Showing posts with label Well-being and utility. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Well-being and utility. Show all posts

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, September 20, 2015

Do major cities create unhappy Australians?

Sydney's eastern suburbs
Major cities create unhappy Australians. That headline jumped out at me when I was doing an internet search recently. The source was The Melbourne Newsroom – a media unit at the University of Melbourne. The news release tells us that Australians who live in rural locations or towns of less than 1,000 residents “have significantly higher life satisfaction than those living in major cities”. (Major cities have more than 100,000 residents.)

The news release is linked to a recent publication based on the highly regarded HILDA survey undertaken by Melbourne University. The survey results suggest a boost to average life satisfaction (on the 11 point scale from 0 to 10) of 0.127 points for females and 0.108 points for males from living in a rural location or town rather than a major city. That might seem small, but it appears to imply that living in a major city has an adverse impact on life satisfaction of similar magnitude to being unemployed or divorced.

The authors of the HILDA publication conclude:
“other things being equal, the major cities are the least desirable places to live”.

The qualification in that statement is important. The authors go on to point out that the undesirability of living in cities is somewhat counteracted by the fact that the major cities contain areas of greatest socio-economic advantage.  Life satisfaction is influenced by the effects of the relative socio-economic advantage or disadvantage of the area in which an individual lives.

The main reason I was sceptical when I read the headline “Major cities create unhappy Australians” was because earlier in the day I had read a paper by Arthur Grimes and Marc Reinhardt which found that the differences between life satisfaction in rural and urban areas in other high-income OECD countries disappeared in a model controlling for other variables. The other variables controlled for were own income and reference income (mean income within a country of individuals of the same gender, age and employment status).

A study examining differences between life satisfaction of rural and urban residents of Victoria, undertaken a decade ago by Dianne Vella-Brodrick et al, also found that the significance of rurality disappeared when other variables were controlled for. The other variables in the model included satisfaction with community and perceived level of satisfaction with distance from services.

In a post I wrote on this blog a few years ago I considered the differences at a regional level between the stories told by a range of wellbeing indicators in Victoria. The (rural) local government areas (LGAs) with higher average subjective well-being (SWB) also tended to have higher ratings in terms of satisfaction with being part of the community, social support (ability to get help from friends), citizen engagement (e.g. attending town meetings, writing to politicians), safety (e.g. feeling safe walking in the local area at night) and volunteering. However, those LGAs tended to have lower household income, lower satisfaction with work-life balance and less acceptance of diverse cultures. The latter variables tended to have higher values in Melbourne and in LGAs close to Melbourne.

Do those results suggest major cities create unhappy Australians? I don’t think so. As discussed in a more recent post, major cities in Australia are ranked among the most liveable in the world. People who choose to live in major cities may well do so for good reasons, in full knowledge that they are making choices that are likely to reduce their life satisfaction. Life satisfaction is important, but it is not the only argument in individuals’ utility functions. For example, it can be rational for people to sacrifice some life satisfaction now to obtain more life satisfaction later (e.g. by accumulating wealth to fund their retirement in a more pleasant location). There is also some evidence that many people are prepared to sacrifice their own happiness in making location choices in order to provide better opportunities for their children.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Is human flourishing inconsistent with living in harmony with nature?

A view of Sydney in 2014

I like many of the ideas in the Ecomodernist Manifesto, but I don’t like the idea of having to choose between making room for nature and living in harmony with nature. Before discussing this issue I will provide some background.

The Manifesto, published in April of this year, has 18 authors of whom the best known are probably Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger of the Breakthough Institute.

The Ecomodernists begin with the proposition that the earth has entered into a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, or age of humans. That provides the backdrop for consideration of the interaction between human flourishing and the natural environment.

Many environmentalists assert that a good Anthropocene is not consistent with the ongoing expansion of opportunities for human flourishing which economic growth provides. By contrast, the authors of the Manifesto are optimistic that the Anthropocene can offer expanding opportunities for humans, as well as protecting the natural environment, if knowledge and technology are applied with wisdom.

I endorse this proposition:
“A good Anthropocene demands that humans use their growing social, economic, and technological powers to make life better for people, stabilize the climate, and protect the natural world.”

My problem is with what follows immediately after:
“In this we affirm one long-standing environmental ideal, that humanity must shrink its impacts on the environment to make more room for nature, while we reject another, that human societies must harmonize with nature to avoid economic and ecological collapse.
These two ideals can no longer be reconciled”.

I don’t see any necessary conflict between the two ideals. It seems to me that the ideal of harmonizing with nature means that we should seek to live in harmony with the natural laws of the world in which we live. That means accepting that humans are in many respects like other animals and have deep emotional connections to the natural environment and other living things. These emotional connections are explicitly recognized in Chapter 5 of the Manifesto.

That suggests to me that the problem is just definitional. Nevertheless, it is hard to understand why the authors of the Manifesto would risk losing support by asking people to make an unnecessary choice between ideals.

What is the real choice that the authors want us to make?  When they object to the ideal of human societies harmonizing with “nature”, it seems that what they are referring to are natural systems - the part of the natural environment that has not yet been significantly modified by human activity. 

The authors argue:
“Natural systems will not, as a general rule, be protected or enhanced by the expansion of humankind’s dependence upon them for sustenance and well-being.
Intensifying many human activities — particularly farming, energy extraction, forestry, and settlement — so that they use less land and interfere less with the natural world is the key to decoupling human development from environmental impacts. These socioeconomic and technological processes are central to economic modernization and environmental protection. Together they allow people to mitigate climate change, to spare nature, and to alleviate global poverty”.

The real choice the authors want us to make is between intensifying human activities in particular regions and allowing them to spread in ways that would be detrimental to the natural environment.

