Happiness: A History

Speaking of Darrin McMahon, here's a review of his Happiness: A History by philosopher Gordon Marino. I'm really looking forward to picking this up. I think historical works like this should help would-be social scientists to see that happiness is a cultural conception that has evolved a great deal over time, and continues to evolve. The cultural boundedness of happiness implies that it is not particularly scientific to pluck our current conception of happiness out of history, pickle it in a jar of formaldehyde, and pretend that happiness studies are plumbing the timeless essence of a universal natural psychological kind, which, it just happens, uniquely exemplifies moral value.

But let me gripe some about the review. About halfway through, Marino mentions “our own age of near-pandemic depression,” and then, later writes:

. . . McMahon seems convinced by recent studies indicating that we are each endowed with a kind of emotional set point. According to this view, most humans are existentially unflappable. Whether it be winning the lottery or losing our jobs, after an initial reaction we settle back down into the same old repertoire of moods. As the scientists of happiness have it, we are both amazingly resilient against tragedy and remarkably resistant to radically positive change. In a footnote, McMahon concedes that depression stands as an exception to this rule — and quite an exception it is, because, according to an article cited in “Happiness,” millions of people are on antidepressants. I have had my boat rocked a few times in life and I have watched a few others go over the falls, and my experience roils against the view that, emotionally speaking, nothing ever really changes, or at least not for long.

And millions of people take Vitamin C supplements indicating . . . what? A near-pandemic of scurvy? Again, I'll point to my depression posts here, and here, my depression op-ed, and the Horwitz and Wakefield essay that got me on this kick.

[Cross-posted from Happiness and Public Policy.]

Is the Flat Trend in Self-reported Happiness a Problem?

In yesterday's NYT, Darrin McMahon, an historian at Florida State, has some good advice about the pursuit of happiness: don't pursue it. That's a wortwhile lesson I associate mainly with Bishop Butler and Henry Sidgwick. However, despite the good advice to “just do it,” as it were, McMahon also repeats a happiness studies chestnut that deserves to die a brutal death. Or, at least, deserves to be confronted with enough skepticism that people will stop repeating it without further explanation or justification. Or a brutal death.

Sociologists like to point out that the percentage of those describing themselves as “happy” or “very happy” has remained virtually unchanged in Europe and the United States since such surveys were first conducted in the 1950's. And yet, this January, like last year and next, the self-help industry will pour forth books promising to make us happier than we are today. The very demand for such books is a strong indication that they aren't working.

Should that be a cause for concern? Some critics say it is. For example, economists like Lord Richard Layard and Daniel Kahneman have argued that the apparent stagnancy of happiness in modern societies should prompt policymakers to shift their priorities from the creation of wealth to the creation of good feelings, from boosting gross national product to increasing gross national happiness.

McMahon doesn't say whether or not he is concerned, or sign on to the Kahneman/Layard program, but he does repeat the peculiar illogic by which one is tempted to move from the fact that self-report numbers are stable to the idea that we ought to shift priorities from creating to wealth to creating good feelings. I wish I'd stop seeing this sort of thing in the New York Times. So let us review the numerous reasons why the stability of happiness self-report surveys need not imply some kind of policy failure that needs correction.


The main explanations for the lack of increasing happiness are also explanations for the lack of talk about increasing happiness. So the self-report data may be reflecting the psychological processes that determine the avowal or self-ascription of subjective states, rather than reflecting the objective character of the subjective states themselves.

The main explanations for the “very happy” flatline are (a) adaptation and (b) social comparison. Now, if people don't have a reliable “hedonometer,” which we can consult through introspection to discover the objective quality of our subjective experience, then we should expect that self-reports will be subject to habituation and comparison effects.

ADAPTATION. If you ask someone who has been wearing rose colored lenses for a week what color things appear, they will underestimate the objective rosy quality of their subjective experience, due to habituation. If you switch lenses the next week to an even more intense rose, the judgment of the rosiness of experience will likely stay pretty much the same. There is no reason to expect judgments of the hedonic quality of experience to much differ.

