Happyism: Nick Brown’s Attaining national happiness through chemistry

 happy faces

Donald Trump: “I don’t pursue happiness, I pursue money.”
Phil: “why?”
Donald Trump: “Because money buys me the things I want, such as material goods, and pretty women.”
Phil: “And why do you want to get these things”
Donald Trump: “Because they make me happy.”

In Happyism: The Creepy New Economics of Pleasure, Deirdre N. McCloskey provides a history of the new happyology

From the 1950s to the 1970s, economists such as George Katona and Bernard M.S. van Pragg, and sociologists such as Hadley Cantril and Norman Bradburn, and then in the 1980s, on a big scale, psychologists such as Martin E.P. Seligman, Norbert Schwarz, Frank Fujita, Richard J. Davidson, the Diener family (Ed, Carol, Marissa, and Robert), and of course Daniel Kahneman re-started the once-abandoned project of measuring happiness quantitatively. In the 1990s, some economists, a subgroup in the new “behavioral economics,” delightedly joined the psychologists in measuring happiness as self-reported declarations of one’s level of happiness, and assigning self-reported numbers to them, and adding them up, and averaging them across people and eras. Some of the quantitative hedonists have taken to recommending governmental policy for you and me on the basis of their 1-2-3 studies; and some of them are having influence in and on the Obama administration.

And a thorough shredding of the non-science:

At the most lofty level of scientific method, the hedonicists cheekily and with foreknowledge mix up a “non-interval” scale with an “interval” scale. If you like the temperature in Chicago today better than the one on January 15, you might be induced by the interviewer to assign 2.76 to today and a 1.45 to January 15. But such an assignment is of course arbitrary in God’s eyes. It is not a measure in her view of the difference even in your heart (since to her all hearts are open) between a nice day and a cold day. By contrast, an interval scale, such as Fahrenheit or Celsius temperature on the two days in question, does measure, 1-2-3. God doesn’t care which scale you use for hedonics as long as it’s an interval scale. Non-interval scales merely rank (and classifications merely arrange). We couldn’t base a physics on asking people whether today was “hot, nice, or cold” and expect to get anything quantitative out of it.

Recording the percentage of people who say they are happy will tell you something, to be sure, about how people use words. It’s worth learning. We cannot ever know whether your experience of the color red is the same as mine, no matter how many brain scans we take. (The new hedonism is allied, incidentally, with the new brain science, which merrily takes the brain for the mind.) Nor can we know what red or happiness 1-2-3 is in the mind of God, the “objective happiness” that Kahneman speaks of as though he knew it. We humans can only know what we claim to see and what we can say about it. What we can know is neither objective nor subjective, but (to coin a word) “conjective.” It is what we know together in our talk, such as our talk about our happiness. Con-jective: together thrown. No science can be about the purely objective or the purely subjective, which are both unattainable.

And here comes the knock out punch:

If a man tormented by starvation and civil war in South Sudan declares that he is “happy, no, very happy, a regular three, mind you,” we have learned something about the human spirit and its sometimes stirring, sometimes discouraging, oddity. But we inch toward madness if we go beyond people’s lips and claim to read objectively, or subjectively, their hearts in a 1-2-3 way that is comparable with their neighbors or comparable with the very same South Sudanese man when he wins an immigration lottery and gets to Albany.

Happyism: TheCreepy New Economics of Pleasure is an erudite long longread. Don’t be fooled. Do not be drawn in by its seductive start with a light Peanuts Lucy and Linus story unless you have a bit of time on your hands.  Maybe some well spent time, but is there something  you’d rather be doing that would make you—well– happy?

So, maybe you don’t  have that kind of time to spare, but still up for being provoking to think different about happyology, maybe articulating your vague discomfort with the whole thing.

Then, here is a very smart, but mercifully short blog post by Nick Brown (@sTeamTrae), the guy who wentNick Brown from relative obscurity to international attention with his thorough debunking of positive psychology’s core positivity ratio.

