Easterbrook, The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel
Worse. New York: Random House, 2003.
Schwartz, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. New York:
Angelo Belliotti, Happiness Is Overrated. Lanham: Rowman and
remember the day I learned to ride a bike.
I must have been about eight. In
those days, at least in that part of England, there were no such things as
training wheels and the smallest bicycles had twenty-four-inch wheels.
I just kept pushing, wobbling, and gliding along, and suddenly, I could
The sun came
out from behind a cloud and the entire world shone with warm and radiant
delight. Every day for the next
few weeks, I spent hours just cycling up and down or round and round in
circles. Could there be anything
to beat this?
Six months later I was still pleased I could ride a bike, and I still got some direct fulfillment out of this activity, but I would not have dreamed of riding around just for the sheer pleasure of it—not for more than a couple of minutes, anyhow. Cycling had become about ninety-eight percent instrumental, a way to get from one place to another, and only about two percent intrinsically gratifying.
well-known phenomenon, called “adaptation,” is key to the thinking of
psychologists who maintain that our level of happiness is a “set point” to
which we always tend to return, largely irrespective of our circumstances.
Typically, we look forward to some consummation, and when we achieve it,
we’re pleased. From that moment on, the glow of gratification dims like
dying embers. It’s essential to
being human that the joy resulting from the attainment of any goal starts to
fade as soon as it begins.
people believe that if their real income were to be suddenly doubled, they
would feel a lot happier. And so they would, for the first week or two.
After that, the happiness would have perceptibly diminished, and six
months or a year later, they would be only slightly happier than before their
it works in reverse. People who go blind or deaf, lose their limbs, or become
paralyzed are usually acutely miserable for a month or two, after which the
gloom begins to evaporate. A year
later, they are approximately as happy as they were before they were
afflicted. Research indicates
that people with extreme physical disabilities are, on average, slightly
happier than the general population.
We were made
by millions of years of natural selection of genes.
From a gene’s point of view, the happiness of the organism which
temporarily houses the gene is not an end in itself.
The gene ‘wants’ its host organism to reproduce, which entails
surviving for at least a while, the longer the better if repeated reproduction
advantageous for pleasure to be associated with successful action, and
pleasure often tends to promote happiness.
But pleasure too intense and too prolonged might be detrimental.
If we now have something we have wanted, and we know we can keep it,
what would be the point of perpetual euphoria?
It could distract us from the immediate tasks of survival and
reproduction. Continual misery
would be pointlessly distracting too. It’s
entirely authentic, as well as poignant, that the slave-labor-camp inmate
protagonist at the end of the harrowing One Day in the Life of Ivan
Denisovich, reflects that, all in all, this has been a pretty good day.
All this is
straightforward, and not even controversial, but it does raise an interesting
issue with political implications. Liberals,
and especially that subspecies of liberals known as libertarians, tend to
accept as a premiss that it’s good for people to be able to get what they
want. If asked why, we are
apt to say, with the framers of the United States Constitution, that only then
can people pursue happiness. This
can easily lead to the reasoning: it’s good for people to be able to get
what they want, because if they get what they want, they will be happier than
if they don’t.
what if having more of what we want does not ultimately add to our happiness?
What if the pursuit of happiness is a “hedonic treadmill,” as some
psychologists have contended? In
recent years a lot of research has gone into finding out how happy people
actually are and what makes them happy or unhappy.
Some of the conclusions of this research suggest that increasing real
incomes—increasing ability to get what we want—does not make us very much
happier, once we have passed a certain minimum level of comfort.
What, then, is the point of further industrial and technological
question has been raised in a number of recent writings, most influentially in
Lane’s book, The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies.
Easterbrook’s work is a more popular treatment of the same issues.
Both Lane and Easterbrook start from the finding that Americans in the 1990s
were no more happy, and perhaps even a bit less happy, than they were in the
1950s, although real incomes had way more than doubled in that period.
Lane refers to the “paradox of apparently growing unhappiness in the
midst of increasing plenty” (Lane, p. 4), a theme echoed in Easterbrook’s
more popular work. Contrast this
with the 1930s complaint of ‘poverty in the midst of plenty’.
It’s hard to uncover real old-fashioned poverty in
twenty-first-century America, but it’s easy to find any amount of
how happy people are is mainly a question of asking them, and it may be
doubted whether this is always perfectly reliable.
