A very brief critique of happiness studies

The NYTimes recently published yet another intriguing article, one of many, on the topic of happiness and the links between happiness and money: (you can read the article here), by Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton.

Happiness? Source: NYTimes

"Don’t Indulge. Be Happy."

However, as a researcher of working lives, I cannot help but point out two rotten premisses of rational choice theory (RCT)-informed happiness research (e.g. happiness/money correlation).

The first one is that the definition of “happiness” is terribly reductionist. In reality people often don’t know whether they are “happy” or not, and this also changes when you look at past events (see Daniel Kahneman’s TED talk from 2010. Kahneman is a Nobel laureate and founder of behavioural economist).

Even more problems arise when we look at work and employment. Happiness research seems to assume that people work predominantly for rational reasons, such as “money” or “happiness”; and that they are in full control of their work-related choices. But surely people cannot always regulate the amount which they work. And surely they also do what they do, and as much as they do, for a plethora of other reasons. Because of contractual obligations. Because they have started a job and feel some kind of moral duty to keep doing it. Because they are fearful of change. Because working less might invite their boss to make them redundant. Because of general inertia. Because they’re used to a working environment/team. Because they haven’t had time to think what else they can do. And because we are generally bad at deciding what we really want e.g. sorting out our own priorities. Even in RCT’s own terms, it is accepted that people often shun changes due to the high exit costs: making changes involves too much investment, and the longer you have spent doing X (e.g. sticking to a particular career plan), the higher the cost of initiating a change.

Said simply, work, employment, and labour are far more complex social activities than they are portrayed in this type of research. So is happiness. The link between the two is exponentially more complex.


Categories: The Idle Ethnographer

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