SOCIAL COMPARISON. The lack of a hedonometer requires a social rather than a private, internal standard for self-reports. When asked how happy one is, one will compare one's narrative about one's inner life, and one's behavior, against a widely accepted cultural conception of what it means to feel and behave happily. If the entire population is becoming objectively happier over time, then cultural meaning of “very happy” will shift. Our talk about happiness is the result of comparing our representation of ourselves with our representation of the happiness scale, and our representation of where others lie on that scale. So even if people are getting objectively happier (whatever we take that to mean), we should expect self-reports to remain stable due to the shifting goalposts of the social meaning of happiness. It's the same process by which people who make 150 large a year come to claim that they are middle class.

LIMIT AVERSION. This is closely related to what I'll call “limit aversion.” Since there is no hedonometer, people have no way of telling whether there is an upper bound to happiness, or where the upper bound might be. So they don't know if they are at the upper bound. Yet it is natural to believe that there are others who are happier, or to suppose that one might become happier still. So people who are at or near the upper bound may be hesitant to report that they are in the highest category of happiness. An illustrative anecdote: I'm pretty sure that, overall, I'm rather better off now than I was ten years ago. I know that I probably would have reported myself as “pretty happy” and not “very happy” then, and I would report that I'm “pretty happy” now, since I just don't think I'm the happiest kind of person. And I suspect that I'll feel the same way in another ten years, even if my well-being improves to the same degree. I know that I dislike the idea that my happiness level may have maxed out. I don't suspect that others are that different.


The idea that humans have some kind of happiness bank that could possibly have an ever-increasing balance is just silly.

However, the happiness bank assumption seems to be behind all the “paradox of prosperity” books, in which the authors pretend to find it alarming that the balance in our happiness accounts does not have a linear relationship to the balance in our bank accounts. Yet, as far as I can tell, no one has ever really defended the happiness bank hypothesis.

HOMEOSTATIC HAPPINESS. It turns out that no one really has a good account of what happiness really is. The best explanation of the nature of certain kinds of positive affect, which some somewhat vulgarly identify with happiness, is that it is a homeostatic mechanism designed to readjust after achieving a goal in order to keep us always wanting more. The prospect of happiness-as-pleasure is a Darwinian carrot that keeps us pulling hard in harness, and it just wouldn't work if we stayed happy as clams when we got what we wanted. The homeostatic conception of happiness explains why hedonic adaptation may be adaptive. And it also suggests, to use the dumb analogy, that there may be something like a balance limit to our happiness accounts. Additionally, each person's limit is likely a largely a function of their individual psychological disposition.

The fact that the wealthy liberal democracies are all toward the top in cross-country comparisons of average self-reported happiness, and that the “very happy” numbers aren't rising, might indicate that these societies are close to as good as it gets—with a large proportion of their populations at their limit–not stalled and in need of a policy jump start.

And, back to something McMahon said, the fact that self-help happiness books continue to fly off the shelves does not really imply that that they do not work. It may tell us that self-help books are part of what have helped us achieve so much abiding happiness for lo these many decades. Or that people just like reading them. Given the simply embarrassing lack of longitudinal studies (it is, of course, hard to get tenure while waiting 20 years for the data to come in), for all we know people who read self-help books generally are happier, but they are offset in the aggregate by people miserably addicted to Us Weekly. If the happiness bank hypothesis was true, then a flat happiness trend line plus high self-help sales might speak volumes. But since it isn't, it doesn't.

So, it may be that we are in fact getting happier, and that the surveys can't track the shift, due to adaptation, social comparison, limit aversion, and other phenomena governing the self-reporting of subjective states. Or it may be that some form or other of market-based liberal democracy is pretty the best we can do from a policy perspective, happiness-wise. Many of the policies that Layard pefers, for example, are already in place in this or that Scandinavian social democracy. And the difference in happiness between these countries and other wealthy basically liberal market societies is trivial or non-existent.

