Edward Glaeser, Joshua Gottlieb and Oren Ziv: Maximizing Happiness Does Not Maximize Welfare

Ed Glaeser, Joshua Gottlieb and Oren Ziv have what I think you will find to be a very interesting Vox piece that features my research with Dan Benjamin, Ori Heffetz, Alex Rees Jones and Nichole Szembrot, as well as research of their own providing evidence that many people are willing to move to less happy cities (that seem to make movers less happy as well)  for the sake of a higher income or a lower standard of living. Their description of our research is admirably clear:  

Economists define utility as a measure of individuals’ preferences over potential choices. A rich tradition of welfare economics builds on this simple choice-based concept to understand how various policies affect social welfare, whether for better or for worse….

The appropriate interpretation of subjective wellbeing hinges on whether or not stated happiness measures utility. If it does not, then a policy to improve individuals’ stated happiness will not necessarily represent the choices those people would have made for themselves. In this case the policy cannot be justified based on traditional welfare analysis. 

Empirical evidence on the relationship between happiness and utility

In a series of novel experiments and surveys, Benjamin et al. (2011, 2012, 2013) conduct surveys about actual or hypothetical choices people make and measure the expected happiness associated with each choice. They find that actual choices and happiness-maximising choices are positively correlated. But they are not identical. Respondents are prepared to sacrifice happiness in furtherance of another objective, such as a higher income (Benjamin et al. 2011)….

You can see my own description of my coauthored research on the relationship of happiness and utility, including links to current, ungated copies of the papers, in my post “My Experiences with Gary Becker.” There are several important things Ed, Joshua and Orin don’t mention about that research. The most important is that our team is working hard to figure out how to do a National Well Being index right, including thinking through how to do interpersonal aggregation in a practical, but theoretically justifiable way.  

I hope you have noticed that one of the sub-blogs I link to ad my sidebar is my Happiness Sub-Blog, that contains all of my posts (and only my posts) that are tagged “happiness.” For those of you reading on your smartphone, who don’t see the sidebar, here is that link:

Posts on Happiness

Including this one, and counting each Quartz column once, there are now 20 posts in my Happiness Sub-Blog.