The idea of decoupling human development from environmental impacts seems to me to make a great deal of sense as a broad generalization. I expect that governments will encounter difficulties in implementing such a strategy sensibly, but outcomes are likely to be worse if they do not try. One of the difficulties that is likely to stand in the way of implementation in some areas is the need to recognize the rights of indigenous people to use the natural resources they own. Another difficulty is the tendency of over-zealous supporters of wilderness to oppose the eco-tourism which is likely to be necessary to maintain broad political support for protection of wilderness areas. In some areas the involvement of indigenous people in eco-tourism is helping to meet the twin objectives of improving their economic opportunities and enlisting their support for greater environmental protection.

It seems to me to be particularly important for human well-being that attempts to decouple human development from environmental impacts does not occur at the expense of the ideal of living in harmony with nature in areas of intense human activity. The emotional needs that humans have for connection with the natural environment and other living things are unlikely to be satisfied by observing nature on TV and a once-in-a-lifetime visit to a wilderness area. 

In my next post I discuss the link between happiness and feeling connected with nature. 

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Why are old Americans more satisfied with their lives than are old Europeans?

The latest WorldHappiness Report (2015) contains an interesting chapter examining how happiness varies around the world by gender and age. The chapter was written by Nicole Fortin, John Helliwell and Shun Wang.

What would you expect those comparisons to show? I guess many people would expect that, on average, women would be less happy than men because in most of the world the opportunities available to females are still less favourable than those available to males.

The data doesn’t actually show that. When people are asked to rate their lives relative to the best possible and worst possible life (i.e. using the so called Cantril ladder) the world averages show that until they are about 50, women tend to rate their lives more highly than men. Perhaps women are more inclined to look on the bright side of life.

In any event, differences between the happiness of women and men are much less marked than differences between young and old people. On average, happiness tends to decline to about age 40 - a few years later for men than women - and then to stay relatively flat.

That finding was a surprise to me. I was given the impression from research I had read about that happiness was U-shaped over the life cycle. When I looked for more recent literature, just now, I found an article by Paul Frijters and TonyBeatton, published in 2012, based on panel data for Germany, Britain and Australia, which suggests the dominant age-effect is a strong happiness increase around the age of 60, followed by a major decline after 75. So I should have had an open mind about what to expect.

The data in the World Happiness Report shows a great deal of variation in the relationship between age and happiness in different parts of the world. Happiness does not vary much with age in South-East Asia, South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. Happiness declines sharply with age in CEE&CIS region (former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and Central Europe) and less sharply with age in Latin America, Middle East and North Africa and Western Europe. The only regions with the U-shape are East Asia and NA&ANZ (North America, Australia and New Zealand).

It does not surprise me that there is a different relationship between happiness and age in high and low income countries, but I did not expect to see the different patterns in Western Europe and NA&ANZ which are shown below (based on Figure 3.2 of the World Happiness Report 2015).The NA&ANZ data are dominated by America (regional averages are calculated using population weights) so I am seeking an explanation of why old Americans are relatively more satisfied with their lives than old Europeans.

The different pattern between America and Europe also showed up in survey respondents’ reports of some positive emotions experienced the preceding day: smiling and laughing a lot; enjoyment; and learning or doing something interesting. The survey data also shows that older women in Western Europe report experiencing greater sadness, physical pain and depression than do men of comparable age in that part of the world, or people of either gender in America.

A hint about the possible causes of the difference in patterns between America and Europe is given by looking at the determinants of life satisfaction, as indicated in the regression analyses undertaken for the report. Those determinants are income, health, generosity, corruption, freedom of choice and social report.

An inspection of the graphs showing how those variables differ according to the age of respondent suggests that the main area of difference is in respect of perceptions of social support. What this means is that, on average, older people in Western Europe perceive that they are less able to count on relatives and friends for support when they need it than are older people in North America.

It is interesting to speculate about the reasons why old people in Western Europe are less likely to feel that they can count on relatives and friends in times of need. The thought that passes my mind is that the reasons might have something to do with the nature of the welfare states of Western Europe, but that might just reflect my prejudices. 

Monday, February 16, 2015

If your satisfaction with life is adversely affected by regret, what should you do about it?

The purpose of feelings of regret is presumably to help us to make better choices. That suggests that the best way to deal with regret is to make sure we make better choices in future. But regret can also put people into a frame of mind where they make poor choices and find it difficult to enjoy of life.

Regret does not feature prominently in conventional economic theory, even though everyone knows that sensible people take into account the potential for regret when they make decisions.  I suppose that is because Max U, the rational economic man of economic theory, does not let potential for regret prevent him from seeking to maximize utility. Even when economists allow for the possibility that Max might feel losses from the status quo to a greater extent than gains (as in prospect theory), the potential for disappointment and regret still does not come into consideration in the choices he makes.

It is normal for humans to feel disappointment when outcomes are worse than expected – for example when an investment fails even though we have good reasons to expect it to succeed. We feel regret about the opportunities we have foregone in making such investments. Regret is likely to be particularly intense if you mortgage your home to fund an unsuccessful investment.

It usually makes sense for people to take account of the potential for regret in making choices. It is also possible, however, for regret to lead people to make poor choices – choices they later regret. For example, when share prices slump, people who are unduly influenced by regret about the losses they have experienced may decide precipitously to reallocate funds to less risky investments, and later regret that they have sold at the bottom of the market. Alternatively, they may gamble to recover past losses (for example, by buying more shares) and come to regret that choice if the market falls even further. Some economic studies, for example theoretical and experimental work by Philip Strack and Paul Viefers, illustrates the potential for regret to influence decisions in this way.

