Further thoughts on progress and happiness

As I expected, many people missed the point of my previous post. Some people used examples like modern dentistry to make the argument for progress. That completely misses my point. I may be wrong, but not because I don’t understand that modern dentistry reduces teeth pain.  Unfortunately, it makes broken fingernails hurt even more.

If you went back to the Stone Age, or if you visited a primitive tribe today, you’d meet people who would brush off ailments that you’d be crying and whining about to your doctor. They were much tougher than us. Indeed when I do construction, or spend a week camping, I become more impervious to pain than when I have a cushy office job.

Pain is nature’s way of encouraging us to avoid trouble. But while Americans of 2019 objectively experience less “pain” than those of 1919 or 1819, we subjectively suffer just as much from pain.  The pain “thermostat” adjusts to the conditions in which you live.  And that’s not just true of pain; it’s true of many things.  You might be programmed to be angry during 4.3% of your life.  If there’s nothing bad happening to you, then you’ll start getting angry over trivial things.

Similarly, having all these nice gadgets is great, but they devalue the previous gadgets we bought and hence don’t make us happier. That seems obvious to me.

So why do I advocate utilitarian public policies? Two reasons:

1. I might be wrong about progress and happiness.
2. The public policies I advocate make us happier for reasons having nothing to do with “progress” as usually defined. That requires some explanation.

Let’s take rent control. The primary reason why I oppose rent control, minimum wages and similar laws has little to do with the standard pros and cons in an econ textbook. Rather these restrictive controls encourage landlords and bosses to act like jerks.

I suspect that people in Stone Age tribes treated each other with a certain degree of respect. (Albeit only within the tribe).  As population boomed, humanity developed political structures that caused people to be mean to each other. Feudalism, slavery, communism, fascism, etc., encourage people to act like jerks.

I see liberalism as a way of returning to the Stone Age, where we treat each other with some respect. When people are free and transactions are voluntary, then people will be incentivized to treat each other well.

One side effect of classical liberalism is that it makes societies richer.  But that’s not the main point.

So you could argue that political liberalism is a sort of “progress”, making us progress back to where we were in the Stone Age.  But I hope we can advance beyond cavemen in one respect.  Get rid of tribes, get rid of nationalism, and treat everyone on Earth as belonging to a single global tribe.

PS.  My view of the Stone Age may be factually incorrect, but that has no bearing on my current political views.



32 Responses to “Further thoughts on progress and happiness”

  1. Gravatar of David R. Henderson David R. Henderson
    30. November 2019 at 16:49

    You write:
    Let’s take rent control. The primary reason why I oppose rent control, minimum wages and similar laws has little to do with the standard pros and cons in an econ textbook. Rather these restrictive controls encourage landlords and bosses to act like jerks.

    But you also argue that we get used to pain. So in your world (not in mine), how bad is that really?

  2. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    30. November 2019 at 16:57

    David, That’s hard to say.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m very much in favor of trying to reduce pain.

  3. Gravatar of Todd Kreider Todd Kreider
    30. November 2019 at 18:31

    First, the claim that we experience as much subjective pain as in 1819 is just stated as fact. In cold climates, people experienced the discomfort of coldness far more hours or minutes in winter than today. How would someone subjectively feel as uncomfortable today with central heating and warm cars as in 1819 when almost everyone was exposed to the cold most of the day and into the night?

    Second, what is a gadget? Is that just a small contraption where a car is one such contraption? How is it obvious that the utility of gadget 2 cancel out the utility of gadget 1? Did a small cell phone with a 10 hour battery life in 1999 provide the same utility as a brick size phone in 1989? Did a laptop with the internet in 1999 provide the same utility as a laptop in 1993 without the internet?

  4. Gravatar of M Koehler M Koehler
    30. November 2019 at 21:33

    Thank you for this and the prior post. It is always reassuring that you are not alone in your thoughts.

  5. Gravatar of ChrisA ChrisA
    1. December 2019 at 06:35

    Scott, I think it is wrong to say we have a set point in terms of pain. We don’t have to guess about this, people with chronic pain have much higher levels of depression for instance. Similarly we can see a strong correlation between reported happiness and gdp in poorer countries, it is only in rich countries that it flattens down. So it is highly likely that people one hundred years ago were less happy than us as they were considerably poorer.

  6. Gravatar of bill bill
    1. December 2019 at 07:15

    How would you evaluate air pollution? I chose air pollution because I’m thinking of pollution that we can’t smell or see. But one that causes higher death rates and probably other ailments short of death.

  7. Gravatar of dtoh dtoh
    1. December 2019 at 08:04


    I think you have a pretty romanticized view of Stone Age people.

  8. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    1. December 2019 at 08:19

    Todd, You are missing the point. We all agree that modern phones are better, that’s not the issue.

    Chris, People with chronic pain generally recall when they didn’t have chronic pain. I’m talking about an entirely different society, with a different set of expectations. Are you saying that there is much less “depression” now than in the past? What evidence do you have for that? I’m skeptical.

    Bill, Air pollution is bad, it shortens lives.

    dtoh, That’s right, I do.

  9. Gravatar of Larry Larry
    1. December 2019 at 10:05

    Apparently the Stone Age was indeed better than what followed:


    Separately, I’ve been wondering about whether quality adjusted life years might be a better measure of welfare than GDP. The more the better? I’m thinking it would handle oddities like how the arrival of self driving cars and the end of car ownership will increase welfare but destroy the automobile industry bit by reducing the number of vehicles needed. Same with a cheap cancer preventer.

