Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Assessing Happiness

In The Chronicle of Higher Ed, an article caught my eye entitled "What's an M.B.A. Worth in Terms of Happiness?" (Subscription required: The Chronicle hasn't caught up to the times yet). The premise:
Any sensible person would rather be happy than rich, although many people often confuse the two—business students among them. Those who choose to attend business school on the assumption that an M.B.A. will help them change jobs, make more money, and therefore be happier are very likely misinformed.
The author claims that there is a game theory problem--a Zog's Lemma instance, if you will--in business schools. I'll let author Robert A. Prentice explain:

Unfortunately, M.B.A. programs are currently ranked—by U.S. News, BusinessWeek, and other unduly influential publications—using criteria that prominently include starting salaries for graduates and salary differentials pre- and post-business school. Rankings have such an important impact on M.B.A. programs in their intense competition for students, faculty members, and resources that it is unsurprising that the schools often try to game them—say, by admitting students not because they are the strongest applicants, but because they are interested in finance and consulting, which have historically been the highest-salaried jobs.

An implication made in the article is that this undue emphasis on money comes at the expense of ethical behavior, which is linked to happiness:
Other studies indicate that people who act ethically tend to be happier than those who do not, suggesting that we are evolutionarily designed to derive pleasure from receiving the approval of others and from doing the "right" thing. Brain scans indicate that when we act consistently with social norms, primary reward centers in the brain are again activated.
Notice the evolutionary psychology argument.

Can you realistically assess happiness? The only book I've read on the topic is Dan Gilbert's "Stumbling on Happiness," which I recommend. It's not a self-helpy book, but a description of the research that has been done in the field of happology. Dr. Gilbert's website has links to other projects he's engaged in, including a link to an application to track your own happiness on your iPhone, which is a brilliant idea. You could do the same thing on Twitter, methings: one day a week send out tweets like #happymeter 5, for 5/10. Want to join me? Here's the link to results.

Maybe I think the idea is brilliant because I created a similar application a few years ago. Our student dropbox (a mini-portal) became wildly popular, and as a little research project I added a star rating system that looks like this:

There were no instructions, just the raters. On the login page, I then had the database calculate averages and display them. Here are the current ones.

From the beginning the trend has been school > life > world. There are about two years of data now, except that I did something stupid during the election and changed the rater to keep a running poll for a while. The graph shows a semester's worth of data, looking at change data week over week.
Self-reported happiness declined more in males than females as the semester wore on for that group of students who continually reported their ratings. This may be connected to higher attrition rates in males, which we also observed. I didn't have much luck in correlating the two, however. Other results showed that older students were significantly happier than younger students. The report is two years old now, but you can look at the whole thing here. After I read Dan Gilbert's book, I emailed him about this research. He replied with something like "Thanks for conditioning your students to take surveys!"

So what professions are the happiest? I found this relatively current (2007) report from the University of Chicago: "Job Satisfaction in the United States."

It's nice to see that education administrators and teachers are both on there. Who'd have guessed? The unhappiest workers of all turned out to be roofers. You can see the whole list and other observations in the article itself. Job satisfaction isn't exactly the same thing as happiness, but perhaps it's close.

So does money buy you happiness? Aside from the inner glow of helping old ladies with their 401ks, isn't there a rewarding feeling that comes from shopping for a new yacht? The (2001) study "Does Money Buy Happiness? A Longitudinal Study Using Data on Windfalls" tries to answer that question by looking at people who won the lottery or received an inheritance. From the abstract:
A windfall of 50,000 pounds (approximately 75,000 US dollars) is associated with a rise in wellbeing of between 0.1 and 0.3 standard deviations. Approximately one million pounds (1.5 million dollars), therefore, would be needed to move someone from close to the bottom of a happiness frequency distribution to close to the top. Whether these happiness gains wear off over time remains an open question.
My guess is that getting the money "for free" isn't as rewarding as say, scraping it off the top of predatory loans, but judge for yourself. I'd love to participate in the next study, regardless. Where do I sign up for the winning lotto numbers?

Update: See Reuben Ternes' comment below about Gross National Happiness. I also fixed a typo.


  1. There's an entire movement about GNH (Gross National Happiness) that is used, increasingly, by countries to gauge the satisfaction of their citizens and is intended as an alternative to GDP measures. It was created by Bhutan. It's an interesting read actually, and I've seen it talked about in financial articles that advocate using it instead or in addition to GDP as a measure of a country's wealth (obviously, wealth has more than monetary connotations here).

  2. Thanks for info! I had no idea this existed. I wonder what 'net' happiness would be?

  3. Ugh... I spent a substantial amount of time in grad school on this subject, and it was enough to lead me to (more or less) swear off survey research altogether. GNH and its ilk are also deeply flawed - start checking some of those cultural assumptions about what happiness is.

    Now, let me start randomly assigning people to families, countries, careers and incomes, and THEN maybe we'll get somewhere.

  4. It is good idea to study the effect of money on happiness, as many people have an assumption about the relationship between the two. However, I have a bone to pick with the article: the most basic principle of economics is that all resources are scare and must be allocated.

  5. Richard, interestingly this scarcity must also be true of happiness, or else it's not good as a motivation. That is, if someone is never unhappy about anything, there's no motivation to come out of the rain. The difference between happiness and money is that we can create an infinite supply of the latter, whereas the former is presumably capped, AND happiness is difficult to transfer, and not in the zero-sum way money is. Weird economics, this happiness stuff. I wonder if someone has tried to understand social structures and conventions in terms of happinomics?

  6. Anonymous11:10 PM

    all this talk of measuring happiness is leaving me rather depressed...