There is some evidence that regret can have a large impact on life satisfaction. The results of a recent study by Olivia Pethel and Yiewei Chen seem particularly interesting, since these authors use a measure of the intensity of regret, in addition to indicators of negative decision outcomes and the tendency of people to feel regret. The study focuses on mature adults, people over age 35, who are old enough to have had opportunities to make decisions which they might regret. The findings of the study should probably be viewed with caution because of the small size of the sample (119 adults) sex composition (71% female) and the potential for bias in the informal sample selection process that was used.

The regret intensity variable used in the study was constructed by asking people how much they regretted having made wrong choices in various aspects of their life on a 5 point scale (1 = no regret; 5 = very strongly regret) and averaging across the scores. The results of the regression analysis suggest that “very strongly regretting” a wide range of choices in life would be likely to have a large impact on life satisfaction – reducing it by about 1.6 points on the 7 point scale used in the study.

The authors suggest that people who have lower levels of regret intensity may have developed effective emotional regulation strategies in dealing with life regrets. Unfortunately the study does not directly test the use of regulation strategies.  However, the regression results support previous findings that cognitive reappraisal - use of emotion regulation strategies that change the way situations that elicit negative emotions are viewed - has a positive impact on life satisfaction.

I will resist the temptation to conclude that everyone should be taught the bygones principle - much loved by economists - that decisions should focus only on future costs and benefits, leaving aside regrets about the past. In my experience, the bygones principle is much easier to apply to public policy than to one's private life. 

I will also resist the temptation to conclude that people who are allowing regrets to interfere with their enjoyment of life should learn cognitive reappraisal skills. It would be easy to draw upon my own personal experience to suggest ways people might be able to acquire such skills, but at this stage I can't cite reliable studies testing what works and what doesn't work.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Does it make sense to think of trade-offs between life satisfaction and wealth?

Before you answer the question, I would like you to conduct a couple of thought experiments.

The first step is to answer the following question:
All things considered, how satisfied are you with your life these days? Please give your answer as a number between 1 and 10, with a rating of 1 is you are dissatisfied and 10 if you are satisfied.

That is a standard question that has been asked by happiness researchers. Now we come to the thought experiments.

Thought experiment 1:

Imagine that your circumstances suddenly change so that it becomes possible for you to increase your peronal life satisfaction rating by 25% if you are prepared to sacrifice some wealth. What is the maximum amount of wealth that you would be prepared to sacrifice in order to achieve an improvement of 25% in your life satisfaction rating?

Don’t worry if the 25% improvement would take you beyond the top of the rating scale. For the purpose of this exercise it is deemed to be possible to increase your life satisfaction beyond the end of the scale e.g. from 10 to 12.5. That makes sense because people who are completely satisfied with their lives sometimes find that their lives get even better.

Thought experiment 2:

Now imagine a different scenario. Your circumstances change so that it becomes possible for you to increase you wealth by 25% if you are prepared to sacrifice some personal life satisfaction. How much life satisfaction would you be prepared to sacrifice in order to achieve a 25% increase in wealth?

My guess is that in answering the first question there are not many people who would be prepared to sacrifice all their wealth to obtain a 25% increase in life satisfaction. In relation to the second question I don’t think there would be many people who would be unwilling to sacrifice any life satisfaction (if only for a limited period) in order to obtain a 25% increase in wealth. Those are just my guesses. If large numbers of people tell me that I am wrong, I will have to admit that I have made a mistake.

What is the point of this exercise?  Some economists have been prepared to assume that the sole aim of individuals is to maximize life satisfaction as measured in social surveys. That might seem to be a reasonable assumption until you think of the implications. If your sole aim is to maximize personal life satisfaction it would be irrational not to sacrifice all your wealth in order to obtain greater life satisfaction, if that possibility became available. Similarly, it would be irrational to sacrifice any life satisfaction under any circumstances to obtain greater wealth.

If the choices that people make imply that they do not aim to maximize life satisfaction, that doesn’t mean that they are irrational. It just means that there are some things more important to them than life satisfaction, including some things that money can buy.

What could be more important to people than life satisfaction? Some clues are offered by research, discussed here a couple ofmonths ago, which asks people to choose between hypothetical situations with different ratings of life satisfaction and other well-being indicators. 

The people surveyed indicated a stronger preference for options offering high overall well-being to you and your family than for life satisfaction. Other well-being indicators ranked above life satisfaction included personal health, being a good, moral person and living according to personal values, the quality of family relationships, financial security, your mental health and emotional stability, a sense of security about life and the future, having many options and possibilities in life and freedom to choose among them and a sense that your life is meaningful and has value.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Do people value the happiness of their families above their own personal happiness?

One way to answer this kind of question is to ask people to choose between hypothetical situations with different ratings of family well-being and variables such as life satisfaction, ratings of life relative to best and worst possible, appreciation of life and absence of negative emotion. That is the approach taken in an exploratory study by Daniel Benjamin, Ori Heffetz, Miles Kimball and Nichole Szembrot entitled, “Beyond Happiness and Satisfaction: Toward well-being indices based on stated preferences.

The people surveyed tended to indicate a stronger preference for options offering high “overall well-being to you and your family” than for any options regarding the 135 other aspects of well-being covered in the survey. The findings were based on an internet survey of 4,600 Americans.

The results help to explain why previous studies have shown that many people are prepared to sacrifice life satisfaction in order to obtain higher incomes.

Some of the other findings of the study are interesting:
  • Life satisfaction is ranked more highly than positive emotion (e.g. “how happy you feel”).
  • The absence of negative emotion, such as anger, stress, pain and worry tends to rank around the middle of aspects of well-being covered.
  • Eudaimonic dimensions of well-being, such as being a moral person and living according to personal values tend to rank highly.
  • Other aspects of personal well-being to be given a high ranking include health, the quality of family relationships, mental health and emotional stability, financial security and “having many options and possibilities in your life and the freedom to choose among them”.
  • Men tended to give higher ranking to “your sense that your life is meaningful and has value”, whereas women tend to rank more highly “your mental health and emotional stability”.
  • As regards policy options, greatest importance was attached to “freedom from corruption, injustice and abuse of power in your nation”, “the morality, ethics and goodness of other people in your nation” and “freedom of speech and people’s ability to take part in the political process and community life”.