However, the results of numerous questionnaires, painstakingly designed
and scrupulously interpreted, exhibit a consistency, a stability, and a clear
pattern which suggest that people’s happiness self-ratings are generally
Various attempts have been made to check the results (for instance by
comparing individuals’ self-ratings with the ratings of those individuals by
people who know them) and they look quite solid.
I’m convinced that the data emerging from these studies do indeed
measure happiness (or SWB, subjective well-being, as it’s known in the
If these studies of SWB are at
all accurate, then there has been little, if any, gain in happiness in
advanced industrial countries of the West over the past half-century.
In the United States, people are no happier than they were in the
1950s. To be more precise, the percentage reporting themselves as
just “happy” is close to identical in the 1990s and the 1950s, while the
percentage in the “very happy” category has fallen slightly, and the
percentage classified as “depressed” has increased.
The Specter of Futility
starts out with impressive boldness and clarity.
He makes two assertions: 1. that in almost every measurable respect,
life for nearly everyone in the western world has been getting better at a
spectacular rate, and 2. that people’s happiness or satisfaction with their
lives has stayed about the same or slightly diminished.
Both of these claims are well documented by an accumulation of
interesting and often surprising facts, which Easterbrook presents skillfully
Easterbrook poses his “paradox” bravely, but as his argument proceeds, its thrust falters. Just over halfway through the book, Easterbrook switches to throwing out a number of conjectures about influences which might account for the loss of happiness, along with his policy solutions. He voices the usual leftist gripes about consumer capitalism, though the relation of these to the findings of SWB research may be tenuous. He is furious at greedy CEOs, and favors raising the minimum wage, imposing universal health insurance, and increasing foreign aid. These chapters are still well-written and they contain nuggets of fascinating information, but they do not resolve or even seriously confront the ominous “paradox” he has laid out at the beginning.
like Lane, makes the most of the startling juxtaposition of declining
happiness and increasing affluence, and doesn’t want to spoil a good story
by drawing too much attention to considerations which might blur the stark
drama of this incongruous outcome. Neither
author gives the reader even an outline of the basic facts from which a few
items have been plucked for close attention.
volunteers that he does not place any reliance on the declining SWB trend, and
wouldn’t be surprised to see it reversed.
This admission contrasts strangely with the strident rhetoric of decline
and loss in Lane’s book. Granted,
the fact that the amount of happiness has been roughly the same and has not
increased, while incomes have made spectacular gains, is notable enough to be
well worth discussing. But if we
take The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies and substitute some
word like ‘conservation’ or ‘stability’ for ‘loss’, it would not
have the requisite quality of “man bites dog.”
The same applies to Easterbrook’s subtitle, How Life Gets Better
While People Feel Worse. “How
Life Gets Better While People Feel about the Same” would be more defensible,
and still quite intriguing, though less of a shock.
People Are Happy!
By far the
biggest and most imposing fact to emerge from the empirical studies of SWB is
that a substantial majority of people in advanced capitalist cultures are
In Easterbrook’s and Lane’s books, and a number of other writings,
there is so much emphasis on the disquieting fact that the amount of happiness
has not increased, and may even have slightly declined, that one is apt to
lose sight of the mundane fact that over eighty
percent of people in advanced industrial countries rate themselves as more
happy than unhappy.
This is worth
emphasizing because it is so frequently denied.
Down the centuries, innumerable sages have opined that most people were
not happy. In his 1930 classic, The
Conquest of Happiness, Bertrand Russell asserted that very few people were
happy, a fact he inferred from the expressions on the faces of people in the
From all that we know now, it seems inescapable that the majority of
the readers of that book were happier than its author, at least in the 1930s.
(In his nineties, convinced that the world was overwhelmingly likely to be
destroyed in a thermonuclear conflagration, Russell became extremely happy,
illustrating both adaptation to a set point regardless of perceived
circumstances and the common pattern of individuals growing steadily more
serene with age.)
Szasz has famously defined happiness as “An imaginary condition, formerly
attributed by the living to the dead, now usually attributed by adults to
children and by children to adults.”
Most readers take this as an amusing overstatement of a truism.
There prevails a strong tradition for intellectuals to believe that
ordinary people are incapable of happiness, or at least of ‘true’
happiness, as well as being wretched and not even truly alive.
Facts about Happiness
downplayed fact is that people in rich countries are, on average, much
happier than people in poor countries.
How many readers of Lane or Easterbrook come away with a clear grasp of
the fact that “market democracies” are way more conducive to happiness
than any other known form of society?
