.

Coming back to the line of argument in Neera Badhwar's book, it was not immediately obvious to me why a person who is autonomous and realistic should be expected to be virtuous (point iv). Examples readily come to mind of situations where ‘being realistic’ appears to involve compromises in which virtue is sacrificed for pragmatic reasons. I will try to explain, briefly, how the author reaches the conclusion that virtue is positively related to realism.

The author accepts Aristotle’s view of virtue as an integrated intellectual-emotional disposition to think, feel, and act “at the right times, about the right things, towards the right people, for the right end, and in the right way”, and to take pleasure in so doing. Her focus is on the cardinal virtues of justice, honesty, courage, integrity, kindness, and the virtues that are partly constitutive of these virtues: practical wisdom, and regard for self and others.

In Chapter 4 she suggests:
“To the extent that an autonomous/ reality-oriented person achieves understanding of the true and the good, and acquires the disposition to deliberate, feel, and act accordingly, he is realistic and morally virtuous” (p. 108).

After reading that chapter I was left feeling sceptical about the line of argument developed. That surprised me because I have previously responded positively to other attempts to link well-being with virtues. (For example, see my previous comments on the views of Martin Seligman about cultivation of signature virtues.) As I see it the problem is that it is necessary to have or acquire a disposition to cultivate the virtues - as well as a somewhat optimistic disposition - before it is possible for the chemistry of autonomy and reality-orientation to produce happiness in a worthwhile life.

The problem is resolved in a later chapter. In Chapter 6 Neera Badhwar observes that nature has endowed humans with positive self- and other-regarding natural virtues and that in their early moral development people tend to acquire emotional dispositions to tell the truth, risk danger, help and empathize. She notes that the idea that well-tempered emotions are necessary for characteristically making the right choices is now widely recognized in philosophical literature and supported by psychological and neurological research.

The author argues that virtue and well-being both involve emotional, deliberative and evaluative dispositions. She notes that the cultivations of those dispositions is “to a significant extent up to us”. She adds:
“Furthermore, the integration of emotional dispositions with intellectual (especially deliberative) dispositions that is required by virtue, makes virtue highly conducive to happiness, since a common source of unhappiness is conflict between our emotions and evaluations. Indeed, since the virtuous agent necessarily takes pleasure or joy in acting virtuously, virtuous activity is inherently productive of some happiness. It also promotes happiness insofar as the achievement of worthwhile goals is a source of happiness, and virtuous activity enables the virtuous agent to achieve them” (p 152-3).

The way the author summarised her argument at the beginning of the book seems to me to have been unnecessarily provocative. After reading the book as a whole, however, I doubt whether many people would have fundamental objections to the idea that an objectively worthwhile life requires virtue and that cultivation of virtue requires autonomy and reality orientation. Indeed, if we accept that widespread regard for the traditional virtues must have evolved because practice of those moral intuitions served the individual and collective interests of humans, it would be strange if individuals who endorse and cultivate those virtues in their own lives did not obtain happiness from seeking to make their lives worthwhile.

In my view Neera Badhwar has presented strong reasons in support of the view that the chances for an individual to achieve happiness in an objectively worthwhile life depend heavily on the extent to which her/his life is characterized by autonomy and reality-orientation. 

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Is there a close relationship between autonomy and realism?

Is this an empirical question or a conceptual question?

If it is viewed as an empirical question the obvious way to answer it would be to define autonomy, define realism and then test for an empirical relationship. I have made a quick attempt to do that in the chart below, using the excellent data analysis facility of the World Values Survey. The autonomy index used is the sub-index constructed by Christian Welzel for his emancipative values index.  Welzel’s approach is based on survey respondents’ views of desirable child qualities: an emphasis on independence and imagination is considered to be positive in terms of the value placed on autonomy whereas an emphasis on obedience is considered to be negative. The realism indicator I used is based on responses to the statement: “We depend too much on science and not enough on faith”. The data shown are from an Australian survey conducted in 2012.

