FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Idiocy of the Ivory Study

I just finished reading a review by Tom Nagel in The New York Review of Books of books by Sissela and Derek Bok on happiness and I can tell you one person who isn’t happy–me. Did you know that one of what Nagel considers the “interesting results” of empirical research on happiness is that “almost all of the most pleasurable activities of the day take place outside of work.” Wow, who would have thought! But I’m being facetious, of course. What blithering idiot doesn’t know that? That remark reminds me of a documentary I saw recently on PBS about happiness which reported that this really long and expensive study of happiness revealed that interpersonal relationships were the single most important factor in determining how happy a person was. Oh, really? We needed a long and expensive study to tell us that? Haven’t we known that since, you know, ancient Greece! Why is solitary confinement considered inhumane? Come on, we are spending money on studies like this? Could our situation get more absurd?

An “unexpected finding” observes Nagel of all this empirical research on happiness is that “greater economic equality of a society is not correlated with higher average happiness.” I’ll bet that was a surprise, and why, because it is flat out false. Who designed that study? My guess is that it was the guys who ruined the economy. Don’t worry, I can just hear them say, however unhappy you are now, you’d be no happier, really, even if you could pay your bills. Yeah, right. If you want to convince me that we are just as happy as, for example, Danes, then you’ve got to convince me that happiness is compatible with seething rage. Danes don’t shoot people who cut them off on the highway or take their parking spaces. I’ve feared for my life in this country when I just accidentally stepped in front of someone in a line. In fact, I’d have to say that the undercurrent of anger in this society was so obvious to me when I first moved back here from having spent eight years living in Denmark that it was the single most striking difference to me between the two cultures.

And you know why people are angry? Bok observes himself that Americans work more hours “than almost any other advanced industrial nation.” Yet he doesn’t see what ought to be the obvious implication of that fact–American don’t have time for “almost all the most pleasurable activities of the day.” The long hours point doesn’t cohere with the claim that we are as happy as people in countries where there is greater economic equality? That is, most of the people in those countries are working fewer hours and thus have more time for those “most pleasurable activities of the day that take place outside of work.” Since they have more time for them, one can reasonably assume they are having more of them. You Counterpunch readers probably didn’t need that spelled out in such detail, but you never know, Derek Bok could be reading this.

“Opinion surveys,” observes Bok, “show that Americans are twice as likely (60 percent) as Europeans (29 percent) to believe that the poor can get rich if they only try hard enough.” He then goes on to observe that “lower-income Americans are less likely to blame society when inequality grows and more inclined to believe that persons of great wealth must deserve their good fortune.” Bok suggests, unless I have misunderstood Nagel’s presentation of his point, that this is a good thing, as if blaming yourself for your inability to pay your bills is going to somehow make you happier than being able to blame someone else.

“Any incremental [increase in] happiness for the poor is likely to erode,” writes Bok, “as beneficiaries grow accustomed to their income and adjust their aspirations upward.” Give a guy a shopping cart and the next thing you know, he’ll be lusting after a refrigerator box. People are just never satisfied with what they have! “Moreover,” continues Bok, “as researchers have discovered, taking money from one group creates much more distress than the added happiness gained by giving the same amount to another.” Oh yeah, I forgot, we certainly wouldn’t want to “distress” the super rich just to keep people from having their houses foreclosed upon.

Bok, et al. would do well to come out of their ivory towers, or ivory studies, as the case may be. It is absurd to conduct empirical studies on happiness in a country where increasing numbers of people are sinking into a debt so deep that they will likely never be able to dig themselves out of it. Yeah, sure, fine, a raise may not make someone happier who is already able to meet the basic requirements of life, someone who doesn’t need that raise in order to be able to keep his house, or keep his kids in college. But our current challenge is not solving the mystery of why people are never happy with what they have, even when by most reasonable objective standards what they have is more than enough. Our challenge is solving the problem of the multitudes in this country who don’t have enough by such standards. Bok would do well to remember Dickens’ lines from David Copperfield: “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pound ought and six, result misery.” And just think, Dickens figured that out all by himself, without the aid of an empirical study.