I've obviously gone way off the McMahon hook. But let me take the occasion to share my own conclusions about happiness and policy so far:

  • Many people in rich market liberal societies are getting happier and the surveys miss it.
  • Many people in these societies are at or near their hedonic limits. (Note: I think it may be possible for some people to push the limits through the right combination of diet, exercise, meditation, counseling, adventure, simplification, etc. But there are many others for whom this kind of stuff is pretty much impossible without fundamentally altering the kind of person they are. And I think most people, once they hit a certain threshold, are happy enough that they could just care less about further maximizing the positive qualitative character of their background affect. Dharma just wasn't that much better off than Greg, once he loosened up a little.)
  • Even if everyone was maxed out, there would still be a distribution of people through all the survey categories due to individual psychological differences. A society in which everyone is as happy as they are likely to get is not a society in which everyone reports that they are “very happy.”
  • There is very little policy-wise that will have a large impact happiness-wise in societies that are already have advanced market institutions and liberal-democratic political institutions.
  • The people who are least likely to be maxed out, and most likely to benefit from upward hedonic mobility in any society, are the poorest people.
  • The policy lever most likely to help poor people out is whatever lever maximizes GDP growth. So prioritizing the creation of good feelings requires prioritzing the creation of wealth.
  • If a society has a class of people who appear economically stuck, such that they tend, generation after generation, to see little benefit from growth, even if benefits are otherwise widely distributed, try to unstick them by removing things like bad welfare policy, or labor policies that price low skilled workers out of the market. Often it is crucial to break down informal cultural norms that discourage the accumulation of human capital, but there's not much liberal policy can do here.
  • Since most people in rich societies are already pretty happy, people who care about happiness ought to worry less about marginal policy changes in the US and Europe and worry more about people who do not already live in rich societies. The best thing we can do for them is free trade, more hospitable immigration policies, and fiscal policies that maximizes world GDP growth.
  • Races for positional goods shouldn't concern us.
  • Happiness as we tend to think of it is not a natural kind, but a culturally loaded syndrome of feeling and behavior. It is far from the only moral and political value, and shouldn't be our sole standard for evaluating policy.

In conclusion . . . You don't need to be a philosopher of science to know that theory is undetermined by data. But it appears that lots of happiness studies folk either don't know, or need to be reminded. The most plausible interpretation can't simply be read off the data, and, to my mind, the most plausible interpretation probably isn't one that supports actively trying to design policy that prioritizes creating good feelings over creating wealth. An obvious surface reading of the data that requires no fancy framing effects rigmarole says that we are, as far as we can tell, at least as happy as we have ever been, which is very happy. Why prefer “we are getting no happier” over “we have been, and remain, extremely successful at creating happiness?” The main reason why, I take it, is that it's impossible to use the happiness data to drum up demand for one's favorite unpopular policies without framing it in a way that makes it look like there's some kind of problem that needs to be fixed. If you say that data show that we're just as happy as our grandparents in America's nuclear family, bowling together, Leave it to Beaver golden age, we'll never socialize medicine! Anyway, the point is: at the very least, you need to at least tryto eliminate the most plausible competing interpretations of the data before you move on to try to use happiness data to mount your favorite policy hobby horse. No. At the very least, you need to acknowledge that there are alternative interpretations. Until they do that, people trying to sell policy on the basis of happiness research don't deserve to be taken very seriously.

[Cross-posted from Happiness and Public Policy.]

A Very Levy Leveling

I'm no lawyer. Not even a simple caveman lawyer. But my impression of this [pdf] is that my Cato colleague Bob Levy opened up a whole can of lawerly whoopass on this Rivkin character. And that would be the 32 oz, not the 16 oz can. Rivkin may be able to sit comfortably in another month or so.

I truly feel better knowing Bob is looking after my liberty.

[HT: Logan.]

Boy Trouble

This Weekly Standard article by Melana Zyla Vickers on the growing disparity between men and women in secondary education seems to want us to be alarmed. However, there's always the possibility that women's greater interest and success in school may just be the natural order of things once equality of opportunity is achieved.