Surely it is
in the light of these huge general findings—that the great majority of
people are happy and that people in developed countries are happier than
people in less developed countries—that we ought to look at the extremely
interesting possibility that aggregate happiness in the United States may have
Here are some
other assorted facts to emerge from the SWB research.
people have higher SWB than younger people,
a fact all the more significant because it is an aggregate outcome which
presumably has to include gains in SWB more than enough to compensate for some
cases of acute misery caused by terminal disease. Men are almost exactly as happy as women, though women
experience more extremes of happiness and misery (one of the exceptional cases
where women go to extremes more than men do).
American blacks are just about as happy as American whites.
cohabiting married people of either sex are happier than the divorced, the
separated, or the never-married. Analysis
of the data suggests that the causality runs in both directions: being married
makes you more happy and being happy makes you get and stay married.
Churchgoers are slightly happier than non-churchgoers.
Ethnic diversity within a country is not associated with higher or
The happiest populations in the world are the people in Scandinavia, Netherlands, and Switzerland, though the United States and most other wealthy countries are not very far behind. >From all that we know, it seems a reasonable surmise that the present populations of Scandinavia, Netherlands, and Switzerland are very close to being, and may actually be, the happiest sizeable populations that have ever existed in human history, and not very distant from the maximum aggregate happiness attainable in any large population, absent some future biological or other revolutionary breakthrough.
and between countries, high-income people are happier than low-income people,
though the advantage becomes very slight above a quite modest level of income.
Although “more money” is definitely associated with high SWB, individuals
preoccupied with money-making tend to be less happy than those who seek
fulfillment in other ways. Gregarious,
extraverted types are happier than loners.
are wide variations in SWB among different populations, independent of income.
Some very poor tribal cultures, such as the Maasai of East Africa, are
not far below the affluent world in SWB, while within that affluent world
there are very sizeable differences between countries. The populations of Japan, Italy, and France are distinctly
less happy than their level of income would predict. People in the Irish Republic have been consistently happier
than people in Germany, which until recently had twice Ireland’s real income
per head. (Rapid growth in
Ireland and slow growth in Germany have been closing the gap in incomes.)
Adjusting for income, Hispanic people are the happiest broad segment of
world population, while Asians are the least happy.
countries, very low-income people are on average decidedly less happy than
people of modest income or above, but high-income people are not tremendously
happier than middling-income people. The
very rich are indeed happier than the average for the population, but only by
a small margin.
prejudice among intellectuals is that people generally want higher incomes
primarily because this will improve their status relative to other people.
While many writers are so convinced of this theory that they often
assert it in blithe disregard of the facts, the SWB research does not afford
the theory much comfort. For instance, poor people in rich countries are decidedly
happier than poor people in poor countries.
In fact, living in a rich or poor country has a stronger effect on your
SWB than being rich or poor yourself. “Inequality”
does not reduce happiness (Diener and Oishi, in Diener and Suh, pp. 205–07).
Detailed studies show that, for example, people of moderate income are
equally happy whether they live in predominantly poor or predominantly
view compatible with the data is that if you’re poor, more income will
enable you to become appreciably happier, but once a quite modest level of
income has been achieved, further increases will bring very little greater
happiness. (Money does buy
happiness, but for most people in advanced industrial cultures, it takes a lot
of money to buy a tiny increment of happiness.) This general result could be
explained in a number of different ways. For instance, it could be that all the components of real
income begin to plateau, as regards conduciveness to happiness, once a modest
income level has been reached. Or
it could be that one or two key components of income do all the heavy lifting
with respect to happiness, and once consumption of these goods has reached a
certain point, any further income increments go to goods which don’t add to
long-run happiness. As with so
many puzzles in this area, empirical work may soon provide a definitive
It used to be
thought that people in “individualist” cultures are happier than people in
“collectivist” cultures, but one major study has failed to confirm this
and it is now in doubt, though most SWB theorists still seem to hold to it.
Individualism and collectivism in this context do not relate to the
system of industrial ownership or administration.
They are terms employed by sociologists and social psychologists to
distinguish cultures which value individual self-realization from those which
lay more emphasis on group solidarity. Thus,
Japan and South Korea are classed as collectivist cultures.
any rate, people in individualist countries, contrary to the folklore of
intellectuals, don’t appear to be any less happy than people in collectivist
countries (though it could reasonably be contended that people in collectivist
cultures would be more inhibited about highlighting their own feelings, and
would therefore tend to have a downward bias in rating their own happiness).
generates happiness. Veenhoven
classified three kinds of freedom: economic, political, and private.
He found that all are correlated with happiness, but economic freedom
much more so than political or private freedom.
