Scott Sumner on Utility vs Happiness [Link]

by Nic_Smith1 min read12th Jan 201115 comments


Personal Blog

A distinction that some people grok right away and some others may not realize exists:

Imagine a country called “Lanmindia,” where much of the population has seen its legs blown off in horrible accidents.  Does that sound like a pretty miserable place?  Happiness research suggests not.  The claim is that there is a sort of natural “set-point” for happiness, and that after winning a lottery one is happy for a short time, and then you revert right back to your natural happiness level.  I find that plausible.  They also claim that if someone loses a limb, then they are unhappy for a short period and then revert back to normal.  I find that implausible, but if the evidence says it is the case then I guess I need to accept that.

My claim is that although Lanmindia is just as happy as America, it has much lower utility.  Let’s define ’utility’ as ”that which people maximize.”  People very much don’t want to have their legs blown off, and hence emigrate from Lanmindia in droves.  People behave as if they care about utility, not happiness.

-Scott Sumner, "Nonsense on stilts: Part 1.  What if utility and happiness are unrelated?" TheMoneyIllusion

This is also somewhat a reply to Hanson's "Lift Up Your Eyes" on Overcoming Bias. Some people on LessWrong are careful to make the distinction between ordinal utility, cardinal utility, and fuzzies, and others aren't quite so much. The above sentence on accepting evidence and the post script that he is not serious about one part of the post might also make interesting conversation -- part two is advice to move next door to a child molester for cheaper housing if you don't have a kid and part three is about The Fed taking advantage of banks.

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The happiness-satisfaction split is an old one in happiness research, and it seems better to use "satisfaction" than "utility," because it's easier to imagine and care about. We can see why a billionaire might be more satisfied than a janitor, even if they both smile the same amount.

Good call. ISTM that "satisfaction" is a far better term for making the point intuitively compelling.

[-][anonymous]10y 9

This is a good point that I keep hitting but somehow hasn't percolated to everyone I know yet. You can report being happy despite enduring things that most people consider calamities: serious illness or injury, dire poverty, lack of personal freedom, and so on.

I don't know whether someone has done this at the neurological level -- do poor Mexicans who report happiness have similar brain activity to affluent Americans who report happiness? Are poor or sick people really feeling happy, or just reluctant to complain? But let's take the least convenient possible world, and assume that reported happiness pretty much coincides with a neurological state of happy feelings. Even so, "happiness" is a pretty bizarre measure of well-being.

Optimizing for "happiness," according to the results of happiness research, would be a very odd way to live. You would certainly lower your own chances of survival (since you wouldn't be trying hard to avoid injury, sickness, or poverty.) Evolution wouldn't select for it (since having children makes you less happy.)

This is why I think that the "happiness" of happiness research is probably not useful for inspiring public policy or changes in one's private life. It's hard to define what humans do, or should, value. But because we are living things, any human values worthy of the name should almost certainly include "increase the probability of staying alive." If a value system doesn't assign negative points to losing limbs or going hungry, it's probably a bad idea to make major decisions on that basis.

Maximizing (non-steeply-discounted) total life happiness does imply trying to survive.

Basing public policy on happiness research sounds terrible to me, but I would expect that most individuals could become significantly happier without compromising other values if they knew how.

Let’s define ’utility’ as ”that which people maximize.” ... People behave as if they care about utility, not happiness.

I think that this conclusion is of limited depth.

A slightly deeper conclusion is that we tend to care about other people's utility more than their happiness (for example I would not consider 'they won't be unhappy about it for long' an acceptable justification for blowing people's legs off).

This is sloppy thinking -- I find the example much more easily explained by the fact that happiness is a vague metric, that we can't easily affect directly, while number of legs is a concrete metric and an amputation measurably decreases said number.

But if you ask me whether I'd prefer to be happy and legless, or constantly sad and legged, and I'd answer the former. So since I'd prefer the former, how can you say that the latter has more utility?

I didn't say it had more utility. I merely said the having legs has utility regardless of its relation to happiness, as shown by the fact that even people who know that losing their legs will not make them unhappy for long will still put a lot of effort into not losing their legs.

Happiness also has utility, and in your case it clearly has more. All I am saying is that it is not the only thing to have utility, and that if I am feeling altruistic it is other people's utility, rather than their happiness, that I protect.

Besides, happiness is easy to increase directly, recreational drugs spring to mind.

'Utility' is 'that which is maximized', then. That is pretty standard.

I think the literature on this point is complicated. Wikipedia defines utility as " a measure of relative satisfaction ." A hypothetical crack addict might maximize his consumption of crack without much "satisfaction" or "happiness." Or maybe not, depending on the definitions used.

Hmm. would conclude that they had some kind of preference for consuming crack - but yes, defining utility in subjective terms is pretty vague - and it allows all kinds of positions to be argued.

It's a common misconception that you revert to your happiness set point. What the credible data actually shows is that partial reversion occurs. Getting rich or having your legs blown off really does make you more or less happy in the long run, just not as much as one might guess from imagining the (very intense) initial reaction.

[-][anonymous]9y 0

Could you give me some data or link? I would very much like to see it.

Sorry, I have long forgotten the relevant links.

True, but it would also be a serious mistake to suppose that utility-the-thing-we-care-about is very accurately described by revealed preference (not that I particularly doubt the correctness of the decision mentioned to move to the US).

Speaking of Mexico (and Nigeria, etc.), does anyone know offhand how demographically and socioeconomically proportionate happiness studies usually are?