This is a good summary of the current state of work on the experience of happiness, and its implications for homo economicus and public policy based on assumptions that people are rational utility-maximizers. Makes an interesting companion to this article on the Harvard Study of Adult Development. (via 11d).
What this work shows is that we’re lousy about predicting the consequences of possible future events for our state of mind. Our reported experience of happiness tends to return to a middling point after events that we expect to make us permanently happier or sadder (such as achieving major career goals or suffering a huge disability or tragedy). I agree this is a significant rebuke to the idea that rational actors will generally select actions which increase their happiness: if happiness in the long-term returns to a default setting regardless of the consequences of our actions, then a study which concludes that one choice objectively has more utility than another is missing the point.
I agree that some of this research has interesting policy implications. If it turns out that chronic pain or constant environmental irritants are more inimical to happiness than permanent disabilities or losses, it’s possible to imagine a plausible adjustment to law and policy which could accomodate that finding.
I’m not sure the people debating the policy implications of happiness research are entirely getting the point, however. What this work also implies is that our younger selves are poor custodians of the interests of our older selves. Among other things, if you took this really seriously, it would mean that the entire idea of contract is profoundly flawed. How could I possibly make a binding commitment now on behalf of my older self, given that I have no ability to predict what will make my older self happy or unhappy? On some level, we already recognize this to be true. That’s why we have divorce as well as marriage, and allow contracts to be affected by the changed circumstances of the parties involved. This is the stuff of middle-age crisis: that we didn’t know what we were getting into, that we didn’t understand what life would be like. But if you were going to formalize the most extreme implications of this research, you’d need to see the self both as exceptionally discontinuous (that my younger self knew nothing of my older self’s needs, and therefore should have no determinate role in my older self’s condition) and as exceptionally continuous (that it doesn’t matter that much what my younger self chooses or what harm is done to me by others, because my happiness will return to a default state anyway).
Even worse, it’s very possible that knowing what makes people happy doesn’t help us to produce more happiness, either as individuals or as a society. The Atlantic article points out that the person who understands the findings of the Harvard study best hasn’t been able to apply those findings to his own life, except perhaps that he understands his own failings better than most people do. So much of what we do in public policy is aimed at the production of more happiness, more satisfaction. If it turns out that knowing why we are happy (or not) doesn’t affect why we are happy or not, a lot of dominoes may fall. Or maybe part of being happy is believing that we can be good custodians of our personal and social happiness?