So. It would appear that people get unhappier around my age and then get happier when they get to retire. More interestingly, Americans seem to be unhappier now than “ever before” defined very loosely. Check it:

The midlife happiness crisis. – By Joel Waldfogel – Slate Magazine

Why are we less happy now than we used to be? Do we know how to be happy?

My hypothesis: Increased opportunity leads to greater chances for failure. Past generations have outstripped any dream they could have had for themselves–explosive economic growth has meant that lives their parents couldn’t have imagined, lives they, as children, couldn’t have imagined, became suddenly possible.

Anecdotal evidence: my grandfather was the oldest of eleven, dropped out of school in the eighth grade. Worked three jobs, owned a house and saved enough money to put all five of his kids through college, despite the fact that he died at 55. In a world where life used to mean the same fate as your parents and theirs before them, for a brief period, a lot of people in each generation (5 in my dad’s family alone, not counting my grandfather, who didn’t have 11 kids) outstripped the previous generation.

My dad had a lot of opportunity. He went to Cornell, got a degree in Chemical Engineering. If he and my mom weren’t living in Shanghai, though, their life would be very similar to that of the previous generation. Owning a big house is not that qualitatively different from owning a small house, really–not for two people. All the entertainment in the world can’t provide the same overriding sense of significance and accomplishment, real, deep-seated utility and subjective well-being measurements as expanding your family’s capacity.

So economic pioneers feel really good; that’s my theory. It feels good to cross particular lines, to go from not quite having enough to having enough. There’s a huge utility jump from being unsure you’ll be able to grant your kids the freedom to live as they want to being sure you will.

For a lot of people, those lines are still there, but as a society, we no longer feel ourselves crossing that boundary. The birth of the middle class was a social welfare windfall. If we want to be happy now, we have to work for it.

Religion probably has something to do with it; it’s similar to the opportunity thing. With no opportunity, no one feels like a failure. With opportunity, lots of people do. With religion as a fundamental force in life, people can let things go, acknowledge that there’s not much they can do to change the order of things–God’s will be done. But in the falling-off of religion as an institution and the adoption of religion as life philosophy, people take responsibility for the things they shouldn’t, for the error terms in life. People feel like they are responsible for their outcomes, good or ill.

I don’t think it’s true. I’m not sure that what I’m positing is actually happening, although I think it is. I think people have turned economics into religion, but have ignored the uncertainty. This is the whole point behind “it’s not whether you win or lose; it’s how you play the game” in my view. If outcomes are y, and effort is x and characteristics are z, we can model outcomes like this: y = a + bx + cz + e. All you can control is your x. A is determined by society at large, z is nature and nurture, and e is sheer random chance. You can’t take credit or blame for y. You can only take credit or blame for x. And that’s not something anyone else can observe, really. Some of it, they can, but only you really know if you did what you could.

And if you do what you can, then for some people, society screws  you. For other, society gives you a leg up. For some people, your genetics screw you; for others, it’s a boon. The error term screws everybody sometimes. For other people, it’s the only reason they’re hanging on. You don’t have to believe in God to “give it up to God.” You just have to admit you’re powerless. I think it makes everybody happier to explicitly acknowledge the existence of the error term.

A problem arises because y is positively correlated with x, and all we get to see is y, and so if we need to hold people responsible for their actions, all we can really hold them responsible for is their outcomes.

Additionally, a problem arises if we’re relying on other people to let us know whether our level of x is sufficient or not. That kind of external measurement is not going to give us a very good estimate of the effectiveness of our level of x. The error term is probably correlated with our level of z and our level of a. So those with preternatural talent or beauty are often congratulated as though they’d expended a lot of effort, while those who try hard and fail are soundly dismissed.

In truth, x and z are probably codetermined, and so we might not be able to assume the two are even separable. This has serious implications for our approach to moral and ethical responsibility in a metaphysical sense, but I think a good justice system should be invariant to metaphysical changes in responsibility–founded on a consequentialist rather than an intentionalist structure. Only you and God know your intentions, and I don’t believe in God, and so I’d support measures to be taken based on what we observe and what we expect, rather than what we think we know.

Happiness is having a good metric of one’s own worth, and a good metric for the extent to which things are out of our control.

Any ideas on experiments or data sets that would help me look at this stuff more is greatly appreciated.

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