The chart seems to show that people who place high value on autonomy tend to be more realistic. However, this is a fairly frivolous piece of research. Questions can be raised about the relevance of an Australian survey to people in other countries, the small size of the sample etc. More importantly, for present purposes, the plausibility of the depicted relationship depends on the validity of the indicators of autonomy and realism used in the chart.

The empirical approach to answering the question cannot avoid conceptual issues relating to selection of appropriate indicators. Perhaps the question should be viewed as entirely conceptual.

In Well-being: Happiness in a worthwhile life, Neera Badhwar presents a philosophical argument that autonomy and reality-orientation are two facets of the same character trait. (In my last post I discussed another issue arising from this book, the question of whether human well-being should be viewed as objective or subjective.)

In brief, the argument is as follows. An autonomous person is self-governing. When we live autonomously, we “play an active role in shaping our individual selves, instead of slavishly following others, or surrendering direction of our lives to our fantasies, illusions, momentary urges or inertia”. Autonomous individuals have minds of their own – they rely on their own epistemic powers to form judgements about important issues, including the issue of how far they can rely on their own judgement. They are goal-directed and have a reliable self in charge - they not so self-confident as to be self-deluded. In order to have a reliable self in charge a person has to be reality-oriented. Autonomous individuals also accept responsibility for their actions, and in order to do that they must be reality oriented.

The difference between autonomy and reality-orientation lies only in their focus:
“The focus of reality-orientation is gaining the truth about, or understanding of, important things and responding accordingly, while that of autonomy is living by one’s own judgements and decisions”.

Much of Neera Badhwar’s discussion of the relationship between autonomy and realism is taken up with defence of her view against various possible criticisms. I found her discussion of claims that realism is bad for people to be particularly interesting. (The relevant chapter is based on a previously published article.)

The author concedes that when facts are devastating we might be better off remaining ignorant of them – some happiness based on ignorance is better than total misery based on knowledge. However, she is critical of empirical research which purports to show that holding positive illusions about oneself tends to promote happiness. She points to many problems with the research leading to these claims. She also implies that it is not possible to draw useful conclusions from the research findings, even if they are accepted at face value.  People who have positive illusions about their abilities could also be expected to have positive illusions about their happiness:
the emotions and evaluations that express or constitute their illusions about their abilities, achievements, and future prospects … together entail a sense of meaning and enjoyment of life. … It follows then that insofar as happiness consists of these unwarranted evaluations and emotions, the connection between happiness and illusions is a conceptual, and not a causal, one”.

I have to think more about what means in relation to neural research findings which suggest that it is normal for humans to have an inbuilt optimistic bias. When I look around me most of the people I see seem to have both a realistic orientation and tendency to look on the bright side of life. 

The author makes clear that she is not opposed to optimism. She recognizes that self-fulfilling attitudes, whether positive or negative, are a pervasive aspect of human psychology. The point she is making is that realistic optimism about oneself and one’s future beats unrealistic optimism – and thus recognizes that it is possible to have a realistic basis for optimism (as I have previously argued on this blog).

Neera Badhwar notes that Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers, leaders of the human potential movement, viewed realism as central to mental health and well-being. She notes that in Rogers' view the fully functioning individual is open to experience, distorting neither his perceptions of the world to fit his conception of himself, nor his conception of himself to fit his perceptions of the world. I find this particularly interesting in the light of Rogers’ use of Alfred Korzybski’s notion that “the map is not the territory”. Carl Rogers recognized that our maps do not serve us well if they are not realistic.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Is human well-being subjective or objective?

I usually try to begin the discussion of topics on my blog by explaining why the question and my answer might be of interest to potential readers. That is difficult this time because I am attempting to answer the question in the hope that doing so will help me to become less confused about the topic. However, confusion about subjectivity and objectivity seems fairly common - particularly so among economists - so hopefully what I am about to write will have a potential audience of more than one person.

