An interesting exchange of ideas about happiness between economist Steven Levitt and statistician Andrew Gelman. Levitt wonders why more Americans don’t emigrate to India if it is supposedly a happier place (according to MTV survey [and no, I don’t vouch for the validity of the results]). Instead we see the reverse migration pattern. Gelman thinks that Levitt may have mistaken correlation for causality. People don’t necessarily choose where to live based on what would make them the most happy.

It is a puzzle that people some countries (such as India) have higher average levels of self-reported happiness than people in the U.S., yet net immigration is from India to the U.S and not the reverse. There are several possible explanations for this puzzle, including…

6. Immigration is largely about economic opportunities and family connections, and the average happiness level doesn’t really come into play. People will move to a less happy place if there are economic or family reasons to do so. (I should know, having chosen to go to college at MIT, and Levitt should know too, seeing as he teaches at the notoriously unhappy U of Chicago.)

Ah, yes, we’ve heard before about the happiness levels of UofC.

Gelman makes a good point though. Happiness may be one of the least motivating of all the factors that determine where we work or live. Many people choose to work at places that do not maximize their happiness in order to receive other rewards (economic, status or prestige, etc.). Moreover, subjective measures like job satisfaction do not seem to have much of a correlation with productivity measures. We don’t work hard because it will make us happier. The link between enjoyment and economic payoff just doesn’t seem to be very strong.

So why should we be concerned about happiness anyway? In my mind, happiness is something that most people would like to have in their lives but it’s often seen as an end state (e.g. I’ll be happy when I get this *#%*^ paper finished!) or a subjective state you hope to experience but over which you have little control. My philosophy-minded brother and I argue about this point all the time…

Written by brayden king

November 28, 2006 at 3:12 pm

3 Responses

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  1. There is also the problem with overall assessments of well being (which are heavily weighted by comparative considerations) that has been pointed out by Kahneman et al in their recent research on the “focus effect” (a subject of a previous post.
    Because overall assessments of happiness are driven by purely relative status considerations (an old Mertonian insight), there are worthless as predictors of behavior if read as absolute indicators (as Levitt seems to be doing) but can be used to predict behavior (and apparently bewildering cross-national differences) when read as purely “positional” indicators.
    Thus, the people that come from India to the U.S. and the Americans that stay in the U.S. are both attempting to maximize their happiness and are acting in a perfect rational manner. The American that were to move to India but kept her friends in Malibu as her reference group would be less happy in India; the East Indian who moves to the U.S. and improves her economic condition and keeps her friends back home as her reference group would surely be happier in the U.S. in the short term, but as she begins to compare her relative status to other Americans she would become “less” happy in the long run.



    November 28, 2006 at 4:09 pm

  2. […] From this post at orgtheory. […]


  3. […] happiness […]


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