Power Beats Happiness

From Time‘s new cover:   TimeCover1

If women had known that more power would be bundled with less happiness, would they have knowingly chosen this bundle?  Seems to me the obvious answer is: yes, if they had made the choice incrementally and in private, and hence in near mode.   But perhaps no, if they had made the choice visibly together all at once for a distant future, in far mode.   People seem to choose other things over happiness all the time, but this is somewhat at odds with their ideal self-conception.  Ideally people say they want happiness, but really they choose power.   Which choice reflects their “real” preference?

The new data showing women are less happy is from Wolfers and Stevenson – more here.

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  • wesley

    But doesn’t power beat happiness only because people think (even if mistakenly) that they’ll get more happiness out of more power?

  • This post by Mark Lieberman and the first graph of the preprint of Wolfers and Stevenson seem to show conclusively that statements like “The new data showing women are less happy” are pretty misleading.

    • I don’t find that post very persuasive.

      • Did you see the graph? I would see love to see you debating Liberman (misspelled his name the first time) on this point.

  • Mike

    This reminds me of the “Grand Inquisitor” discussion that went on the other day at Yglesias’s blog.

  • anon

    Agree with Wesley. People seem to be quite ignorant about the determinants of long-term life satisfaction. I don’t see this as a near mode/far mode divide.

    • I asked very explicitly what folks would choose if they knew the consequences.

      • gwern

        Do you really think that’s enough? It’s not like people are going to say, ‘oh, *assume* I know the consequences? Gosh, I was just going to make the irrational choice, but I guess I’ll do better now!’ Why would just having some abstract, disputable survey results significantly change anything?

  • Psychohistorian

    “Ideally people say they want happiness, but really they choose power.”

    Are they really choosing power, or are they choosing status, or what their parents would want them to choose, or what they think will cause other people to respect them, or what they think will make them happy? I certainly agree that, if people really want happiness, they do a pretty poor job of making good choices. But it’s a big leap from, “People do not effectively pursue happiness” to “People prefer other things to being happy,” and another big one to, “Specifically, people prefer power over happiness.”

  • cacarr

    How useful or relevant is this “happiness,” folk psychological construct? It seems to me very decomposable. “Power” is a matter of access to high quality mates.

  • CJ

    In what sense would women have been able to make the choice collectively? I do not understand this option. How are you envisioning it? I mean, people being individuals and all has historically made it rather hard for them to come to an agreement when there are at least two subpopulations in vociferous disagreement. So I am unclear in what sense you’re lumping women together to make this far-sighted choice.

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  • People seem to choose other things over happiness all the time

    I attribute this largely to genes.

    Why are women attracted to Bad Boys–the very worst choice if what they’re seeking is a happy marriage?

    Because bad boys bring in a lot of mastodon meat. So women who are naturally attracted to them and mate with them will have sons who bring in a lot of mastodon meat. And so on.

    Ditto: bad boys will be better at eradicating neighboring tribes, and taking the adolescent women as “wives.” So women who are naturally attracted to them and mate with them will have sons who… You get the idea.

    But women today don’t like mastodon meat, or gang rape. Even so, they keep choosing them over happy marriages…


    • upvote

    • Psychohistorian

      It’s fun to think that the male provider, female homemaker, nuclear family model dates back to before the 1950’s, but it isn’t really true. Humans relied much more on extended families and tribes, and women did a substantial portion of food acquisition.

      There’s also little reason to believe that “bad boys” did, in fact, bring back more proverbial bacon, or that they would consistently provide more of it to their mate/offspring.

      More likely explanations for the women liking “bad boys” involve availability bias, viewing a non-representative sample, and recently evolved cultural concepts of masculinity/femininity.

      • The romance novel industry keeps a close watch on what plot lines do and do not sell; and after decades of intense scrutiny of the sales figures for different novels, they have concluded that women definitely like books about bad boys.

        How recently is “recently evolved”? Wuthering Heights was published in 1847.

  • curious

    thx much for the data, Ewout. Figure 1 says it all.

  • Addison Stuart

    Because power and happiness are mutually exclusive? Using the word “bundled” does not draw a correlation. Also, even if you are able to illustrate a correlation, it certainly would not be a causation. People in general, not just women, are less happy now.

  • Power and happiness are in such different ontological categories that it might not make sense to talk about choosing between them. Power is something you can possess. Happiness is a momentary reward signal for a positive change in your circumstances; it’s more like the first derivative of your utility function. Improving your circumstances makes you happy temporarily; but unless that improvement facilitates future improvements, it probably makes it harder for you to be happy and easier to be sad in the future.

    • So if there is a decrease in the happiness of women, it could be because, not in spite of, their increasing power. They have higher expectations, and better circumstances, probably meaning it takes larger successes to make them happy.

  • Grant

    It seems easy to trade wealth and power for hapiness. It seems much more difficult to do the opposite, if need be. Therefore the acquisition of wealth and power may be a better long-term investment to overall happiness.

    …and isn’t this what people more or less do? They work hard to provide for themselves and their loved ones, and then they retire and try to trade that wealth for happiness.

  • Nicole

    What a joke.