Veenhoven candidly remarks: “This is a pleasant surprise for the
right-wing free market lobby but a disappointment for liberals like me” (Veenhoven,
in Diener and Suh, p. 276).
Economic freedom does not merely contribute to happiness by raising incomes; controlling for income, economic freedom still clearly promotes SWB, a fact which seems to puzzle Veenhoven. To most people economic freedom is the very substance of their lives as creative, purposive beings. Compared to the option of living and working where you please, at whatever occupation you wish, doing what you choose to do without permission from anyone on high, the liberty to vote in elections or to pass out leaflets on the street is, for the great majority of folks, rather a minor consideration, especially in poor countries.
suggests, the strong positive association between freedom, especially
“economic” freedom, and happiness will very likely turn out to be even
stronger, because his results are heavily affected by the temporary situation
in post-Communist countries, which possess some freshly-won freedoms but are
currently undergoing a historically brief, acutely painful industrial
results refute the familiar conservative contention that freedom reduces human
well-being by atomizing individuals, by inducing anomie, by imposing a
crushing burden of responsibilities, by removing the security of fixed status,
or by offering a vertiginous variety of choices.
The findings also refute the related view that people cannot benefit
from freedom until they have been sufficiently prepared.
Rich or poor, ready or not, people feel better if they are more free.
They do not suffer by being cut loose from traditional folkways or from
the kindly direction of their betters, or if they do, they somehow find more
than adequate consolations for these losses.
legends have become casualties of the SWB research.
The “midlife crisis” is a myth: on average, emotional crises get
steadily fewer and less severe as people grow older, and there is no blip at
midlife. Neither is there any
such thing as an “empty nest syndrome”: middle-aged people whose children
have moved out are in fact happier than those whose children stick around.
and Economic Growth
The fact that
joy of attainment always fades suggests that happiness may be pursued by
keeping a succession of new attainments coming, just as the fact that every
note sounded on a piano declines in volume very rapidly from its inception
does not prevent a piano piece maintaining a high, or even an increasing,
level of volume. This would mean
that at any time some attainments were close to their maximum in terms of
contributing to subjective well-being.
line of thought might suggest that the rate of growth of income may be more
relevant than the current amount of income.
Some such notion may have influenced the great proponent of economic
growth, Adam Smith, who evidently held that higher incomes do not make people
happier, but that fast-growing incomes do.
Before reading any of the recent research I would have bet on this
Smithian view, but the facts now appear to be exactly contrary: there is a
high correlation between absolute level of real income and happiness, and no
significant correlation between rate of economic growth and happiness (Diener
and Oishi, in Diener and Suh, p. 203).
the same, I still feel that something like this ought to be true.
Perhaps, for instance, people in countries with positive GDP growth are
happier than those in countries with zero growth, who are in turn happier than
those experiencing negative growth. Few
countries have experienced zero or negative growth over the last few decades
and SWB research has not made a special effort to focus on these places, so
there is presumably insufficient data to test this.
But thanks to the valiant efforts of helpful souls like Hugo Chavez, we
will not run out of examples of countries with falling incomes, and perhaps
this theory can be tested before long.
In Defense of Progress
What are the
implications of SWB research for those who favor progress, and in particular
for libertarians? I believe that
the liberal, progressive, and libertarian commitment to advancing technology
and indefinitely expanding material prosperity can be defended against the new
attack based on the SWB findings.
My defense is in two parts. First, I claim that these findings, properly understood, are less disturbing for advocates of progress than the popularizers of SWB research have reported. Second, I point out that happiness, though important, isn’t everything, and I maintain that modern, high-income, capitalist cultures score higher on most of the other salient values than do traditional or pre-industrial cultures.
should separate two theses: 1. that for comparatively high-income people the
level of happiness has remained approximately the same while real incomes have
expanded enormously, and 2. that there has been a slight, long-term decline in
happiness in the more affluent countries.
While the first of these now seems to be strongly indicated by the
data, the second looks dubious.
Most of the
evidence for the decline in happiness over the past half-century comes from
the rising incidence of “depression”.
This invites the obvious response that what fifty years ago was called
being down in the mouth is now called “depression,” “depressive
disorder,” “unipolar depression,” or, forsooth, “clinical
depression.” Easterbrook dismisses such objections as follows (p. 165):
though the rising rate of Western depression may relate to some extent
to better diagnosis and the loss of taboo associated with this topic . . . a
tenfold increase in two generations is far too great to be an artifact of
improved diagnosis alone.
