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Perfectly Happy

The new science of measuring happiness has transformed self-help. Now scholars suggest it could transform society.

By Drake Bennett
May 10, 2009
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IF YOU WERE given the choice, and you wanted to reduce human suffering by as much as possible, would you cure blindness or back pain? It seems a silly question. The thought of losing one's sight is, to most people, as frightening as it is depressing: we would no longer be stirred by sunsets or landscapes or the expressions on the faces of our loved ones. Everyday chores would become more difficult, crossing the street perilous. Many sports and pastimes would simply be off-limits, and we would lose a good deal of our independence.

Back pain, on the other hand, is just back pain.

But in fact, it's back pain that causes more misery. Most blind people would like to be able to see, of course, but once they've figured out how to live a sightless life, their blindness doesn't really make them unhappy. Chronic pain, on the other hand, sours our mood with every new twinge, and we never really adapt to it.

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

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

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

Because serious happiness research is still new, these proposals remain broad, even speculative. But underlying all of them is the likelihood that if our longtime assumptions about happiness are wrong, they have led to ineffective, even counterproductive, laws and policies.

"This work challenges not only the way the legal system works, but a lot of the assumptions that we've been making about the way people act and think and behave and feel," says Jeremy Blumenthal, an associate professor at the Syracuse University College of Law.

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

The patron saint of the happiness maximizers is Jeremy Bentham, the English philosopher who two centuries ago gave the world the ethical theory known as utilitarianism. The theory itself is simple: in any situation, the best thing to do is that which brings the greatest aggregate pleasure or happiness. Bentham imagined a "hedonic calculus": a systematic reckoning that weighed factors like intensity of feeling, duration, purity and the number of people affected. One of his disciples, Francis Edgeworth, wrote hopefully of a future when utilitarians could use a device he called a "hedonimeter" to simply read out a person's happiness level.

Since then, social scientists and policymakers have tended to reject Bentham's ideas as unusably vague. The "hedonic calculus" seemed too riddled with subjectivity to base real-world social policies on.

But some psychologists have begun to argue that you can, in fact, reliably measure happiness: all you need to do is ask people. Because we so badly mispredict and misremember how happy something made us, however, the trick is to ask people to rate their current happiness, and then track the changes over time. Many recent studies have subjects keep happiness diaries; others give them beepers and have them rate their happiness whenever beeped. These studies, matched up with research that relies on more general happiness self-reporting, have begun to provide a consistent, and occasionally surprising, portrait of what really feeds and impedes happiness.

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

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

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

As a solution, Sunstein proposed a set of civil damages guidelines that would take into account what psychologists are learning about which conditions people are better and worse at emotionally acclimating themselves to.

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

"It's actually the inability to have access to the community that makes people with disabilities less happy," says Bagenstos. "If you just compensate them for the disability, you're providing a form of forced charity rather than equality and integration."

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

"I think the research is getting better, but it's still early," says Huang. "That's why I think people shouldn't be rushing to apply it."

The law is the first obvious place where happiness studies could bring changes, since it deals with questions of long-term emotional impact, but other realms of policy are starting to begin their own versions of this argument.

Public health experts, for example, are using happiness research to try to help refine the discussion around ethically fraught issues like end-of-life care. Peter Ditto, a psychologist at the University of California, Irvine, has found that, because healthy people are so bad at predicting how they'll emotionally react to being gravely ill, living wills that they make when healthy often don't reflect their wishes when they actually become sick.

Another implication is in the allocation of research and treatment dollars. Peter Ubel, a professor of medicine and a behavioral scientist at the University of Michigan, points out that people, even as they overestimate the amount of emotional damage a lost leg will bring, regularly underestimate the emotional harm that mental health problems cause. Paying more attention to aggregate happiness, he suggests, might shift a balance of national priorities that right now skews heavily toward dealing with physical ailments.

"We don't fund mental health research or treatments as well as we should, and yet mental health has such a huge effect on people's lives," he says. "We systematically undervalue the benefits of things that would improve mental health and instead we spend a lot of money just trying to push off death."

Others have begun to think about how happiness data might change where people live. For example, the trade-off between house size and commute length is familiar to every suburbanite, but as Cornell economist Robert Frank has pointed out, the two things affect our mood in different ways. While we quickly adapt to a bigger house and start taking it for granted, research suggests that a long, trafficky commute is something we never adjust to, and that even grows more onerous with time. Work like this could give added heft to arguments for policy measures like higher gas taxes, and for zoning laws that concentrate housing and cut down on traffic and commuting distances - arguments that now tend to be cast chiefly in environmental terms, but which also might push people toward decisions that make them happier in the long term.

Not all scholars who embrace the new happiness research have particular changes in mind. Some see it primarily as a very useful diagnostic tool.

"I'm excited about the idea that in five years, when we study the effect of a legal change, we will study not only employment changes or price adjustments but also effects on well-being," says Christine Jolls, a Yale law professor who is also trained as an economist.

But even a far fuller understanding of happiness than what we have now won't resolve some of the most difficult questions. The issue of how to define happiness, after all, is as philosophical as it is scientific. Happiness can mean, among other things, simply being in a good mood, or it can mean being broadly satisfied with one's life. Which one we choose to focus on changes the sorts of policies we pursue.

"Thousands of years of philosophers have struggled to define this term," points out Swedloff. "Do we mean, 'How do I feel right now? Am I in a pleasurable state or in an unpleasurable state?' Or we might mean, 'Am I flourishing? Am I becoming the best that I could be?' A heroin addict who's just had a fix, there's very little doubt that she's happy, but is she flourishing?"

As a result, studies in which quadriplegics report themselves nearly as happy as when they had the full use of their bodies, Swedloff argues, may be revealing as much about the limitations of our communal emotional vocabulary as about the subjects themselves.

And, as even happiness researchers are quick to concede, happiness isn't everything. If people routinely throw roadblocks in the way of their own happiness, it may not be simply out of ignorance. It may be because there are other things they value more.

"Part of what it means to be human is to have a range of emotions, which includes positive emotions and negative emotions," says George Loewenstein, an economist at Carnegie Mellon whose own work has illustrated many of the irrational tendencies of human economic behavior. "There are so many things that people care about other than happiness - capabilities and functioning, richness of experience and meaning - and that's very legitimate."

Still, there's little doubt that happiness, by some definition, lies at the center of many of our decisions, and that we're often disappointed by the things we thought would make us happy. "People make mistakes about what they want," says John Bronsteen, an assistant professor at Loyola University School of Law who has co-written a series of articles on happiness research and the law. To him, and to other like-minded scholars, knowing that people get it so wrong gives the law a new chance to get it right.

Drake Bennett is the staff writer for Ideas. E-mail drbennett@globe.com.