The authors are at pains to point out the exploratory nature of their study and the many problems yet to be resolved in developing well-being indexes based on stated preferences. That might explain why some results that seem anomalous. For example, it is difficult to understand why “your rating on a ladder where the lowest rung is ‘worst possible life for you’ and the highest rung is ‘best possible life for you” is ranked far below “how satisfied you are with your life”( 103 versus 13). Previous research suggests that survey respondents view high ratings on those well-being indicators as close substitutes. Again, the ranking of “your material standard of living” (98) is much lower than the ranking of “your financial security” (6) and “your feeling that you have enough time and money for the things that are most important to you” (12).

My final comment on the study is that I was left wondering whether it might be possible to use a simpler approach to obtain useful indicators of well-being based on stated preferences. What I have in mind is to use each respondent’s current income and ratings of various other aspects of well-being as the initial basis for comparison and then asking them to choose between options involving various combinations of changes in income and other aspects of well-being. That might enable researchers to compare the marginal utility of different aspects of well-being in dollar terms and to map how preferences for different aspects of well-being tend to differ for people at different income levels.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Does homeostasis explain the stability of life satisfaction in high income countries?

The theory of subjective well-being homeostasis proposes that life satisfaction is controlled by automatic neurological processes in a manner analogous to the maintenance of body temperature. The theory has been proposed by Professor Robert Cummins of the Australian Centre on Quality of Life (ACQOL), Deakin University. The basic idea is that positive and negative experiences can cause temporary changes in life satisfaction, but homeostasis normally brings it back within a set-point range. The exception occurs where chronic failure of the homeostatic system results in depression.

The theory proposes that homeostatic buffers enable humans to function normally:
  • adaptation restores life satisfaction to the set-point range following positive changes in circumstances, such as an increase in income;
  • resilience tends to restore life satisfaction to the set-point range following strong negative challenges.

Resilience depends on external resources, particularly intimate relationships and wealth, and internal buffers designed to minimise the impact of personal failure on positive feelings about the self. The internal buffers can operate at an unconscious level - e.g. assisting an individual to cope by enabling positive emotions to become accessible. They also operate at a conscious level by altering the way individuals see themselves in relation to the challenge (e.g. denying personal responsibility or viewing the failure as unimportant).

The distinguishing feature of the homeostasis theory is not the existence of adaptation and resilience – which are widely acknowledged in the happiness research literature – but the idea that these processes tend to restore emotional systems to unique set-points for each individual.

When I first read about homeostasis theory, a few years ago, evidence that some individuals experience long-term changes in life satisfaction seemed inconsistent with the idea of constant individual set-points. However, as Bob Cummins has pointed out, changes in life satisfaction do not necessarily imply change in an individual’s set-point (or homeostatically protected mood). If initial measurements of life satisfaction are higher than, or lower than, the set-point, then subsequent measurements can be expected to show a return to the set-point range.

My remaining doubts about homeostasis theory centre mainly around the question of how it can be reconciled with the international evidence of lower average life satisfaction in low-income countries. I find it hard to accept that a high proportion of the people in low-income countries who claim to have relatively low levels of satisfaction with their lives are suffering failure of their homeostatic systems. In some low-income countries, e.g. China, relatively low average life satisfaction seems to be accompanied by relatively high positive affect and relatively low negative affect.

Perhaps set-point ranges remain constant – if we think in terms of hypothetical neural correlates – but the relationship between set-point ranges and life satisfaction scales may change with changes in perceptions of what might be possible. As discussed in a recent post, individuals who move from a remote village to a major city might feel that their lives have improved, even though they become less contented with their living standards after moving to the new location. Does that mean they have become more vulnerable to homeostatic breakdown? I am not qualified to make informed predictions in relation to such matters, but my guess is that there would not be an increased risk of breakdown if the people concerned remain optimistic about their prospects in the city and retain the option to return to the village for family support if they need it.

The predictions of homeostasis theory seem to stand up well to tests that have been conducted so far. For example, homeostasis theory predicts that there will be greater variation in subjective well-being among people with low incomes than among people with high incomes. This is because people with low incomes (or low wealth) are more vulnerable to changes in circumstances. Analysis using data from the Australian Unity Wellbeing Index indicates that the standard deviation of subjective well-being is indeed substantially higher for people with relatively incomes, and declines as household incomes rise to around $100,000.

Homeostasis theory seems to provide a more plausible explanation for the stability of average life satisfaction in high-income countries than a rival theory, advanced by some economists, that this stability reflects evaluative judgements of life by the people in those countries. Evidence that life satisfaction is influenced by genes, and strongly related to self-esteem, optimism and feelings of being in control of one’s life, suggests that it is more appropriately interpreted as reflecting the moods (or frames of mind) of respondents than evaluative judgements. 

Researchers who want subjective well-being measures to reflect evaluative judgements that individuals make about the quality of their lives should consider an approach which requires greater cognitive inputs e.g. the ACSA question which asks people to assess their current well-being relative to the best and worst periods of their lives.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

What is the secret of happiness?

Now that I have your attention I will do my best to keep it – but you cannot expect me to attempt to answer such an important question in just a few paragraphs.

It might be appropriate to begin by issuing a health warning about my ability to answer such a complex question. I can claim a great deal of interest in the subject, but my expertise is limited.

In my view human happiness is ultimately about having a meaningful life – one that is meaningful to the person living it - but that is certainly not a secret. Wise people have been saying similar things for thousands of years.