M.G. Piety teaches philosophy at Drexel University. She is the editor and translator of Soren Kierkegaard’s Repetition and Philosophical Crumbs. Her latest book is: Ways of Knowing: Kierkegaard’s Pluralist Epistemology. She can be reached at: mgpiety@drexel.edu

 

 

More articles by:

M.G. Piety teaches philosophy at Drexel University. She is the editor and translator of Soren Kierkegaard’s Repetition and Philosophical Crumbs. Her latest book is: Ways of Knowing: Kierkegaard’s Pluralist Epistemology. She can be reached at: mgpiety@drexel.edu 

September 25, 2018
Kenneth Surin
Fact-Finding Labour’s “Anti-Semitism” Crisis
Charles Pierson
Destroying Yemen as Humanely as Possible
James Rothenberg
Why Not Socialism?
Patrick Cockburn
How Putin Came Out on Top in Syria
John Grant
“Awesome Uncontrollable Male Passion” Meets Its Match
Guy Horton
Burma: Complicity With Evil?
Steve Stallone
Jujitsu Comms
William Blum
Bombing Libya: the Origins of Europe’s Immigration Crisis
John Feffer
There’s a New Crash Coming
Martha Pskowski
“The Emergency Isn’t Over”: the Homeless Commemorate a Year Since the Mexico City Earthquake
Fred Baumgarten
Ten Ways of Looking at Civility
Dean Baker
The Great Financial Crisis: Bernanke and the Bubble
Binoy Kampmark
Parasitic and Irrelevant: The University Vice Chancellor
September 24, 2018
Jonathan Cook
Hiding in Plain Sight: Why We Cannot See the System Destroying Us
Gary Leupp
All the Good News (Ignored by the Trump-Obsessed Media)
Robert Fisk
I Don’t See How a Palestinian State Can Ever Happen
Barry Brown
Pot as Political Speech
Lara Merling
Puerto Rico’s Colonial Legacy and Its Continuing Economic Troubles
Patrick Cockburn
Iraq’s Prime Ministers Come and Go, But the Stalemate Remains
William Blum
The New Iraq WMD: Russian Interference in US Elections
Julian Vigo
The UK’s Snoopers’ Charter Has Been Dealt a Serious Blow
Joseph Matten
Why Did Global Economic Performance Deteriorate in the 1970s?
Zhivko Illeieff
The Millennial Label: Distinguishing Facts from Fiction
Thomas Hon Wing Polin – Gerry Brown
Xinjiang : The New Great Game
Binoy Kampmark
Casting Kavanaugh: The Trump Supreme Court Drama
Max Wilbert
Blue Angels: the Naked Face of Empire
Weekend Edition
September 21, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Alexandra Isfahani-Hammond
Hurricane Florence and 9.7 Million Pigs
Andrew Levine
Israel’s Anti-Semitism Smear Campaign
Paul Street
Laquan McDonald is Being Tried for His Own Racist Murder
Brad Evans
What Does It Mean to Celebrate International Peace Day?
Nick Pemberton
With or Without Kavanaugh, The United States Is Anti-Choice
Jim Kavanagh
“Taxpayer Money” Threatens Medicare-for-All (And Every Other Social Program)
Jonathan Cook
Palestine: The Testbed for Trump’s Plan to Tear up the Rules-Based International Order
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: the Chickenhawks Have Finally Come Back Home to Roost!
David Rosen
As the Capitalist World Turns: From Empire to Imperialism to Globalization?
Jonah Raskin
Green Capitalism Rears Its Head at Global Climate Action Summit
James Munson
On Climate, the Centrists are the Deplorables
Robert Hunziker
Is Paris 2015 Already Underwater?
Arshad Khan
Will There Ever be Justice for Rohingya Muslims?
Jill Richardson
Why Women Don’t Report Sexual Assault
Dave Clennon
A Victory for Historical Accuracy and the Peace Movement: Not One Emmy for Ken Burns and “The Vietnam War”
W. T. Whitney
US Harasses Cuba Amid Mysterious Circumstances
Nathan Kalman-Lamb
Things That Make Sports Fans Uncomfortable
George Capaccio
Iran: “Snapping Back” Sanctions and the Threat of War
Kenneth Surin
Brexit is Coming, But Which Will It Be?
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail