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September 16, 2009


Alderson Warm-Fork

It seems like these biases would be most effective when what's being considered is a large-scale, hard to reverse, measure that the individual just votes on. They might perhaps not be as pronounced for individuals making choices, if they're given a lot of options - for instance, adjusting your preferences to your situation, or the status quo bias, seem like they might be undermined by varied personal experiences? If you've got lots of points of comparison, perhaps you'll get more perspective on particular lifestyles.

That suggests that personal freedom may be a better immediate goal than either happiness or preferences? Or not.


In a post a little while back you made an excellent point: The implicit codicil in the claim "markets are inefficient" is "and someone knows better than the market." In the real world, though, that someone doesn't exist.

Might I suggest that an implicit codicil in the claim "people don't choose what will make them happy" is "and someone knows better than them."?

Our economic system is incredibly complicated, but in terms of scale and complexity it is utterly dwarfed by the networks of our social system. Surely it follows that no individual is able to bring about a greater amount of "genuine" happiness than the actions of the free market of society?

Even if that were not the case, I would suggest that in the long run, any gains in happiness produced at the expense of democratic free choice would be nullified by the demoralising effect of the abrogation of freedom. Can you be truly happy when someone else has the power to decide what "real" happiness is for you?

Obligatory CS Lewis quote: Of all tyrannies, a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.


Of course the major stumbling block as regards happiness is how you measure it. Self-reported happiness is notoriously fickle and unreliable and HDI indicators, such as those used by the UN, yield perverse results.

Interestingly the latest theory is that there is a direct connection between people's blood pressure and their levels of emotional well-being. A measure based on blood-pressure is particularly useful as retrieving the results is a0 fairly easy and b) pretty objective. The paper laying it out in more detail can be found here:



Honestly, I can't see that there's a dilemma. I would probably be a happier person if I got a bit more exercise, but I would definitely be a less happy person if you woke me up at dawn every morning and forced me to go jogging.

Imposed solutions - even with the best intentions - harm happiness more than they help. It is because of this factor that the Bentham quote stands.


The endowment effect and status quo bias. We over-value things just because we have them, and so fear change more than we should.

Very much a factor. I only have one thing worth having - this Mac and it creates a fear and an over-care situation.

Rob Spear

In my case happiness comes from overcoming the various problems that life puts in front of me. This suggests that a benign utilitarian state would be inventing problems for its citizens that would be carefully honed for each citizen to gain a sense of accomplishment when the problem is solved. Perhaps a large and byzantine bureaucracy, trained to give in to citizens requests only after a certain level of stress is achieved, might work?


"Obligatory CS Lewis quote: Of all tyrannies, a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. "

The Catholic CS Lewis said that? Oh the sweet irony!


Rob Spear...
very clever!


Well, Reason, it would be if he was a Catholic, but since he wasn't........


The biases that Chris Dillow enumerates are reasons why the pursuit of happines as an end in itself turns out to be as empty as the purseuit of wealth. However Layard is half right. It is a proper end to seek, in private and in public life, to reduce the miseries of others. The minimisation of gross national unhappiness (-GNU) might be a useful comparative indicator through time and between societies.


You are right, I looked it up in Wikipedia, C of E with Catholic sympathies. Close cousin though.

Tom Addison

"Might I suggest that an implicit codicil in the claim "people don't choose what will make them happy" is "and someone knows better than them."?"

Well... yes. When I was a kid (and I'm sure this applies to most people) I didn't want to go to school, if it was up to me I'd have played football and computer games all day, but of course going through education turned out to be beneficial in the end, and in hindsight I can now appreciate that. Knowing I made the right choice, even if it wasn't entirely down to my own free will, makes me happy.

And this still applies to adults. I have numerous myopic friends who would rather "live each day like it's their last" then do the sensible thing and maybe open a savings account. Of course, at the moment, they believe their philosophy on life is correct, but a few years down the line they'll realise they've been wrong (assuming I'm correct here), and their happiness will suffer because of it.

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