This is the
reader’s first introduction to the statistic of a “tenfold increase” in
depression (no source is cited for the factor of ten).
Easterbrook later discloses (p. 181) that “tenfold” is the upper
limit of a range of controversial estimates, the lower limit being twofold
(or, as he puts it, “on the order of two- or threefold”).
Twofold still sounds like a lot, but the likelihood that an increase is
due to “better diagnosis” (meaning greater readiness to apply the label
“depressed”) has little to do with the size of the increase as a multiple
of the starting point and much to do with the size of the increase as a
proportion of the total population. This,
of course, is small.
claimed that twenty-five percent of Americans undergo an experience of
depression at least once in their lives, and that six or seven percent have
experienced depression at least once in the past year.
These numbers can’t easily be compared with the statistics for SWB,
which tend to focus on how people are feeling at one point in time or how they
feel on average over a period of time. We
typically don’t ask people whether they have been blissfully happy at least
once in their lives or at any time during the past year.
And someone who currently feels fine but at one time felt sad and fell
into the clutches of the mental health profession may now be classified as
depressed and “managing” his depression.
small shifts in numbers are at issue, it’s remarkable that so little
attention is paid to two great demographic trends: aging of the population and
immigration. How many of those
labelled “depressed” are over eighty?
people from the less developed countries have come to the United States
recently, and have prodigiously amplified both their real incomes and their
SWB. Still, they are genetically
and culturally products of countries with much lower levels of SWB than the
United States (all the data point to a major genetic component in the
determination of SWB). These
folks might well be immensely happier than they would have been in Guatemala
or Cambodia, and still embody a decline in United States SWB.
Improvement could thus possibly masquerade as deterioration.
Another element usually undiscussed in this connection is the enormous growth in the ingestion of mood-modifying substances like Prozac. At first blush, we might suppose that this collective swilling of antidepressants and tranquilizers must be counteracting a powerful tendency for misery to increase. I am more inclined to the view that these drugs, on average and in the long run, do not increase happiness, or more precisely, that substituting these newfangled concoctions for the tried and trusted intake of good old alcohol, good old tobacco, good old cocaine, and good old opiates does not increase happiness. The bigoted “Just Say No” zealots of our day strive to replace drugs which give people enjoyment with drugs which deaden people’s sensibilities, and regrettably they have had some success.
the suggestion that there’s an inherent tendency for happiness to decline in
industrially advanced countries. But I think it has to be admitted that the
level of happiness in these countries is either roughly stationary or climbing
very, very slowly. This does
raise the question of whether further increases in incomes can be defended as
additions to human wellbeing.
It won’t be
a practical issue for at least another couple of centuries.
There are still hundreds of millions of people in the world who are
desperately poor, and whose SWB will be greatly augmented by raising their
incomes. It’s not a feasible
option to increase the incomes of the poor while holding the incomes of the
well-off at a constant level: hold down the rich and you ineluctably hold down
the poor. It’s not possible to
have economic growth in the less developed countries while halting it in the
modern, affluent, high-tech lifestyles are demonstrably highly conducive to
human happiness, to oppose further gains in material prosperity from free
trade and globalization is objectively to favor the perpetuation of wretched
misery for hundreds of millions of poor people.
Extrapolating from the SWB data, the conversion of the entire Third
World to first-world standards will generate an enormous gain in happiness.
a more general level, it’s fallacious to conclude that because increases in
already high incomes yield only very slight benefits for SWB, therefore only
those very slight gains would be lost if we froze incomes at some arbitrarily
high level (supposing this were feasible).
Humans are plan-pursuing entities who achieve fulfillment from striving
to improve their condition. What
happiness they have now is an attribute of this broad purposive framework.
If this framework were to be destroyed, there could be a major
reduction in happiness. That this
might be so is corroborated by Veenhoven’s demonstration that economic
freedom confers happiness independently of its income-raising role.
this argument, then, the very existence of free-market capitalism would in
itself add substantially to long-term happiness, and it’s just an
inseparable concomitant that free-market capitalism indefinitely increases
median real income, which does not add very much to long-term happiness for
the already well off. In short,
even if having more of what we want does not add greatly to our
happiness, being able to pursue more of what we want may still add
greatly to our happiness.
certainly has to be acknowledged is that it is false to suppose that every
increase in GDP represents an actual gain in the joyfulness of daily
experience, or that in some future high-income world every quotidian moment
will be lived in a perpetual state of bliss.
But I do not know of anyone who has ever held this view.