Vickers's diagnosis?

What is going on? Schools are not paying enough attention to the education of males. There's too little focus on the cognitive areas in which boys do well. Boys have more disciplinary problems, up to 10 percent are medicated for Attention Deficit Disorder, and they thrive less in a school environment that prizes what Brian A. Jacob of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government calls “noncognitive skills.” These include the ability to pay attention in class, to work with others, to organize and keep track of homework, and to seek help from others. Where boys and girls score comparably on cognitive skills, boys get worse grades in the touchy–feely stuff. Perhaps not coincidentally, boys reportedly enjoy school less than girls do, and are less likely to perceive that their teachers support them, according to studies of Hispanic dropouts.

Well, check out that last sentence. Boys enjoy school less. I do not find this surprising. As Jacobs stresses, school involves a lot of sitting still, listening, and reading–tasks the average male is not known to relish.

I think an important part of the story has got to be a simple statistical tale. Let us make the apparently dangerous (for Larry Summers) but common sense and scientifically well supported assumption that males and females tend to differ somewhat in their preferences and abilities. Let us assume further that one of those differences is that a larger proportion of the female population finds school tolerable than the in the male population. If the left end of the curve is “hates school” and the right is “loves school,” then the female curve is shifted just a bit to the right.

Now, I don't have the numbers but I'm sure that a higher proportion of the population now get some college than ever before. (And as Julian said last night, why should a philosopher need numbers when you can directly apprehend being?) Back in nineteen dickety four, when three percent of the population or whatever went to college, and they were almost all male, you can bet that they were mostly guys who were good at school, liked school, or both. As higher education became ever more accessible and equitable over time, you get most of the women who like school enough to get through it attending, and most of the men too. But it just turns out that there's a smaller percentage of men who like school enough to go and get through it. And so, the gender gap in academic achievement could just be a consequence of finally levelling the playing field. So why worry?

Now, it may be that, as Vickers says, school has just become too touchy-feely for many boys and young men. But it might also be the case that that touchy-feeliness was simply necessary to make the educational environment suitably accomodating for girls. It could be (I have no idea) that there is no possibility of a common educational environment that doesn't either turn off some girls or some boys. Maybe it is the case that we've been doing a good job optimizing the educational environment for girls, which, yes, turns some boys off. But can we say that it is over-optimized for girls? Who knows? Again, things might have been previously over-optimized for boys, and equality demanded that we do better at optimizing for girls, and here we are at the ideal balancing point, and things aren't over-sissified at all. (And maybe what we have here is an argument for boy's and girl's schools, and men's and women's colleges.)

Anyway, we're not surprised when men turn out to be the most successful longshoremen. Let's make sure that we're not just finding out that, now that they're getting a fair shake, women aren't just better at school. As it happens, I do think that much of the educational establishment thinks there is something mildly pathological about having testes, and so I don't think there's nothing to the idea that schools have become a bit of a unwelcome place for the average bearers of balls, eroding male educational participation and achievement at the margins. But I also think it's easy to oversell that point in order satisfy an ideological urge to piss on the hated crones manning (ha!) the women's studies departments, etc.

Are They Happy in Bangladesh?

It appears that happiness is a topic unfit for fact-checkers. You can apparently say whatever you like! For instance, Bae Myung-bok, the international affairs editor of Korea's JoongAng Daily (which is apparently distributed by the IHT/NYT), writes:

Whenever I live or travel abroad, there is something I feel anew: That material possessions are not in proportion to happiness. When it comes to gross domestic product, Americans should be tens of times happier than the Vietnamese but this is not so, at least in my experience. On the contrary, Americans seem to lead harder lives and live in less comfort. Surveys also show that the happiness index of Bangladeshis is higher than that of people in advanced nations like the United States and European countries. Economic abundance is only one component of happiness.

It's true: economic abundance is only one component of happiness; and material possessions are not proportionate to happiness. People who are ten times wealthier are not ten times happier. But, then again, no one has ever even suspected that that could be true.

