Friday, December 03, 2004


In Isaac's post on interpersonal comparisons of utility, he restates the usual objection to using objective, or cardinal measures of happiness. First, I don't think we can say they are exclusively using a cardinal measure of happiness. Certainly, they do when they say
And again, contrary to previous research, the researchers found that divorcees in the study reported being slightly more cheerful during the day than did married women.
There is no way you can make a claim like that without somehow assuming that a happiness rating of 7 for me is a happiness rating of 7 for someone else, right? They do, however, measure well-being in many more dimensions than just happiness. There is a range of emotions that were rated by the subjects. But it's hard to say whether or not adding more dimensions increases or decreases the accuracy of the measure. Of course the question of the *actual* methods they used could be easily cleard up by a quick perusal of the study itself.

In fact, the study handles this in a very clean and creative way:

In well-being research, the standard deviation of individual differences is normally the metric used to express the size of group differences. Because the DRM supports both between-subjects comparisons (e.g., different age groups) and within-subject comparisons (e.g., different situations or times of day), it provides an additional metric that facilitates the interpretation of results. Exploiting the broad consensus that exists on the relative enjoyment value of many activities and situations, we constructed a scale of enjoyment demarcated by types of familiar situations. We first chose two activities near the extremes of low and high enjoyment: commuting to work (mean = 2.86) and relaxing with friends (mean = 4.92). We then identified five other activities with mean enjoyment ratings spaced approximately evenly within that range. The selected activities satisfied two conditions: (i) There was no significant difference in the overall average of enjoyment ratings between individuals who engaged in the activity and others who did not; and (ii) there was broad agreement between the rankings of the activities in the DRM results and in generic judgments of their enjoyment value (19, 20). Using this scale, we display the effects of selected work circumstances and individual differences on reported enjoyment, at work and at home (Fig. 3).
The study uses both interpersonal and intrapersonal measures of happiness, so we can still say that people enjoy relaxing with friends more than commuting to work if each person rates relaxing with friends higher than commuting to work. So, taking the activities which have a similar form of consensus, they constructed a metric based on how people rated those activities to measure other factors which may affect well-being. For example, we can say that if there is no time pressure at work, then people ranked work as enjoyable as "shopping with a spouse", but when there is time pressure, work was ranked as low as "commuting."

So the study does not succumb to the temptation to use a cardinal measure of happiness. Let's relate this to an economics framework. Consider two situations, X and Y. If we know that across a broad spectrum of agents X is strictly preferred to Y we can use this to analyze the utility of a third situation, Z. For example, there may be some factor which affects the utility of Z. We can measure the effect of this factor by seeing where agents locate the utility of Z in relation to X and Y. If, when the factor is present, agents consistently prefer Z to X or are indifferent between Z and X (remember, X > Y) but when the factor is NOT present, agents consistently prefer Y to Z or are indifferent between Y and Z we can "objectively" say that the presence of the factor decreases the utility of Z for any given agent. This is essentially what this study does.

I'd also like to say a word about the Times' reporting on the study. Their headline reads, "What makes people happy? TV, study says." But TV is far from the activity that people find most enjoyable, according to the study, which was "intimate relations." In fact TV is almost the median activity on the scale of "positive affect" among observed activities. So why did Benedict Carey seem to think TV was "what makes people happy?" And why did the article's headline not read "What makes people happy? Sex, study says." ?

Furthermore, the Times seemed to take as the results of the study the actual data produced, but if they had read the conclusion they would have learned that

The goal of this report was to introduce a new tool for the study of well-being and to illustrate its potential uses.
It was NOT intended to produce a definitive answer on what makes people happy. And this can be seen in the details of the study: subjects were from a convenience sample, were only women, and only those women who worked during the day were included in the study (thus excluding the unemployed and the truly poor.) Very poor show by the Times and Benedict Carey.

Overall, the study is quite impressive as a demonstration of a new technique for measuring well-being. I hope that we will see many extensions of this in the future. I would personally like to see some sort of intertemporal study, for example, comparing *intra*personal happiness after going from situations of employment to joblessness etc.


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