Probably those who came closest to it were Marxists around 1890.
part of my defense is to point out that happiness, though important, isn’t
everything. As many have
insisted, happiness is not the summum bonum (all-important good).
Other values are vital in setting our requirements for a good social
repeatedly states that it is “far better” to have high incomes even if
these are not matched by high SWB. He
even says that it’s better to have high rates of depression than to have a
world so poor that people are so caught up with survival they have no time to
become depressed (Easterbrook, p. 165). I
agree, and I applaud him for saying it, but he does not make explicit the
values which may legitimately compete with happiness.
you could convince me that a return to a world of recurring plagues and
famines, children without shoes, their ribs poking out because of
malnutrition, most of them dead before the age of ten, and the average woman
requiring to give birth about nine times to maintain a stable population,
would somehow leave people no less happy than today, I would still feel that
you had not made a case for returning to that pre-industrial world.
Dignity, charity, intelligence, and exploration of new opportunities
are values which, though of course most often conducive to happiness, are in
principle independent of happiness and may occasionally clash with it.
The realization of these values is far more in evidence in today’s
Europe and America than in medieval Europe, medieval Islam, or the Third
happiness is extremely valuable, it is not the only thing of value, nor can it
measure the value of every other thing. The
arguments here are as familiar as they are sound.
A cheap and infallibly happiness-inducing drug, added to the water
supply, would not make us lose all interest in justice or human betterment.
Most people would not choose to undergo a kind of brain damage which
would make them simultaneously a lot happier and a lot more stupid.
“Ignorance is bliss” can be uttered with many shades of emotional
tone, but never admiringly. As
Nozick’s argument from the “experience machine” brings out,
most people do not want a happy life in a state of comprehensive delusion.
A survey has found that less than one percent of people would choose to
be plugged in to an experience machine.
neither “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” nor “The Bucket Rider” could have
been written by a happy person—at any rate they weren’t—yet the creative
lives of John Keats and Franz Kafka are enviably worthy.
It can even plausibly be argued that a certain modicum of suffering is
essential to the best possible life, though I would add that one can get too
much of a good thing, and I have it on the best authority that my suffering
quota has been filled.
The Final Frontier
further can we go in raising SWB in affluent modern cultures? My view is that people do have a set point which is most
often on the happy side of neutral, but which varies individually, and which
is largely but not entirely genetic. Once
certain sources of acute misery are removed, which they generally are by
industrial development, the set point rules.
Thus, although I see abundant opportunities for augmenting happiness, I
don’t see the scope for anything which could again repeat the staggering
achievement of free-market capitalism in raising SWB to its present high
society is a marketplace for lifestyles, religions, psychotherapies, and
interpersonal arrangements. There’s
a continual process of discovery by trial and error, which may lead over a
long period of time to an approach to the optimum in these areas, yielding
some gains in happiness.
the area of religion, I see much hope in replacing the Abrahamic creeds
(which, in one of their recent manifestations, can make millions of people
think it inspiring to watch a movie of a man being tortured to death for a
couple of hours) with a new synthesis of Buddhism and other religions of
The Abrahamic religions, aside from being composed mainly of untruths
about nonexistent entities, are not well-suited to a culture of real
abundance, security, and glorious opportunities.
psychotherapy, which I expect to eventually become one with religion, all
psychodynamic doctrines, derived from Freud, which seek to terrify people by
imagining a world of inscrutable unconscious forces, are rapidly being
replaced by an effective cognitive-behavioral approach of the sort pioneered
by Albert Ellis, which effectively teaches people how to reduce their sources
unclear whether the general tone of the culture or the reigning ideology can
have much effect on people’s happiness, but if it can, there is certainly
room for improvement here. To
take one simple example, the modernist movement in the arts, and its various
offshoots and successors, have driven a wedge between music, fiction, drama,
and pictorial representation as readily appreciated by the mass of the
population and as sanctified by the approval of intellectual elites.
This wedge was not always there, and will not always be there.
It’s largely a matter of intellectual fashion. But as long as the wedge is there, opportunities to develop
great works of art with a popular audience tend to be closed off, and a
potential avenue to the enrichment of the lives of the majority of people is
drugs may be helpful for some, not because of the questionable notion that
“depression” is an “illness,” which can be “treated” by
“medication,” but rather because of the fact well known to Fitzgerald’s
Khayam and to countless others down the ages, that taking drugs can make you
feel better. If you belong to the
one, or five, or ten percent of the population genetically most prone to
melancholy, maybe some drug or other will help you to be happier.