Nick explores the murky quantitative relationship between national happiness and antidepressant consumption. It may sound ponderous, but he is brief and will keep you amused….

Thanks for sharing, Nick.

Attaining national happiness through chemistry

Nick Brown

Apparently, Scandinavia is big in the UK right now.  (Something “foreign” is always big in the UK, it seems.)  And when something is big, the backlash will be along very soon, as exemplified by this Guardian article that I came across last week.  So far, so predictable.  But while I was reading the introductory section of that article, before getting to the dissection of the dark side of each individual Nordic country, this stood out:

[T]he Danes … claim to be the happiest people in the world, but why no mention of the fact they are second only to Iceland when it comes to consuming anti-depressants?

Hold on a minute.  When those international happiness/wellbeing surveys come out each year, Denmark is always pretty close to the top.  So I checked a couple of surveys of happiness (well-being, etc.).  The United Nations World Happiness Report 2013 [PDF] ranks Denmark #1.  The OECD Better Life Index 2013 rather coyly does not give an immediate overall ranking, but by taking the default option of weighting all the various factors equally, you get a list headed by Australia, Sweden, and Canada, with Denmark in seventh place (still not too shabby).  The OECD report adds helpful commentary ; for example, here you can read that “Denmark, Iceland and Japan feel the most positive in the OECD area, while Turkey, Estonia and Hungary show lower levels of happiness.”

Capture.2So what’s with the antidepressants?  Well, it turns out that the OECD has been researching that as well.  Here is a chart listing antidepressant consumption in 2011, in standardised doses per head of population per day, for 23 OECD member states.  Let’s see.  Denmark is pretty near the top.  (It’s not second, as mentioned in the Guardian article above, because the author of that piece was using the 2010 chart.)  And the other top consumers?  Iceland first (remember, Iceland is among the “most positive [countries] in the OECD area”), followed by Australia, Canada, and (after Denmark) Sweden.  That’s right: the top three countries for happiness according to the UN are among the top five consumers of antidepressants in the OECD’s survey(*).  And those countries showing “lower levels of happiness”?  Two of the three (Estonia and Hungary) are on the antidepressant list – right near the bottom.  Perhaps they’d be happier if they just took some more pills?

I decided to see if I could apply a little science here.  I wanted to quantify the relationship between antidepressant consumption and happiness/wellbeing/etc. So I built a dataset (available on request) with a rank-order number for each of the 23 countries in the antidepressant survey, on each of several measures.  Then I asked SPSS to give me the Spearman’s rho correlation between consumption of antidepressants and each of these measures.  Here are the results [Click on image to enlarge]:


Note that this is not a case of “everything being correlated with everything else” (Paul Meehl).  Only certain measures from the OECD survey are significantly correlated with antidepressant consumption.  (I encourage you to explore the measures that I didn’t include.)

Ah, I hear you say, but this is only correlational.  When two variables, A and B, are correlated, there are usually several possible explanations.  A might cause B, B might cause A, or A and B might be caused by C.  So in this case, consuming antidepressants might make people feel happy and healthy; or, being happy and healthy might make people consume antidepressants; or, some other social factor might cause people to consume antidepressants and report that they feel happy and healthy.  I’ll let you decide which of those sounds plausible to you.

Now, what does this prove?  Probably not very much; I’m not going to make any truth claims on the basis of some cute numbers.  After all, it’s been “shown” that autism correlates better than .99 with sales of organic food.  But here’s a thought experiment for you: Imagine what the positive psychology people would be telling us if the results had been the other way around — that is, if Australia and Denmark and Canada had the lowest levels of antidepressant consumption.  Do you think it’s just remotely possible that we might have heard something about that by now?

(*) The OECD has 34 member states, of which some, such as the USA and Switzerland, do not appear in the antidepressant consumption report.  All correlations reported in this post are based on comparisons in rank order among the 23 countries for which antidepressant consumption data are available.

Antidepressant consumption data here [XLS]
UN World Happiness Report 2013 here [PDF]
OECD Better Life Index 2013 data here