Can money buy you happiness? On comfort science.

In what has become the accepted wisdom, income does not increase your happiness over some level – usually at around 75000 USD / year. But in a recent paper on PNAS that claim was shown to be false…or was it? The debate that has been raging about the paper since it came out has been really interesting to follow and there are essentially two different positions that people take.

(i) Money does buy you happiness. More money = more happiness.

(ii) The old idea of a limit does hold, but with small, marginalen increments at very high prices

The second view is eloquently expressed in this tweet:

So, this is worth a think — not least because it challenges the received wisdom, and we should be very interested in where we have been casually wrong about something. I also think that this qualifies as a mesofact – something you learn once and rarely update – so let’s update our beliefs.

But what should the new belief be?

In this well-reasoned blogpost the author suggests that the new belief should essentially be this:

(iii) Money behaves like any good with decreasing marginal utility, and the decrease is steep after a certain breaking point. High income brackets, however, report less experience well-being even if they report higher life-satisfaction (with a caveat that the data is self-reported).

But is this right? Could we not challenge the entire premise of the experiment? What does it mean to ask people to self-report on their life satisfaction? Why is that judged to be the right question, or a question that will give meaningful answers? Have we not been led astray here by something rather sinister that happens again and again in popularized science – comfort science?

Comfort science, as I think about it, serves a very different purpose than proper science. It gives you support for your current life choices and your own personal narrative – and so you use it not as belief, but as comfort and support. It is like comfort food. Examples include things like:

  • It is healthy to drink alcohol in moderation (probably isn’t, but in the large scheme of things something will kill you and if you like to drink moderately – please do, but without justifying it through “science”).
  • Chocolate is good for you (without distinguishing between the 80% high quality chocolate and the Mars bar you eat with that justification).
  • Children need quality time not quantity time (and the variant that says that we spend more time with our children than any preceding generation – research that is essentially meaningless because it groups a diverse set of individuals – kids – together and makes assumptions about their collective well-being).
  • Just 12 minutes of exercise is enough per day! (It is better than nothing, but an hour long walk will not kill you, you know).

And, of course, the idea that income beyond levels that you can aspire to or just above simply do not make people happier. Let’s, just for the sake of argument, spell out all the methodological flaws in that argument from the outset.

First, Happiness is hardly a helpful measure – and not the only dimension in which we exist. Our age’s focus on happiness is a common psychosis that we have to get over. Back to Aristotle – you can judge no man happy until his life is at an end. Things like learning, relationships, failures all give meaning across a complex set of dimensions – and money is a part of that complex set of meanings, and may matter more for you if you use it to make a difference for others (imagine if the question had been not about the life satisfaction of the individual, but about the question of if they think they can effect meaningful change in the world – then we would connect money and agency, and what do you think the answer would be there?)

Second, people who self-select to respond to research about their income are signaling rather than reporting. They want you to know something about them. As in many surveys, the self-expression trumps the ambition to report valid data. When you ask people if they care about privacy, to take one example, you need to think about what it would signal for them to say that they do not — how uninteresting and worthless would they not have to think themselves to essentially say that they could imagine being fodder for a surveillance state machine or corporate monster? The same holds for highly socially charged things like wealth – across a number of different variables. Dogbert famously said that you should not trust the advice of rich people, since they do not want company. Think about what that does to the research design we are looking at here!

Third, income is in itself a weird focus. If we looked at the power that well invested wealth could give over time – or asked people to think about their life satisfaction when they are younger and directed the question to their future – how happy do you think you will be when you retire? – the answers, again, would probably be different. To look at income, to focus on yearly or monthly income is essentially like asking how happy are you now, when the real question may well be how happy do you think you will be later? Remember Kahneman’s tourist that wants to remember their trip but rather not make it!

And so on. Maybe the best way to update your belief, then, is this:

(iv) This study, like a whole host of other studies in the same style, is nothing but comfort science, and should be discarded for any more serious analysis of the underlying patterns it claims to describe.

Harsh? Yes. But definitely an option as you consider how you want to update your beliefs.

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