Surfeit of Options
Schwartz is an avowed enemy of the free market (one of his earlier books is
subtitled How Market Freedom Erodes the Best Things in Life). But most of The Paradox of Choice is advice about
making the best decisions within a free market.
To the extent that people take his advice and find that it works, his
anti-market complaints lose some of their force.
that we are overwhelmed by too many choices.
But he accepts that how many choices confront us is itself a result of
our choices. It’s easy, for
example, to adapt our shopping habits so that the number of purchase decisions
is greatly reduced. It would even
be feasible to join a club, like a book or record club but concerned with all
kinds of consumer goods, so that we had to make almost no further choices at
all—we would simply accept the groceries and other provisions selected for
us each week by the club. Perhaps
this is why some people join cults with apparently absurd dietary and other
restrictions, because in this way they reduce the need to consider too many
begins the book with an anecdote about his visit to The Gap in search of a
pair of jeans. The salesperson
Do you want them slim fit, easy fit, relaxed fit, baggy, or extra baggy?
. . . Do you want them stonewashed, acid-washed, or distressed?
Do you want them button-fly or zipper-fly?
Do you want them faded or regular?
I didn’t expect the Spanish Inquisition! What a burden to drop onto the shoulders of a mere college professor! Buying the jeans, he says, became “a daylong project.” The jeans he ended up with “turned out just fine.” But, reports Schwartz, “it was a complex decision in which I was forced to invest time, energy, and no small amount of self-doubt, anxiety, and dread.” Forced? He could have just left and gone to Penney’s.
choose to make fewer choices. Schwartz
gestures a few times in the direction of the brainwashed zombie theory, the
victim of consumer capitalism who cannot choose to make fewer choices because
he’s addicted to consuming. But
it wouldn’t do to elaborate that theory, as it would undercut eighty percent
of Schwartz’s book, which gives you advice on how to choose to make fewer
Much of this
advice is quite sound. There’s
plenty of experimental evidence that most people typically make wrong-headed
decisions. For instance, they
erroneously count sunk costs. Schwartz
gives many of these examples, some of which have no bearing on overabundance
of choices. There’s certainly scope for educating people in fallacies
of practical decision-making, but this aspect would be more helpful if
detached from his preaching about the baleful influence of too many choices.
anecdote refers (pp. 18–20) to a study in which either twenty-four or six
varieties of jam were displayed. Schwartz
says that thirty percent of people who visited the display of six varieties
bought jam, while only three percent bought jam from the display of
twenty-four. Problems of this
kind tend to solve themselves: sellers of jam have an incentive to display the
smaller range. Managers of stores
as a matter of course do limit the number of varieties of all goods they offer
is perturbed (p. 9) that his local supermarket carries 285 varieties of
cookies, but evidently if all 285 keep taking up shelf space, all 285 are
selling. Anyone upset by the
spectacle of 285 types of cookie can go to a corner or specialty store where
the range is far more limited. Costco
or Sam’s Club attracts people prepared to buy in bigger quantities at
bargain prices, from a more limited range.
What many people do, of course (p. 19), is to settle on a cookie they
like, and then always look for just that one, tuning out the other 284.
Atkins dieters tune out all 285. Taking
this further, you can request the supermarket to send you the same list of
groceries every week, and give no more thought to choices. Some busy yuppies use services like Peapod in this way.
advice is to adopt a “satisficing” rather than a “maximizing”
strategy. Settle for what’s good enough without looking for the very
best. Most people do this anyway,
instinctively adjusting their searches among goods to take account of the
opportunity cost of their own time (satisficing is only a special case of
maximizing). Some others, mainly
women, seem to derive intense gratification from the actual activity of
researching what’s available. Who,
aside from the Taliban, would want to deny them this indulgence?
some people find the multiplicity of options irksome, the benefit they derive
from having that many options may more than compensate them for the
irksomeness. Therefore, it’s
possible for people to dislike the situation of having so many choices and
still be net gainers from the availability of those choices, a possibility
Schwartz never mentions. He thus confounds some specific loss from more choices with
net loss from more choices, and wrongly supposes that by making a case for the
prevalence of the former, he automatically makes a case for the prevalence of
those stressed-out shoppers who really do find choosing oppressive, much of
Schwartz’s advice may prove helpful, and the free market will then work even
better. Thank you, Barry
Happiness in Its Place
Belliotti evidently started out to write a work with the challenging title, Happiness
Is Overrated, and when he was well into it, suddenly realized that his
crucial argument is misconceived. Instead
of scrapping that book or turning it into a different kind of book, he went
ahead and published the thing.
becomes clear when we ask: Just who has overrated happiness?