Now, Vietnam. Kim Kahn, Ai Nu, Bich Lan, and Kim Phuc, the Vietnamese refugees who stayed in my family's basement for a few months in Marshalltown, Iowa when I was a kid, would, I suspect, be quite surprised to discover that they had moved into a harder, less comfortable life. Say what you will about Marshalltown, Iowa, but “hard and uncomfortable” aren't going to leap to mind. (You can live like a king in a large, well-appointed house with a big yard there on well less than the median American annual income. As an aside, this house—well-known in Marshalltown—really is a mansion, with 8 bedrooms 5.5 baths and about 9000 sq. ft. The same price—1/2 mil.—will get you maybe 2000 sq ft in a neighborhood just past the borderlands of gentrification in DC. Trade offs! Here is a more typical Marshalltown house, and price, in the neighborhood I grew up in. Mortgage much less then my half of the rent in a cheap house in DC. But boy do I digress.)

The last I heard of them (we've lost touch) they were doing quite well by Iowan and American standards, which means they were doing very well indeed. I recall asking them when I was a kid whether they wanted to go back to Viet Nam. They said they missed the rest of their family, but would rather bring them to the U.S. than move back. (I'm pretty sure they did succeed in bringing a number of family over.) So there's a data point for you.

Now, Bangladesh . . . These surveys are available to anyone with an internet connection. For instance, here is some world values survey data. Here is the subjective well-being rankings of 82 societies. [doc] I'm not sure exactly how the scale works on this one, but the high score is 4.62 (that's Puerto Rico! — Rico in happiness! The italics on the list denote the “Latin bonus.”). The low score is -2.40 (that's Indonesia). The U.S. scores 3.47, comfortably in the “High” category. And Bangladesh? 0.54, on the low end of the “Medium-Low” category.

Clearly, the U.S. could bring up its happiness score a bit by finally making Puerto Rico a state. And look at Mexico! Here's my public policy idea for maximizing average SWB in the U.S.: build a wide, wide bridge over the Rio Grande! Make it 12-lanes, one-way. So, clearly, the money isn't everything. But Bangladesh, Mr. Myung-bok, doesn't even come close. Consider yourself fact-checked.

Now, Myung-bok also discusses Friedman's Moral Consequences of Economic Growth, and seems sympathetic to its point, which I'm glad to see. But he seems confused about the application. After observing that Vietnam's high rate of growth seems to have done them good, he says:

But a high growth rate like that in Vietnam cannot be expected of a country like France that has already entered a stage of maturity. If this is the case, where should people in advanced countries look for happiness? I think they should find it in establishing fair game rules by removing social discrimination and expanding transparency.

Friedman's thesis just is that goals like removing discrimination and expanding transparency are more socially and politically feasible when growth rates are healthy and steady. True, France is an already developed economy, and isn't likely to see 7% annual growth rates. However, the French are in the bottom quarter of OECD countries growth-wise, and could certainly improve by following the lead of Ireland, cutting taxes, freeing up labor markets, repealing onerous regulations, etc. And, if Friedman is right, that's what they need to do in order to ease the social unrest they're experiencing.

Myung-bok writes, in conclusion:

If everyone in a society could accept that he or she did not lose in competition because of a difference in skin color, religion, race, gender, region or school, wouldn't the sense of happiness in that society increase even if its economic growth were slow?

And the response is that this kind of acceptance is least likely when growth is slow, and it therefore seems to many that they are competing just to keep their portion of a shrinking pie. Tolerance for mobility from below—and for difference and equality—is greatest when people have a sense that things are getting better all the time and that there's more than enough to go around.

[Cross-posted from Happiness and Public Policy. Please post your comments there.]

Intro to Ethics

A friend of mine who is medical school and, I gathered, taking a medical ethics course, asked for recommendations for readings to help her get a better feel for the main schools of thought in moral philosophy. She's a science-y person who has chosen to go into a field that involves dissecting dead bodies in school, and who registered a bit of puzzlement about the fuzzy intuition-mongering involved in her class's discussion of the “trolley problem,” so I had that in mind. I thought other's might be interested. So here, spiffed up a bit, is what I wrote. If you have good or, better, better recommendations, then please sock it to the comments.