What I am about to write about now has to do with momentary happiness and the way we pursue our goals. It seems like a good idea for individuals to pursue their goals in ways that enable them to experience many happy moments and not too much disappointment along the way.

Some recent research on the links between risk-taking, expectations, rewards and happiness has produced some interesting findings. I propose to present some of those findings in a somewhat novel way and to combine them with some additional speculations.

The research by Robb Rutledge (of University College, London) and colleagues involved presenting participants in a decision-making game with choices between certain and risky options and repeatedly asking them to report their momentary happiness. The study used fMRI to examine the relationship between happiness reports and neural responses. The study also made use of the Great Brain Experiment app, to test results on large numbers of people playing the decision-making game on smart phones and tablets. (The game is actually still available the Great Brain Experiment site and good fun to play.) The research is reported in an article entitled ‘A Computational and neural model of momentary subjective well-being’, recently published in PNAS. Good summaries of the article have been published by ‘The Telegraph’ and ‘The Atlantic’.

The study found that momentary happiness is determined by the combined influence of recent reward expectations and prediction errors arising from those expectations. The happiness equation takes the following form:
Happiness = baseline average mood + what you can settle for (CR) + what you'll get on average if you gamble (EV) + the difference between that and what you actually get (RPE). 
The equation takes account of the fact that memory fades, so that more recent events have a larger impact on happiness than earlier events.

The findings suggest that happiness depends not on how well things are going, but on whether they are going better than expected.

It is a mistake to interpret the findings as in the headline in one paper: “The secret of happiness? LOWER your expectations: A good day is when things are going better than expected”. One reason the results don’t imply that people should lower their expectations is because the measure of expectation used is average reward, rather than a direct measure of optimism or pessimism. It would be slightly more accurate to interpret the findings as suggesting that people can avoid disappointment by staying within their comfort zone instead of choosing riskier options that involve high average (expected) reward. But that interpretation is also inadequate because it overlooks the pleasure that people get from anticipating a high reward (even if the outcome is not as good as expected) and also overlooks the buzz that some people get when they gamble (choose an option with high potential reward but lower average reward) and win.

I have attempted to map out some relationships between expectations, forecast errors and happiness in the following two charts.

In the first chart, we begin in Quadrant A, with expectations and happiness as indicated by the blue line i.e. a happiness rating above 7. Unfortunately, it turns out that outcomes are below expectations, so in Quadrant B it is apparent that we have a negative prediction error of -3. When we translate that to the X axis in Quadrant C (using the 450 line in the south-east quadrant) we find that an error of -3 corresponds to a happiness rating of less than 6.

So, the question now arises of how you should respond to that disappointment. One way to respond is to get back into your comfort zone and adopt a strategy involving lower expectations and no prediction error. That strategy avoids disappointment but it means that you forgo the pleasure of contemplating the happiness that you could expect, on average, under the original strategy.

An alternative response is depicted in the second chart. That involves sticking with the original strategy but improving your luck.

 An improvement in luck is shown by a shift in the relationship in Quadrant B. By improving your luck you are able to achieve an outcome better than expected and end up happier than you expected.

So, the secret of happiness is to get lucky! 

Jokes aside, it makes sense to stick to a strategy that you have good reason to think will yield high returns over the longer term, even if you experience disappointing results in the short term. In other words, the secret of happiness is adopt the strategy that you expect to yield greatest rewards over the longer term and “stay the course”.

Some readers might question the wisdom of that on the grounds that most people tend to be optimistic in their expectations, relative to average reward (or mathematical expectation). However, the findings of a recent paper by Gigi Foster and Paul Frijters, which examines the formation of expectations by undergraduates at two Australian universities, suggests that optimistic expectations are benign. The results suggest that apart from their direct contribution to happiness, optimistic expectations motivate people to work harder to achieve their goals.

So, adding all that together, the secret of happiness would be to adopt the strategy that you expect to yield greatest rewards over the longer term, and to back your expectations by staying the course and working hard. But you already knew that!  And something important seems to be missing.

The real secret of happiness, in my view, is to play the inner frame games of self-acceptance and cheerfulness, and to adopt an attitude of awe and fascination about the world. 

I linked to the wrong article by Gigi Foster and Paul Frijters. An abstract of the article I meant to to link to can be found here.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Should researchers recognize that emotional states are influenced by life evaluations?

There is nothing novel about the idea that people who have a positive frame of mind about the opportunities and challenges that life offers tend to experience positive emotions as they go about their daily lives. 

We are not surprised that people who smile and laugh a lot, obtain enjoyment from whatever they are doing, feel they are learning or doing something interesting and feel that they are treated with respect tend to rate their lives highly. If such people don’t consider their current lives as close to the best possible, it is likely to be because they are optimistic about the potential for their lives to get even better. It might be reasonable to suppose that their positive emotions reflect frames of mind stemming from their dispositions and their evaluations of their lives as well as from their current experiences.

However, when I looked up “positive emotion”, “frame of mind” and “research” on Google I found a lot of references to research on cognitive approaches to improving well-being, but I didn’t see any on life evaluations as a determinant of positive emotion. Researchers do not seem to have perceived life evaluations – for example, responses to survey questions asking people to rate their lives between best possible and worst possible – as frames of mind. Emotional state variables (positive emotion and negative emotion) are sometimes included in analyses which seek to explain life evaluations, but I am not aware of studies which view life evaluations as a potential explanatory variable.

The question posed in this post is linked to the finding in my last post that average positive emotion ratings in countries in the former Soviet Union are lower, while those in Latin American countries are higher, than might be expected on the basis of negative emotion ratings in those regions. I suggested that the most likely reason for this was the development of shared frames of mind by people in those regions. That poses the question of whether these shared frames reflect life evaluations or something more profound.

