Consequences of the Relativity of Happiness

A recent blog post from one of my favorites, Stumbling and Mumbling, ponders the question of whether improving happiness could be reflected in GDP growth.  I have no issues with his argument, but a particular quote caught my eye.

“workplaces with rising employee job satisfaction also experience improvements in workplace performance.”

What is interesting about this is that rising employee satisfaction is required.  This suggests that the level of employee satisfaction is really not that important.  This mirrors the observation that satisfaction with politicians correlates with GDP growth rates and not the level of GDP.

The lesson I am drawing here is that in most arenas of life people do not use absolute metrics but compare against a somewhat arbitrary benchmark.  This fact shows up even in our physiological responses:  loudness is perceived based on average levels of noise and warmth is based on the energy flux, a function of the relative temperature difference between the body and the environment as well as other thermal properties.

Furthermore, they have very short memory.  You presided over a recession a couple years ago?  All is forgiven if GDP growth has come back.  However, benchmarking against the status quo provides a hard limit on the effect documented in the above quote.  The research only supports improved performance in the face of rising satisfaction.  It’s impossible to increase satisfaction always and forever.  Will people recalibrate and wash away the effects of the improved satisfaction?

This is a problem with all happiness maximizing philosophies.  Human beings seem to be utterly immune to permanent satisfaction and quite vulnerable to peer comparisons. The evidence is plain; despite hugely improved conditions do you think modern man is orders of magnitude happier than medieval man?  No, they see the man over there with a bigger TV or more prestigious job or prettier wife and a gaping pit of resentment and anger enters their heart.  He does not compare himself to his great great grandfather.

Interestingly, one strategy developed for happiness is to recognize things for which you are grateful.  I believe this is related to taking a broader view of your life not rooted in the narrow relativity that afflicts us.

This does not suggest we abandon such strategies that focus on happiness, but that we have to be very careful in how we define happiness and measure it.  Because we might implement some great idea that makes everyone happier and then two years later the satisfaction bump may have worn off as they ask “What have you done for me lately?”