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Amartya Sen (1999), as noted at the outset, expresses suspicion over the use of the “happiness” measure: if there is no improvement in wellbeing, but people are happier, the happiness measure is misleading. Or put differently, if improvements in the material conditions of the poor in developing countries do not lead to the advancement of their happiness, we then should not use happiness as a measure. However, Sen misunderstands the Wellbeing-Happiness Paradox and its policy implications (see van der Rijt 2013). The finding about the disconnect between wellbeing and happiness is only with respect to the time-series data of individuals in developed countries.
While people choose their group, and such a group is a stratum of the wider society, this does not deny that people, at least occasionally, compare their stratum to other strata in the wider society. In this regard, the proposed analytic does not change. If we think of the different strata in the wider society as individuals, and hence, then the comparison would simply be broadened. The same dynamics of aspiration applies, irrespective of the boundary of the comparison group.
Other explanations of the paradox are abounding. Di Tella and MacCulloch (2008) propose that the paradox is the outcome of omitted variables. It is true that happiness is stationary as income rises, but this is the case because of omitted variables. While happiness rises with income, it is declining as a result of rising environmental degradation, rising hours of work, and increasing decline of the quality of life. Another explanation is the power of habit: As people become richer, they become used to their new level of being. So, people use the recent past income as the benchmark for assessing the their happiness (see Frederick and Loewenstein 1999).
Promoters of set point theory suppose that the set point is mainly given by two factors: i) genetic inheritance; and ii) traits that have developed in early life. Thus individuals cannot choose their own happiness set point (Gullone and Cummins 2002; Cummins et al. 2008; Frey and Stutzer 2002a; Layard 2006; Gilbert 2006; Nettle 2005).
The psychological literature usually treats amiability or friendship as an output rather than as an input, equating amiability with wellbeing (Powdthavee 2011; Argyle 2001; Baumeister and Leary 1995; Berscheid and Reis 1998; Demir 2010). But other literatures do not equate amiability or friendship with wellbeing—and in fact find no correlation between the two (Lucas et al. 2008), though this is disputed (e.g., Saphire-Bernstein and Taylor in David et al. 2014; Demir in David et al. 2014). The issue of friendship and amiability is actually complicated and it is outside the focus of this paper.
For instance, Bruni and Porta (2005; 2007; 2016) define the economics of happiness as generally about the quality of life in terms of virtues, pro-social preferences, and preferences in advanced economies. Similarly, Frey (2008; Frey and Stutzer 2002a; 2013) enumerates a multitude of ordinary inputs, from a quality environment to close relationships, that shape one’s happiness (see also Powdthavee 2011; Baumeister and Leary 1995; Anand 2016). Likewise, the contributors to Alan Krueger et al. (2009) and McDaid and Cooper (2014) stress the importance of family life and quality of life. Even some psychologists subscribe to the economist’s identification of happiness with expansionist and comprehensive utility that amasses net experiences of “pleasantness” (e.g., Parducci 1995).
Note, in an earlier work, I conflated “transcendental utility” with ego-based utility, which I called “symbolic utility” (Khalil 2004).
The proposed link or dependency of context and content has an immediate and simultaneous implication for two major ethical theories. First, one cannot reduce the context to an element of the corporal inputs category à la utilitarian argument. Second, one cannot elevate the context to an abstract rule that stands independently of the content à la Kantian categorical imperative (e.g. Korsgaard 2009; Sen 1987; cf. Khalil 1999).
While the term “projected” corresponds to the term “expected” in the economics literature, I prefer using the term “projected” as the term “expected” has a different connotation in other literature. For instance, Helliwell et al. (2016) report that Denmark ranks as the happiest country in the world—even happier than the equally prosperous Nordic countries. (This finding is questionable (see Tov and Au in David et al. 2014), however the point holds even if the example does not.) Christensen et al. (2006) and Booth (2014) maintain that the Danes are happier because they set their “expectations” low, and so are pleased with their realized wellbeing. Here, the term “expectations” is equivalent to the proposed “imagined wellbeing”—i.e., it does not correspond to how the economics literature uses the term.
Cantril (1965), a social psychologist who pioneered public opinion research, designed surveys that can be considered the early catalyst behind the scientific study of happiness. The surveys collect self-reports on wellbeing (Alexandrova 2008). Such reports, as Kahneman and Krueger (2006) show, have become reliable because they are highly correlated with reports of friends, health-records, sleep quality, and so on. They are also highly correlated with objective measures such as smiling (Duchenne smile), laughing, heart rate, electrical activity of the brain, and other biological indicators (Diener 2009).
To add to the confusion, some researchers treat positive effect (PA) and negative effect (NA) as conceptually symmetrical to the cognitive component. Hence, they advocate a “tripartite theory” consisting of PA, NA, and the cognitive component (e.g., Arthaud-Day et al. 2005). Further adding confusion, Diener and Biswas-Diener (2002) and Miao et al. (in David et al. 2014) advocate a “four-component” theory which breaks the cognitive component into global satisfaction about life as opposed to domain satisfaction about marriage, work, and so on. While these classifications are not theoretically grounded, their value resides in providing practical measurement benefits such as finding the correlation between happiness, on one hand, and differences in gender, age, personality traits, racial minorities, religiosity, marital status, culture, and so on, on the other.
Many corporal products, e.g., health, laughter, or music enjoyment, cannot be commanded. Elster (1998, p. 320) therefore argues that such pleasures pose a “by-product problem.” Elster (2009) also regards the emotions in general as posing a by-product problem. Even if he is correct, this does not mean that happiness is similar to by-product emotions in the way Elster uses the term “by-product.”
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Earlier versions benefited from the comments of Steven Gardner, Lucy Mayne, Fiona Newton, Michael Ewing, Yew-Kwang Ng, Birendra Rai, Michael Dunstan, James Ang, Ranjan Ray, Dietrich Fausten, Ratbek Dzhumashev, Haiou Zhou, Jonathan Wight, Carol Graham, Volker P.N. Grzimek, anonymous referees, participants of sessions at the Southern Economic Association conference, the Australia New Zealand Workshop on Experimental Economics, and participants of seminars at George Mason University, James Madison University, University of Richmond, Deakin University, Queensland University of Technology, and Monash University. The usual caveat applies.
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Khalil, E.L. Wellbeing and Happiness. J Value Inquiry 53, 627–652 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10790-018-9678-1