Which variables should be included in a regression model to assess the influence of frames of mind on positive emotions at a national level? The most obvious measure of positive emotions to use is the Gallup measure which reflects the extent to which people are well-rested, smile and laugh a lot, obtain enjoyment from what they are doing, are learning or doing something interesting and feel that they are treated with respect. It seemed appropriate to include the Gallup measure of negative emotion (reflecting pain, worry, sadness, stress or anger) as an explanatory variable to take account of experience that might lead people to have a negative frame of mind. Regional variables were included for reasons just discussed. Gallup data was used to reflect average life evaluations at a national level (Cantril ladder).

Three other frame of mind variables were included because they have previously been found to be significant determinants of both life evaluation and positive emotion ratings. (See, for example, the research by John Helliwell and Shun Wang presented in Table 2.1 of Chapter 2 of World Happiness Report 2013.) These variables were satisfaction with freedom, perceptions of social support and generosity. All data was obtained from the online appendix to Chapter 2 of the World Happiness Report.

Separate regional variables were included in the initial regressions but only Latin America, the Former Soviet Union, Central and Eastern Europe and Middle East and North Africa were found to be significant. The final regression model explains about 70 percent of the variation in positive emotion at a national level. The results of the analysis are reflected in the Figure below. (All estimated coefficients were significantly different from zero at the 95% level. Further information can be made available on request.)

Two important points are evident from the Figure:
  • The relatively low positive emotion ratings of people in the former Soviet Union and the positive ratings of people in Latin America are still evident after controlling for several other variables. These anomalies cannot be explained in terms of life evaluations or the other frame of mind variables considered.
  • The influence of life evaluations on positive emotion involves more than just satisfaction with freedom, perceptions of social support and generosity.
Postscript 1:
I acknowledged above that frames of mind can stem from dispositions as well as from life evaluations. In retrospect, I should also have noted that dispositions can affect life evaluations.
A paper just published by Eugenio Proto and Andrew Oswald explores the role of genetics in influencing average life evaluations at a national level (“National Happiness and Genetic Distance: A cautious exploration”, July 2014, IZA DP 8300). The paper suggests that genetic distance from Denmark is a significant determinant of life satisfaction.
If the genetic influence on disposition had an impact on positive affect in addition to its influence on life evaluations (and other variables including negative affect and regional variables) that should be reflected in the residuals of the regression described above. However, the residuals for Denmark and countries that are genetically close to Denmark (Norway, Sweden, Czech Republic, Austria and Switzerland) are small and mainly negative.

Postscript 2:
Inclusion of genetic distance from Denmark in the regression analysis made little difference to the results obtained. The coefficient on the genetic variable had the 'wrong' sign and was not significantly different from zero. The results suggest that any genetic influence on positive affect occurs via life evaluations and other variables.

Postscript 3:
Research by Gian Vittoria Caprara, Nancy Eisenberg and Guido Alessandri on the dispositional basis of happiness is relevant to this post. The authors note that life satisfaction, optimism and self-esteem have recently been traced to a common disposition, namely positivity. The authors' measure of positivity reflects all these factors. Their research suggests that positivity predicts future positive affectivity, rather than vice versa. 

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Should we choose eudaimonia over hedonia?

Last week my attention was drawn to the findings of some recent research, led by Barbara Fredrickson, which suggests that eudaimonia – which can be described in broad terms as a sense of wellbeing associated with a noble purpose or engagement in meaningful activities - provides positive health benefits in protecting against a variety of human ills, including arthritis, heart disease and viral infection. By contrast, the study suggests that hedonia – a sense of happiness associated with pleasure, satisfaction and self-gratification – has the opposite effects.

The findings are noteworthy because previous research has suggested that both eudaimonia and hedonia are associated with improved physical and mental health outcomes. I feel more inspired than surprised by the findings. Like many other people I was brought up to believe that a noble purpose can be protective, but in adult life I viewed that as more a matter of faith than anything else. It is interesting to learn there may be a scientific basis for such beliefs.

The research combined psychology tests to determine the nature of happiness experienced by 80 healthy adults with a health check and test of blood samples to assess gene expression associated with chronic stress and antiviral responses. Barbara Fredrickson is a psychology professor at the University of North Carolina. On this project she collaborated with a team led by Steven Cole, professor of medicine and psychiatry, at the University of California. (The research findings have been published in PNAS.)

Like previous studies, this study indicated that there is a relatively high correlation observed between eudaimonic and hedonic indicators of happiness (r= 0.79). People who score highly in terms of eudaimonic happiness tend also to score highly in terms of hedonic happiness, and vice versa, but there was nevertheless sufficient difference to enable the impacts of eudaimonia and hedonia to be disentangled.

The authors’ conclusion is a bit complicated, but it seems to be implying that if the ‘good life’ means a long and healthy life, then eudaimonic wellbeing is superior to hedonic wellbeing.

 However, there are some important qualifications noted in the discussion:
‘In interpreting these results, it is important to note that hedonic and eudaimonic well-being are not mutually exclusive approaches to happiness, nor do they represent a simple typology or a tradeoff. Both types of well-being share some common sources (e.g., perceived social connections) and can reciprocally influence one another [i.e., positive affect predisposes people to find positive meaning, and finding positive meaning increases positive affect]. As such, the current finding that a purified index of eudaimonic well-being (purged of shared variance with hedonia) predicts a more favourable pattern of gene expression than does a purified index of hedonic well-being (purged of shared variance with eudaimonia) says more about which form of well-being one would not want to do without, rather than which form one would be better to avoid. For people in whom one form of well-being outweighs the other, striving predominately toward meaning may have more favourable effects on health than striving predominately toward positive affect per se’. (References to cited works have been omitted from the quote.)

