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September 21, 2009


Rob Knight

It's probably because there is no upper bound on the level of happiness in the world, therefore no reason to worry about anyone else 'stealing' your happiness. It's not competitive, whereas wealth (to an extent) is. Whilst it's possible for the total amount of wealth in society to increase, I suspect that happiness can increase much more quickly and easily, satisfying everyone. With wealth, there's often a divide between those who have it and those who don't, and those who have it will feel the need to defend what they have.

In that sense, happiness is like other forms of intellectual property - if I share mine with you, I don't end up with any less than I started with.


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This finding crops up from time to time in all sorts of societies. For me as an economist it means that I assume that economic man (a gender free concept) factors into his personal utility function the happiness of others, with a positive sign. I have no information on the weight he gives it relative to other utility.

There is also a good scattering of evidence that economic man factors in the status (wealth included) of others with a negative sign; and a weight sufficient to shorten lives if status inequalities are too great.

But is the pursuit of happiness what our lives are about? Mine isn't, nice as happiness is.

Alderson Warm-Fork

To extend what Diversity said about status: someone else having more money than me is liable to be perceived (for various reasons) as indicating her greater value than me - that society recognises her more, or that she has more competently 'won' it. Happiness does this to a much lesser degree: I can see someone else be happy and feel quite easily that it's fairly random and unrelated to their personal worth, and so not feel forced to make a personal comparison.

Plus, as was mentioned by Rob Knight, resources are more limited and more transferable - I can consider what someone else's specific particular wealth could do if I had it instead, whereas I can't really imagine 'receiving' their happiness via. transfer.

In short, both can sadden us by comparison, but wealth forces the comparison upon us more.


Gentlemen - your theories seem plausible, but they rest upon the view that others are irrational, or at least not paying attention to the data.
1. Wages are not a sign of people's worth or status. They merely tell us what "skills" are in demand or scarce supply. Hayek was perfectly clear about this. We don't say a pineapple has higher status or moral worth than an apple. Why do we regard the labour market as any different?
2. If you look at the time-series for developed economies - showing big rises in incomes but very little rises in happiness - you'd infer that aggregate happiness is bounded but incomes less so. Which suggests that it's happiness that's a zero-sum game but incomes a positive-sum one.


I came across an interesting idea on the Dilbert blog - Happiness Smoothing - an apparently innate human tendency to cheer up the unhappy, cheer down the uber-happy & help ensure an even spread of happiness. Which made me smile.


Surely happiness is catching because it is a behaviour as well as a state? That is, it is something people 'do'; and, since humans tend to copy one-another's behaviours, we copy the happiness behaviours. And that in turn actually makes us happier (thus recreating the state).

In the same way, there's research indicating that partners of depressed people tend to copy their depressed behaviours over time & this increases the risk of them becoming clinically depressed (i.e. reaching the 'state' of depressed).

So, the difference between income and happiness is that happiness is a behaviour that we tend to copy, while income is not a behaviour, just a state. (Of course income may have behaviours associated with it that we might copy - thereby increasing our own income - but there is no simple link from this to increasing or decreasing our own happiness.)

(Not sure about the time series point. I would have thought that happiness is bounded because each person has a maximum level of happiness they can reach - since it is a state of mind, it is presumably ultimately defined by biological parameters. That doesn't imply that it is zero-sum, just that there are material boundaries.)


Happy people are nicer to be around, create a nicer and more trusting environment and consequently spread their happiness. Unless, of course, you are feeling particularly unhappy, then that infernal cheeriness has the opposite effect.

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