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Quantifying happiness: The ultimate scientistic (not scientific) pursuit

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In a fascinating article, “Happyism: The creepy new economics of pleasure” (The New Republic, June 8, 2012), Deirdre N. McCloskey dissects the effort, since the eighteenth century, to quantify happiness:

It’s not science. At the most lofty level of scientific method, the hedonicists cheekily and with foreknowledge mix up a “non-interval” scale with an “interval” scale. If you like the temperature in Chicago today better than the one on January 15, you might be induced by the interviewer to assign 2.76 to today and a 1.45 to January 15. But such an assignment is of course arbitrary in God’s eyes. It is not a measure in her view of the difference even in your heart (since to her all hearts are open) between a nice day and a cold day. By contrast, an interval scale, such as Fahrenheit or Celsius temperature on the two days in question, does measure, 1-2-3. God doesn’t care which scale you use for hedonics as long as it’s an interval scale. Non-interval scales merely rank (and classifications merely arrange). We couldn’t base a physics on asking people whether today was “hot, nice, or cold” and expect to get anything quantitative out of it.

Recording the percentage of people who say they are happy will tell you something, to be sure, about how people use words. It’s worth learning. We cannot ever know whether your experience of the color red is the same as mine, no matter how many brain scans we take. (The new hedonism is allied, incidentally, with the new brain science, which merrily takes the brain for the mind.) Nor can we know what red or happiness 1-2-3 is in the mind of God, the “objective happiness” that Kahneman speaks of as though he knew it. We humans can only know what we claim to see and what we can say about it. What we can know is neither objective nor subjective, but (to coin a word) “conjective.” It is what we know together in our talk, such as our talk about our happiness. Con-jective: together thrown. No science can be about the purely objective or the purely subjective, which are both unattainable.

If a man tormented by starvation and civil war in South Sudan declares that he is “happy, no, very happy, a regular three, mind you,” we have learned something about the human spirit and its sometimes stirring, sometimes discouraging, oddity. But we inch toward madness if we go beyond people’s lips and claim to read objectively, or subjectively, their hearts in a 1-2-3 way that is comparable with their neighbors or comparable with the very same South Sudanese man when he wins an immigration lottery and gets to Albany.

Many studies have reported that religious people are happier than others, and we don’t mind reporting them if it combats prejudice.

But the claim must be seen in context: What did the religious people expect from life? If they belong to a religion whose historic stories feature persecution and hardship, and they are not currently suffering too much themselves, they may be very happy. Under the same circumstances, a person who thinks himself a planned pregnancy endowed with good genes and upbringing – and therefore a surefire big success – might be miserable.

Some fields can teach us something about human nature without being sciences.

See also Religious people happier than others in hard times, researchers say

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