I struggle to understand what some of that paragraph means – the findings of the study seem to me to suggest that some kind of trade-off between eudaimonia and hedonia must be involved, despite the existence of complementarity. The issues involved appear a little clearer, however, when I bring my training in economics to bear and think in terms of a possibilities curve that surrounds all the combinations of eudaimonia and hedonia that it might be possible for an individual to achieve.

I have drawn the possibilities curve to depict a trade-off between hedonia and eudaimonia at most of the attainable points (i.e. between A and B) but allowing some regions where single-minded pursuit of either hedonia or eudaimonia might result in inferior outcomes. I draw the curve as concave to the origin over most of its length because I imagine that the eudaimonic benefits we can obtain by sacrificing a unit of hedonic benefits would tend to diminish as we sacrifice more and more hedonic benefits. My reasoning is that there are likely to be diminishing returns to devoting time both to activities that produce high hedonic benefits and activities that produce high eudaimonic benefits. I expect that single minded pursuit of hedonia might be counterproductive for the same reason that J S Mill argued that happiness cannot be obtained by seeking it (as discussed here previously). And I expect that single minded pursuit of eudaimonia might be counterproductive for the same reason that Aristotle argued that we need amusement – ‘for amusement is a sort of relaxation, and we need relaxation because we cannot work continuously’. (That comes from the passage in Nicomachean Ethics Book X, where Aristotle suggests that it would, indeed, be strange if amusement was your purpose in life and you were to take trouble and suffer hardship all your life just in order to amuse yourself.)

The sentence in the paragraph quoted above about the findings saying more about ‘which form of well-being one would not want to do without, rather than which form one would be better to avoid’, seems to envisage a person who is at a point inside the possibilities curve, such as the point at the question mark. A person in that position might be considering whether to seek to become happier by moving in the direction of point H or point E.

I should emphasize that the possibilities curve I have drawn is based mainly on my speculations and may not be related to what Barbara Fredrickson and her colleagues have in mind.

However, I think my diagram may have some value in considering the information and practical wisdom we need to make sensible decisions about how we live our lives:
  • ·         First, we need to know ourselves well enough to know where we stand at present relative to the possibilities that are available to us.
  • ·         Second, additional information (such as the findings about potential health consequences in the study discussed above) has potential to help us to choose wisely among the possibilities that are available.

My final point is the same as the point I made a few years ago in discussing whether J S Mill was correct in his rejection of Jeremy Bentham’s claim that pushpin is a good as poetry. There doesn’t seem to me to be much point in arguing whether eudaimonia is or is not superior to hedonia. The important issue is about obtaining balance in one’s life.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

What questions should the 'science of morality' be seeking to answer?

In a recent article on Scepticblog entitled 'Towards a Science of Morality', Michael Shermer suggests: 'determining the conditions by which humans best survive and flourish ought to be the goal of a science of morality'. I agree, more or less, but see some problems with the reasoning he uses to get to that point, and urge him to consider more explicitly the questions that the science of morality should be seeking to answer or the problems it should be attempting to solve. (By the way, thanks to Steven Pinker for drawing attention to Shermer's article via Twitter.)

Shermer's first proposition is a 'principle of moral good': 
'Always act with someone else's moral good in mind …'.
Why? Perhaps I misunderstand, but that seems to imply that it is always good, for example, to sacrifice your health for the benefit of others. I can think of real world situations where in my judgement such conduct has not been good for either the actor or the recipient. I think an impartial spectator would say that it is good for people to act with some regard for their own needs as well as seeking to benefit others.

What is the basic moral principle? My answer is that we should always seek to act ethically. I guess that stems from a belief that moral instincts and a capacity for moral reasoning are part of human nature and exist for good reasons. Humans have a basic need to feel that they are acting ethically.

Shermer's second proposition is that to find out whether an action towards some other individual is right or wrong we should ask them. I agree. We should recognize the rights of other individuals (adults) to decide whether or not to accept proposed actions that are intended for their benefit. But that proposition seems to me to belong after establishing that 'the survival and human flourishing of the individual is the foundation for establishing values and morals'. Acceptance that we all begin our lives with a passion to survive and flourish seems to me to gives greater moral force to the observation that different individuals have different goals in life and a capacity to take responsibility (as adults) for decisions they make.

Is it defensible to argue that the survival and flourishing of the individual is the foundation for establishing values and morals? That seems clearly defensible if we think of the passion of humans to survive and flourish as a product of evolution. The moral intuitions of our ancestors could be expected to have pre-disposed them to favour theories of morality in which human flourishing is viewed as the purpose of life. It is also defensible if we think in terms of codes of morality and as the outcome of cultural evolution. As Hayek and others have suggested, those groups with codes of morality most conducive to individual flourishing – thou shalt not do things that infringe the rights of other individuals - have tended to be more successful.

If we accept that individual flourishing is the foundation on which our moral intuitions are based, does it necessarily follow that 'determining the conditions by which humans best survive and flourish ought to be the goal of a science of morality'. No! We can't derive an 'ought' statement from an 'is' statement. Nevertheless, there is nothing to stop us from feeling that there is a smooth transition between the two statements, or that the statements are closely aligned.   

As I see it, however, it is worth taking a step back to ask what our purpose is in asserting that some topic ought to be the goal of a science of morality. It seems to me that the purpose is to assert that the science of morality should be aiming to answer a particular question (or set of questions) or to solve some problem.

So, why not simply assert that the science of morality should be concerned with questions relating to human survival and flourishing? The assertion can be justified with reference to evolutionary considerations, by Aristotle's question about the chief good that is desired for itself rather than because it enables us to obtain something else, by introspection or other considerations. The important issue is whether the assertion is able to stand up to criticism.