For intro to ethics, one of my favorite books is Fred Feldman's Introductory Ethics, which is very clear and very rigorous. It's pretty dated (1978), but still good for getting a feel for the variety of ethical approaches, and the main objections to them. I hate most intro ethics books, but I don't hate this one.

For a good, cheap overview of the major ethical positions read these article in the Stanford Encyclopedia:

» Virtue ethics
» Natural law ethics
» Hume's moral philosophy
» Adam Smith's moral philosophy (in the 18th century Scottish philosophy entry.)
» Kant's moral philosophy
» Consequentialism
» Egoism (which I can't believe I forgot in the e-mail!)

I incline toward some kind of Hume/Smith position …

There is now a whole literature on the way intution works in thought experiments like the trolley problem. Scroll down Joshua Greene's page for his neuro-imaging work on people doing the trolley thought experiment. You can use this to blow the mind of your medical ethics class [or whomever] with your intellectual sophistication and moral-scientific with-it-ness!

Moral psychology is starting to take off as a field with some actual scientific teeth. Look at Jonathan Haidt's stuff.

Here is a book that I have yet to read by someone whose work I like that gives something like a scientific case for an updated Scottish sentimentalism:

» Sentimental Rules : On the Natural Foundations of Moral Judgment, by Shaun Nichols.

I've also been looking forward to reading this:

» Lack of Character : Personality and Moral Behavior, by John Doris

And I have read some of this and like it:

» Natural Ethical Facts : Evolution, Connectionism, and Moral Cognition, by William Casebeer

But all that's just if you want to get out on the cutting edge of empirically serious approaches to ethics. (And now my laxity in getting around to all these is getting to me.)

And here are some late-breaking additions:

I forgot to mention Lawrence Hinman's Ethics Update site, which has a lot of good intro ethics resources.

Oh! And don't forget Ayn Rand. That's where I started, for what that's worth. In my opinion, “Causality Versus Duty” (in Philosophy: Who Needs It?) makes more sense than “The Objectivist Ethics” (in The Virtue of Selfishness), although the latter is rather richer. Why not read my old review of Tara Smith's Viable Values, which may be the best academic treatment of Randian ethics. (Wow, I cannot say that I like the new TOC website design.) Here's the ARI's Ayn Rand reading list. The order makes sense, but feel free to skip the novels if you don't want to read a novel.

de Jasay and Smartification

If you haven't read Anthony de Jasay's The State, then do. (“What would you do if you were the state?”) There is a class of books that I like to call “smartifying.” That is, you are actually smarter after reading them, by which I mean you can think better about a set of issues and problems. You can better find the edges of arguments, the contours of assumptions, better feel the rhythms of inference. The State is one of those books, as are all de Jasay's books. Thomas Schelling is smartifying. So is Nozick. The first blog I visit each day is Marginal Revolution, because I leave there smartified more often than from any other blog. Now I'm trying to think of other smartifying authors, and I guess I think game theory is smartifying, since I just came up with David Gauthier and Ken Binmore. Derek Parfit! There you go. Also liable to leave you smartified. David Lewis, too! Will leave you smartified and incredulously staring.

Anyway, I meant to give you a de Jasay quote:

When we think we are opting for equality, we are in fact upsetting one equality in making another prevail. Love of equality in general may or may not be inherent in human nature. Love of a particular equality in preference to another (given that both cannot prevail), however, is like any other taste and cannot serve as a universal moral argument.

. . . Very few of the countless inequalities people are liable to resent lend themselves to levelling, even when the attack on difference is as forthright as Mao's Cultural Revolution. It is no use making everyone eat, dress and work alike if one is still luckier in lover than the other. The source of envy is the envious character, not some manageable handful of a countless multitude of inequalities. Envy will not go away once chateaux have all been burned, merit has replaced privelege and all children have been sent to the same schools.

