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Happiness and economics Economics discovers its feelings Dec 19th 2006 From The Economist print edition Not quite as dismal as it was ECONOMICS is “not a ‘gay science’,” wrote Thomas Carlyle in 1849. No, it is “a dreary, desolate, and indeed quite abject and distressing one; what we might call, by way of eminence, the dismal science.” Carlyle was a fine one to talk. He was a brooding curmudgeon who thundered against industry, progress and the young science that sought to explain them. He found economists dismal not for the obvious reasons, such as their dry arithmetic or their gloomy preoccupation with scarcity and subsistence. Instead, he took against them because they were so wedded to the idea of happiness. The economists of his day took their cue from Jeremy Bentham and his “utilitarian” philosophy. They calculated happiness, or utility, as the sum of good feelings minus bad, and argued that the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain were the sole springs of human action. One even looked forward to the invention of a hedonimeter, a “psychophysical machine” that would record the ups and downs of a man's feelings just as a thermometer might plot his temperature. Such people, Carlyle complained, fancied that man was a “dead Iron-Balance for weighing Pains and Pleasures on”. The hedonimeter was never invented, and for a century or so economists fell silent about both weights on man's scales. They studied outward behaviour, not inward feelings; choices made, not pleasures taken. But in recent years, economists have become newly confident that they can measure utility as Bentham conceived it: as a quantum of pleasure or pain. How do they do it? Mostly they just ask people. Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist at Princeton University who won the Nobel prize for economics in 2002, reckons people are not as mysterious as less nosy economists supposed. “The view that hedonic states cannot be measured because they are private events is widely held but incorrect,” he and his colleagues argue. About sponsorship Page 1 of 5 Economist.com 1/8/2007 http://economist.com/finance/PrinterFriendly.cfm?story_id=8401269
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Generally, people can say how they feel at a given moment, on a scale of zero to ten. And if this smacks of hearsay not science, the new “hedonimetrists” can appeal to other kinds of evidence, better calculated to impress. They can look into people's eyes; or better still, their brains. People who confess to feeling happy also grin more than others. And they mean it: they smile with their eyes (a contraction of the orbicularis oculi facial muscles), not just their mouths. People's self-reports also tally roughly with what electrodes planted on their scalp reveal about the frequency and voltage of electrical waves in their left forebrain, which sparks up when they are feeling good. Mr Kahneman's most notorious experiment took place in a Toronto hospital over a decade ago. He and a colleague asked
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This note was uploaded on 04/11/2009 for the course ECON 102 taught by Professor Serra during the Winter '08 term at UCLA.

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