One possible basis for criticism is that the science of morality should be concerned with questions relating to the survival and flourishing of other living things as well as humans. Perhaps that objection might be overcome by asserting that questions relating to human survival and flourishing are an important part of the science of morality.

However, that still leaves open the potential for confusion over the meaning of 'the science of morality'. What I think it means is that preferences relating to moral proposals should be based on their ability to stand up to criticism rather than that they are falsifiable. (That probably means rejection of the boundary that Karl Popper attempted to draw around science, but it is consistent with his broader views about the importance of criticism.) Some moral proposals involve value judgements that can be criticized, but cannot be proved wrong. Perhaps we can avoid confusion by further rephrasing our assertion along these lines:
Given the importance of human survival and flourishing it is important to for all questions relating to this topic to be fully explored, including the influence of values, social norms, constitutions, laws and regulations.

After asserting that the conditions by which humans best survive and flourish ought to be the goal of a science of morality, Shermer proceeds to provide examples of moral actions directed toward survival and human flourishing. These actions included reducing extreme poverty and facilitating economic growth and hence improvement in average levels of subjective well-being.

I agree with the examples that Michael Shermer provides, but having asserted the importance of exploring questions relating to human survival and flourishing it seems to me to be important to attempt to clarify the nature of the problem. In order to do so it would be appropriate to attempt to consider relevant questions in a sequence which recognizes that the way we answer one question may influence the way we frame subsequent questions.

For example, in Free to Flourish, my first set of question was about whether human flourishing should remain largely the responsibility individuals in voluntary cooperation with others, or whether it should be pursued primarily through government action directed toward achieving national goals. My answers to those questions led me to then consider the characteristics of societies that are most conducive to human flourishing. My answer to that question led to a consideration of the main drivers of progress and the greatest threats to progress.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Is it a fantasy that a happy life is all about pleasant experiences?

It seems to me that the view that a happy life is just about pleasant experiences is a fantasy. I’m not saying that it is not desirable to have a life full of pleasant experiences, just that a happy life involves more than that.

In his famous thought experiment, Robert Nozick asked readers to imagine an experience machine that would give them any experience they desired. They would be able to select experiences from a large library and the machine would be pre-programmed to give them those experiences while they spent the rest of their lives floating in a tank (‘Anarchy, State and Utopia’, 1971, pp 42-44).

Would you choose to spend the rest of your life hooked up to such a machine?

Nozick suggests that we learn that something matters to us other than experiences by imagining the experience machine and then realizing that we would not use it. He suggests three reasons why you probably wouldn’t use it. You want to do things, not just have the experience of doing them. You would not want to be a person floating in a tank – that is not consistent with how you see yourself. And the machine would limit you to man-made reality – ‘to a world no deeper or more important than that which people can construct’.

It might be reasonable to argue that people plugged into the experience machine would be happy – in the sense that their overall emotional condition would be positive. They might have peace of mind, confidence, inner freedom, and feelings of vitality, flow, joy and cheerfulness (to use terms in Dan Haybron’s definition of happiness, discussed on this blog some time ago). I see some merit in that definition of happiness, but it isn’t the definition of happiness that I have in mind when I assert that it is a fantasy that a happy life is all about experiences.

What I have in mind when I refer to a ‘happy life’ is ‘human flourishing’. I don’t have a huge problem with the idea that positive feelings are all about experiences. (Perhaps it might be better to talk in terms of perceptions of experiences - the meaning we attach to experiences must also come into the equation.) But I don’t see how anyone could argue that human flourishing is all about experiences. It seems obvious that a person who spent a life-time hooked up to an experience machine would not be flourishing.

What about motivation? Are those who define happiness as a positive emotional condition able to claim that happiness is the only motivator of human behaviour? One person who seems close to holding that position is the psychologist, Dan Gilbert. He certainly adopts the definition of happiness as a positive feeling and almost claims that it is the only motivator:
‘Everyone who has observed human behaviour for more than thirty continuous seconds seems to have noticed that people are strongly, perhaps even primarily, perhaps even single-mindedly, motivated to feel happy’ (‘Stumbling on Happiness’, 2006, p 36).

As an economist, I don’t have any difficulty in accepting that just about all human action is motivated by desires of some kind. But if people are strongly motivated by a desire to experience positive feelings, would they not view a life hooked up to the hypothetical experience machine - where positive feelings can be guaranteed - as desirable? Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology, says that most of the people to whom he has offered the hypothetical choice refuse it. His explanation: 
‘It is not just positive feelings we want, we want to be entitled to our positive feelings’ (‘Authentic Happiness’, 2002, p 8).

The main power of the experience machine metaphor seems to come from the life-time commitment involved. The nature of humans is such that few of us would view a life-time of virtual reality as a meaningful life.

However, it seems to me that the thought experiment can also help to clarify some issues if we relax the condition of life-time connection. The practical question can be raised of how much time we might be prepared to spend hooked up to a virtual reality machine as a form of entertainment. As virtual experiences become less easy to distinguish from real experiences, people may be tempted to spend more time enjoying virtual reality at the expense of other forms of entertainment, or even work. While many of us would see an hour or two of virtual reality now and then as harmless escapism, we would probably want to draw a line somewhere to ensure that we live meaningful lives. The issues involved are similar to those many of us have had to deal with in learning how to switch off the TV.

My point is that when we make such choices we take into account factors other than the positive feelings generated by different experiences. It is natural for us to think also about the objectives we have for our lives – the kinds of persons we want to become - and the extent to which different experiences might contribute to those goals.

Some people could suggest that it doesn’t make much difference in practice whether or not people believe the fantasy that a happy life is all about pleasant experiences. I think it might matter a great deal. For example, people who believe that fantasy might give less thought to what they could do to make their own lives meaningful. They might also be more inclined to neglect to help their children to develop the skills in self-direction that they need to have happy lives.