It turns out that there are two broad ways of defining “happiness”,
the way it is defined in ordinary English, as subjective contentment or good
feeling, an enduring pleasant state of mind, and the way it is defined by some
philosophers, as encompassing much more than that, perhaps a merited,
or worthy, or virtuous pleasant mental state.
must have realized late in his composition of the book (see Belliotti, p. 93),
those philosophers who have defined the word “happiness” in the normal
vernacular manner have generally stated that happiness is not the summum
bonum, but that other values are independently important, and may trump
happiness. And those philosophers
who have proclaimed happiness as the summum bonum have generally
proposed an expanded definition of the word “happiness.”
Jeremy Bentham. Did he overate
Consequently, Belliotti cannot name anyone around today who really overrates happiness, in the sense he specifies. A possible historical exception is Bentham, but on this point Bentham has no following. Belliotti’s own views, while often correct, are equally often much more commonplace than he supposes them to be. In an effort to come up with a real “target” for his “thesis,” he finally identifies “those who formally define happiness as a relatively enduring, positive state of mind and who take happiness to be (at least) a great good” (p. 94). This is indeed a popular position—I adhere to it myself—but I cannot find any arguments in Belliotti’s book directed against it. The most he seems able to claim is that happiness is “not always a personal good,” which presumably means that there are some situations where happiness is not a relevant value.
he does not advance happiness as the summum bonum, Belliotti does
recommend an expanded definition of “happiness.”
His attempt to argue for an expanded definition is bedevilled by the
problem that he apparently does not understand that the meanings of words are
conventional, and therefore writes as though there is a correct meaning of
“happiness”, independent of actual usage or of usefulness in argument.
So he sets out on a wild goose chase to discover the true meaning of
happiness or what happiness really is. He
maintains, for example, that defining ‘happiness’ in the normal way
ignores or slights values other than subjective contentment.
This is like saying that we had better define a car’s “maximum
speed” to include its comfortable seats or fuel economy, and if we don’t,
we are ignoring or slighting these other desirable attributes.
provides a readable survey of philosophers’ views on happiness and finding
meaning in life, but sheds little new light on these topics.
article first appeared in Liberty, February 2005, and is reprinted by
 Robert E. Lane, The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000).
 Ed Diener and Eunkook M. Suh, eds., Culture and Subjective Well-Being (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2000), pp. 5–7.
 “My argument does not depend on the evidence of growing unhappiness in the postwar period (which may be a mere blip in a long-term curve)” (Lane, p. 5). The rhetoric of “growing unhappiness and depression” is heavy throughout his book, but if his argument really does not depend on this, it must depend on the mere fact that there is some remaining unhappiness in “market democracies,” even though this is less than in any other kind of social order.
 A good source for recent findings in this area is Diener and Suh, which I draw upon freely in the text. Useful background for some of the psychological and methodological issues is Daniel Kahneman, Ed Diener, and Norbert Schwartz, eds., Well-Being: The Foundations of Hedonic Psychology (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1999).
 Eighty-five percent of people in the U.S. are above the neutral mid-point between unhappiness and happiness (Ed Diener and C. Diener, “Most People Are Happy,” Psychological Science 7 ), and the corresponding number for several European countries is higher.
 Bertrand Russell, The Conquest of Happiness (New York: Liveright, 1930), p. 13.
 The Untamed Tongue (Chicago: Open Court, 1990), p. 139, though this bon mot had appeared in print earlier.
 See John Carey, The Intellectuals and the Masses: Pride and Prejudice among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1880–1939 (Chicago: Academy Chicago, 2002).
 Diener and Oishi, in Diener and Suh, pp. 198–201.
 According to some studies, older people are slightly less “happy” but more “satisfied with life.” SWB usually averages different entities like this. I skip over these distinctions here.
 The data actually show that there is more happiness with greater inequality. Diener and Oishi decide to abstain from any causal inference on this point.
 Both average overall life satisfaction and the small percentage of “depressed” increase with age.
 “Utility” in economic theory is not happiness. It is an abstract concept defined as want-satisfaction. This is not unconnected with happiness but shouldn’t be identified with it.
 Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (New York: Basic Books, 1974), pp. 42–43.
 See the remarks by Andrew Rawlinson in his The Book of Enlightened Masters: Western Teachers in Eastern Traditions (Chicago: Open Court, 1997), pp. 33–36.
Acrobat Reader. This