Paper of the Day: Do We Know How Happy We Are?

Another great thing about chatting with Carl the other day is the pointer he gave me to the work of Dan Haybron, a philosopher at St. Louis University. Dan has written a couple of the papers that I've been trying in vain to find. His web page is a treasure trove. His paper Do We Know How Happy We Are: One Some Limits of Affective Introspection and Recall makes the skeptical case I have been trying to make, based on the same research I have been looking at, much better than I have so far been able to make it. I'm delighted to see this paper in part because it helps me know that I'm not crazy.

ABSTRACT. This paper aims to show that widespread, serious errors in the self-assessment of affect are a genuine possibility—one worth taking very seriously. For we are subject to a variety of errors concerning the character of our present and past affective states, or “affective ignorance.” For example, some affects, particularly moods, can greatly affect the quality of our experience even when we are wholly unaware of them. I note several implications of these arguments. First, we may be less competent pursuers of happiness than is commonly believed, raising difficult questions for political thought. Second, some of the errors discussed ramify for our understanding of consciousness, including Ned Block’s controversial distinction between access consciousness and phenomenal consciousness. Third, empirical results based on self-reports about affect may be systematically misleading in certain ways.

The abstract doesn't really capture the core of what I'm interested in here, which is the reliability of self-report survey instruments. The paper contains a very trenchant and cogent critique.

Now, I've been arguing that the happiness surveys fail to measure increases in average objective happiness. I suppose it reveals my priors to admit that it really hadn't seriously occurred to me that they could be failing to measure decreases. Haybron seems to think this is a distinct possibility.

Here is a Haybron's conclusion:

There is a family I know—I will call them the Wilsons—whose members are quite amazingly loud. Wonderful people they are, but the din from their constant shouting, thumping, and crashing about is, for the unseasoned visitor, almost unbearable. Yet they seem to have no idea there’s anything at all unpleasant or odd about it, since it is perfectly normal for them. Those who know them see it differently: however hardened their sensibilities might have become, it’s almost certainly an unpleasant place for the family too. (It must be.) It is worth pondering whether mainstream American society might not be a little like the Wilsons: oblivious, and more or less inured to, a noisy, obnoxious, stressful, and spiritually deflating way of life.

Of course,Haybron's priors are revealed in the fact that he doesn't seem to have considered that we might be rather better off than we think. This kind of dispute brings home, I think, the need for a long-term longitudinal physical correlates of happiness study. My guess is that some correlates of unhappiness (stress/cortisol levels, e.g., ) may have gone up, but that some correlates of happiness (some kinds of dopiminergic activity, e.g.) may have also gone up. The multi-dimensional physical constitution of real happiness will complicate efforts to show unambiguous increases or declines, especially since there may be no generally valid way to weigh the disutility of cortisol against the utility of dopamine, or whatever, in terms of real happiness.

[Cross-posted from Happiness and Public Policy.]