November 2012

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Yet more shorty topics. This is set #9. Do one of your choice, due by email Sunday night, November 4th. All readings are posted on the readings page.

  1. The so-called “Easterlin paradox” has been defined as consisting in the following factual claims:
    • Within a society, rich people tend to be much happier than poor people.
    • But, rich societies tend not to be happier than poor societies (or not by much).
    • As countries get richer, they do not get happier.

    Easterlin argued that life satisfaction does rise with average incomes but only up to a point, and the beyond that the marginal gain in happiness declines. Some economists have challenged the “Easterlin paradox” by claiming that his data is wrong, and the empirical debate has probably not yet been resolved. But suppose Easterlin’s data is correct. Does it give rise to a paradox? Why or why not? What lessons should we take from Easterlin, assuming his data is right? What lessons should we take, assuming his critics are right, and happiness does continue to increase with per capita income?

  2. What reasons do Helliwell and Wang give to support the claim that happiness surveys are valid methods for measuring happiness? Are these reasons persuasive? Why or why not.
  3. Some people argue that assessments of happiness are individual and personality-driven, so that data claiming to show “what makes people happy” is of little use. It is also claimed that there’s a “set point” for happiness: that even after set-backs (or fortunate events) people eventually return to their basic happiness state. How do Helliwell and Wang attempt to refute these claims? Are you persuaded? Why or why not?
  4. Denmark ranks among the top of countries with high life satisfaction. Peru ranks near the bottom. Yet, according to WHO, the suicide rate in Denmark in 2006 was 23.9 per 100,000, while the suicide in Peru for 2007 was 2.9 per 100,000. Is this a paradox? Can it be explained?
  5. According to Helliwell, Layard, and Sachs, “The first lesson of happiness research is that GDP is a valuable goal, but that other thing also matter greatly. So GDP should not be pursued to the point where:
    • Economic stability is imperiled
    • Community cohesion is destroyed
    • The weak lose their dignity or place in the economy
    • Ethical standards are sacrificed, or
    • The environment, including the climate, is put at risk.

    Do you agree that these principles are implied by happiness research? Why or why not?

  6. Should other countries follow Bhutan’s example and attempt to determine what makes their people happy? In your view, how important is happiness research to development of public policy, and why?
  7. What is the problem with choice-based or decision utility as an index of welfare? What problems do Lowenstein and Ubel see with experience utility? Should we go “back to Bentham,” as Kahneman suggests, or opt for “something in-between”?

The readings for the next two weeks are now added to the readings page: World Happiness Report; Loewenstein & Ubel, “Hedonic adaptation and the role of decision and experience utility in public policy”; Dolan & Kahneman, “Interpretations of utility and their implications for the valuation of health”; and Menzel, “Utilities for health states: Whom to ask”.

UPDATE: Also, there are a couple of short news items to look at there: “Why the Happiest States Have the Highest Suicide Rates” from Time, and “Maybe Money Does Buy Happiness After All” from the NYTimes.