“The souce of envy is the envious character.” That is our lesson for today.

Don’t Focus on Growth to the Exclusion of My Special Interest!

This smug article in Glasgow's Sunday Herald perfectly exemplifies the extremely shady way happiness research is put to use for political purposes, and why we must unfortunately keep a skeptical eye on those who brandish alleged data on happiness. Here's the start:

THE most important item in the Cultural Commission’s report, which was buried unceremoniously last summer, informs us that the Greek government’s ambition is to reduce all measurement of public policy down to one indicator – does it make people happier?

By that index, much of what modern governments do is a failure. Concentrating on economic growth to the exclusion of almost everything else has only succeeded in making us more miserable. The evidence shows that though most of us have become richer in the last 30 years, we’ve also become unhappier.

This is just gobsmacking ignorance. The correlation between rate of growth and the number of people reporting themselves to be “very unhappy” is negative. It's as easy as checking Nationmaster. The data is plain. Wealthier in general is happier. (The relationship is weak, sure. But a weak positive relationship isn't no relationship, and definitely isn't a negative one.)

As I reported in this post on the specious depression statistics, Branchflower and Oswald, “Well-Being Over Time in Britain and the USA,” show that, in the US, the number of folks reporting that they are “not too happy” (on the three option survey) dropped from 14% in the 1972-1976 period to 12% in the 1994-1998 period (which is up from the 1988-1993 low of 10%). Similarly, in Britain, the number reporting “not at all” and “not very” (on the four option survey) was 4% and 11% respectively in the 1972-1976 period, and 3% and 10% in the 1994-1998 period. So where's the unhappier?

Say! How are the author's neighbors in the Republic of Ireland doing? Ireland had a jawdropping 7.9% average rate of growth from 1994-2004. That's 3.0% greater than the country with the the next highest growth, South Korea. (And 3% is itself a very healthy growth rate.) So, have the nouveau riche Irish become less happy? Nope. They're pleased as punch with their pots o' gold.

This Harris Poll, based on the Eurobarometer life satisfaction questions, shows the Irish near the top (of European countries, plus the US) in the percentage of the population reporting themselves Very Satisfied or Fairly Satsified. But perhaps more important, the high-growth Irish decisively lead in the percentage of the population who think that their life has improved in the last five years.

In contrast, the Germans, with the third worst growth among OECD countries over the last decade (1.5%), are gloomy. 84% of Germans say they are Very or Fairly Happy, compared to 93% of the Irish. 35% of Germans say their life got worse over the past five years, compared to just 11% of the Irish. 26% of Germans predict live will get worse in the next five years. Only 5% of the Irish think things will go downhill.

So, Richard Holloway, chairman of the Scottish Arts Council, I call bullshit. Bullshit, sir!

Oh, but wait. Shockingly, the chairman of the arts council wants us to know that more government money spent on something in particular will make us all happier. What do you think it is? One guess!

People are not just passive recipients of the happiness that art brings them – they are participants as well. Scotland is full of writers’ workshops and jazz clubs and dance classes and water colourists and fiddlers and pipers and brass bands and choral societies and drama groups and basket weavers and glass blowers and dry-stane-dykers . The doing of these things sees us at our best and most distinctively human and creative. More to the point, these are the activities that energise and fulfil us. They give us joy – the best therapy on Earth.

So why doesn’t government get it? Why doesn’t it realise that happy people are healthier, more caring – less trouble, in fact – and invest wholeheartedly in the happiness economy?

Hmm . . .

According to this article:

The figures from the European Commission on total spending on arts and culture in member states strongly suggest that Ireland is bottom of the class when it comes to [arts] spending in Europe. (Ireland’s per capita spending on the arts and culture in 2003 was only €23.15.)

Yet the happy, fast-growing Irish think life just keeps getting better all the time. How could that be!

Bullshit, sir.

[Cross-posted from Happiness and Public Policy. Please leave your comments there.]