More on happiness, television, and public policy

Before launching into his suggestion to defer the task of maximizing societal, and by extension individual, happiness to governments through public policy, Layard presents a few interesting studies in his book Happiness. Among them, the following which measures the effects on individual happiness and perceived income from amount of television watched:

The more television people watch, the more they overestimate the affluence of other people. And the lower they rate their own relative income. The result is that they are less happy. For as we have seen, happiness depends much more on how you perceive your relative income than on what your relative income actually is. Since television has a negative impact on your perceived position, it is bad for your happiness.

There is also the evidence of behaviour: on one estimate an extra hour a week watching television causes you to spend an extra $4 a week…*

In an appendix (6.1) posted on his website, Layard presents the regression equation in support of the above [link]: 

H = f(HH income variables, perceived relative income, hrs TV watched/day, age, gender, etc…)

Where H is the level of happiness reported by the individual on a scale from 1-3, 3 being ‘very happy,’ 2 being ‘pretty happy,’ and 1 being ‘not that bad’

The coefficient on the variable for hours of television watched per day is reported to be –0.7, and is statisitcally significant with a t-stat of 10. So, each additional hour of television watched by the average individual in the sample (22,000 observations) results in a reduction in his happiness score by almost a full scale point –and, there are only three scale points to speak of –on average, holding all other variables constant, etc.

…Viewing may also reduce our happiness with our bodies, and with our spouses. The psychologist Douglas Kenrick showed women a series of pictures of female models. He evaluated their mood before and after they looked at the pictures. After seeing the models, the women’s mood fell.

…As part of the same experiments, pictures of models were shown to a sample of men.  Kenrick evaluated their feelings about their wives before and after each presentation. After seeing the presentation, most men felt less good about their wives.**

I’m not a fan of Layard’s suggestion that public policy take on the role of conduit for nudging individuals to become “impartial spectators,” or a means by which society can streamline the adoption of a common moral principle. I don’t disagree with the notion that a common moral principle would be valuable, however I do think that institutionalizing happiness, or regulating activities in individuals’ lives that directly or indirectly result in reaping happiness, would strip the unexpected joys out of life, and thus undermine the premise. By virtue of aiming to maximize societal happiness through laws/regulations, such public policy would seem to explain our joys Psychological experiments conducted on individuals show that “explanation robs events of their emotional impact because it makes them seem likely and allows [individuals] to stop thinking about them. Oddly enough, an explanation doesn’t actually have to explain anything to have these effects –it merely needs to seem as though it does.”***

In response to criticism to the public policy suggestion in the book, Layard responds with Ormerod offers no alternative. He just wants the government to keep out of happiness and avoid the dangers of information failure, even if in the meantime we are becoming no happier. This makes no sense. It is like looking for the keys under the lamppost because it is easier to look there.” [link]

In the case of public policy, and government intrusion into individuals’ decision making, yes, it would be better to just do nothing. Individual existence is already heavily regulated. Thinking within the maze of regulatory walls the government has set for us expends such energy that we just outsource much of the process to the government (retirement, healthcare, education, etc.). Within the encroaching limits we’re becoming increasingly trapped with fewer choices, aside from killing our handcuffed creativity with television, among other things. 

“Look around you and look at history. You will see the achievements of man’s mind. You will see that man is not a helpless monster by nature, but he becomes one when he discards that faculty: his mind.”

–Ayn Rand, from her interview with Alvin Toffler published in the March 1964 issue of Playboy.

(for a truly insightful book on happiness, causes of, mental processes regarding, etc. consider Dan Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness):

*Layard cites: Schor, J. (1999), The Overspent American: Upscaling, Downshifting and the New Consumer, New York: HarperCollins.
**Layard cites the work of D. Kenrick circa 1989 (“Influence of popular erotica on judgments of strangers and mates”) and 1993 (“Effects of physical attractiveness on affect and perceptual judgments: When social comparison overrides social reinforcement”).
***From Dan Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness; Gilbert cites Wilson et al., “Pleasures of Uncertainty” for the empirical evidence.