In Free to Flourish I wrote:
“Observers can clearly make judgements about the extent that individual humans are flourishing or languishing in much the same way as they can make such judgements about plants and animals. In the case of humans, however, the subjects are capable of telling an observer how they feel about their own lives and their opinions usually deserve more respect than those observing. For example, it may appear obvious that people with poor physical health or very low income have a low quality of life, but if the individuals concerned feel content, what right has any observer to imply that they do not know how they feel?
As noted previously, individual flourishing involves a variety of factors including emotional wellbeing and life satisfaction, as well as more objective factors such as physical health, education and wealth. The relative weights any individual gives to these factors reflect personal preferences. …

If we were to substitute community values for personal preferences we would be at risk of attempting to measure the extent that an adult is flourishing according to values that he or she does not agree with. That would certainly be inappropriate.” (Chapter 5).

I stand by what I wrote. (At least I did earlier in the day when I wrote the preceding sentence.) 

Does that mean that I believe human well-being is objective or subjective? The first sentence in the quote implies that well-being is objective. Are the sentiments in the final paragraph of the quote consistent with those in the first sentence?

Before reading the first part of Well-Being: Happiness in a worthwhile life, by Neera Badhwar, a philosopher, I believed that well-being is subjective. Now I am fairly sure that there are objective standards of well-being.  (Many of the relevant issues are also discussed by Neera Badhwar in an article published last year.)

The problem is conceptual. My previous view that well-being is subjective was based on the view that it must be because it contains important subjective elements. That seems to have been the view of the welfare economists who declared interpersonal comparisons of utility to be impossible. It is also the view of the philosopher, Wayne Sumner, who suggested that the term ‘objective’ be reserved for the view that well-being is simply a matter of meeting certain objective standards, regardless of the individual’s emotional condition and her evaluation of her life.

At this point I recall a discussion a long time ago with an economist who pointed out to me that people often make interpersonal comparisons of utility - so we can hardly claim that such comparisons are impossible. In our everyday lives we often make judgements about whether other people are happy or sad, satisfied or unsatisfied with their lives, whether they feel that they are achieving anything worthwhile and so forth. Those judgements are based on what people say and do. They are often ill-informed, but that does not necessarily mean they are not objective. 

I suspect that it is only in their professional lives that economists have ever refrained from making interpersonal comparisons of utility. These days, many economists (self included) view the subjective ratings that individuals place on their happiness, satisfaction with life etc. as objective evidence pertaining to important aspects of their well-being relative to other people.

Neera Badhwar suggests that we should view theories of well-being as objective if they make objective worth essential to well-being. She argues that for individuals to be flourishing their lives must be supremely desirable and worthwhile, and therefore eminently worth living. They must not only meet the individual’s own standards of worth but be able to pass muster according to objective standards of worth.

The author argues that objective well-being requires self-direction:
the idea of objective well-being is perfectly compatible with the idea that objectively worthy lives can take many different shapes depending on the interests, opportunities and abilities of the individual and, in fact, must take a shape that both suits the individual’s own psychological nature and meets her standards to count as a life of well-being”. (p 8)

Neera Badhwar answers those who argue that objective theories of well-being are paternalistic by pointing out that theories of well-being in themselves do not tell us to promote other people’s well-being, let alone to promote our conception of their well-being.
That is consistent with the position that I have previously taken that “the case for individuals to be responsible for their own lives does not necessarily rest on each individual being the best judge of what is good for himself or herself”. In my view it rests on the proposition that adult humans cannot fully flourish unless they accept responsibility for their own lives. (Free to Flourish, Chapter 3.)

Coming back now to the last paragraph of the quote at the beginning of this post, if I now accept that a flourishing life must pass muster in terms of objective standards of worth, can I still maintain that it is inappropriate to measure the extent that an adult is flourishing according to values that he or she does not agree with? 

I don’t think so. I can acknowledge that objective standards of worth are relevant, whilst also urging researchers to accept the implications of the fact that “community standards” can be controversial. But that does not mean that it is never appropriate "to measure the extent that an adult is flourishing according to values that he or she does not agree with". For example, it is appropriate to assert that it is not possible for slaves to flourish, even though it is possible that an individual slave might claim that freedom has no value to her.