  10. Gravatar of bill bill
    1. December 2019 at 10:05

    I know air pollution shortens lives. 🙂
    What I meant was, do you view the reduction of air pollution as progress? I do.

    I mostly/partially agree with your idea. I think we do acclimate to many improvements. I just think the acclimation is partial. So yes, people today will say they are freezing when it’s 66 degrees indoors. They won’t like it. But I think they don’t feel as bad about it as someone 200 years ago felt when it was 20 degrees indoors.

  11. Gravatar of Todd Kreider Todd Kreider
    1. December 2019 at 11:00

    “Todd, You are missing the point. We all agree that modern phones are better, that’s not the issue.”

    Scott, but you are stating as fact without any evidence that it is obvious that for happiness sake people should not buy the small phone with a long battery life because people (exactly) “devalue the previous [phone] we bought and hence don’t make us happier.” Circular reasoning.

  12. Gravatar of P Burgos P Burgos
    1. December 2019 at 17:10

    Hasn’t medicine gotten better than it was 100 years ago? 40 years ago? I agree with Larry, QALYs seem like the most straight forward way to measure progress. And when looking at progress, limiting yourself just to the US seems arbitrary. I think a more natural grouping would be all developed countries, or even maybe just all countries. The US is one country that has seen a rise in drug overdoses. Without that, I am pretty sure that healthspan and lifespan are rising in the US. And that is certainly the case if you widen your frame of reference to look at at the entire world. Cell phones may not be a big deal in the US hedonically, but I do believe that in developing countries that they have had a material impact in reducing real material deprivation (i.e. fewer people with inadequate nutrition). Same with solar panels.

  13. Gravatar of ChrisA ChrisA
    1. December 2019 at 20:56

    Scott – Were people in the past born into pain? I don’t think so. So they would also recall a past without pain. It is pretty instructive I think to read biographies of 18C and 19C people (I just read one of Peter the Great for instance), how many of them were in terrible pain towards the end of their lives. But, taking Czar Peter as an example, they were healthy and in very good shape in the early part of their lives. My contention is that chronic pain makes people depressed. And there were a lot more people in chronic pain in the past. So more people were depressed due to chronic pain in the past. As I said earlier, we can also look at societies less developed than our own existing today, and guess what, we find that they indeed have much lower levels of happiness than ours. Isn’t that a damming point for your set point hypothesis?

  14. Gravatar of Carl Carl
    2. December 2019 at 09:02

    The argument that the free market makes people more civil is lost on a lot of people. I like to contrast the atmosphere of my local farmer’s market with that of the DMV.

  15. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    2. December 2019 at 10:31

    Larry, You said:

    “Apparently the Stone Age was indeed better than what followed:”

    That’s pretty broadly accepted today. Life was very difficult for ancient farmers, and indeed their health was much worse than that of hunter-gatherers. Farmers also had less freedom.

    Bill, I view the reduction in air pollution as progress.

    Todd, No, that’s not my argument. Progress is a “collective action problem”. If I don’t buy the phone, then my phone is worse than my neighbor’s. I feel bad. But what if the phone had never been invented?

    Burgos, You said:

    “Hasn’t medicine gotten better than it was 100 years ago?”

    Yes, and so what?

    As far as developing countries, I agree that the case for “progress” is much stronger, as it improves people’s material well being, even life expectancy. Cell phones don’t make Americans live longer. I doubt they even make us happier.

    Chris, I’m just not convinced that people were more depressed in the past, or that people in Mali today are more depressed than people in Finland. Again, there was more pain in an objective physical sense, but the amount of pain that was subjectively experienced was probably about the same.

    In the past people often died quickly, now we torture them for months and years with “modern medicine”. I’ve seen cancer sufferers suffer greatly for months, despite all the “painkillers” we have today. Just like Peter the Great.

    That’s not to say I don’t think we should try to reduce pain, I do believe it’s important. But I’m agnostic on the ultimate effect for society as a whole. Certainly there are individual cases of people who are happier due to modern medicine.

    I’m pro-progress precisely because I’m agnostic on this question.

    Carl, Good example.

  16. Gravatar of Michael Rulle Michael Rulle
    2. December 2019 at 10:35

    Since we are in hyper-imagination mode——this essay reminds me of a dream induced brilliant insight which required a need to right it all down right away so as to not forget. But then upon reading it the next morning I had no idea what I wrote, or why it was so important.

    But, I have a blog—so I will post it!!! 🙂

  17. Gravatar of Michael Rulle Michael Rulle
    2. December 2019 at 10:44

    I did mean “write” it all down——but what difference does it make!

  18. Gravatar of Scott H. Scott H.
    2. December 2019 at 11:45

    Meh. I’ve heard people talk about how “at least they have free health care” to describe the quality of life in North Korea. Then I’ve heard accounts of how defecting North Koreans have difficulty adapting to the pace of life in South Korea. Lesson: anyone can say anything — especially overconfident 60+ year olds. (Well maybe the last part of the lesson comes from my family Thanksgiving visit more than my previous arguments. Trust me — you don’t want to know all the details — it’s right.)

    I’m not saying right now is the greatest of everything. Smart phones are a totally new phenomenon. So is social media. I’m sure we’re dealing with varying degrees of our Hegelian dialectic on those issues.

    The key can be found in our choices. There are so many more choices to go forward than there are to go back. It’s not even close.

  19. Gravatar of JonB JonB
    2. December 2019 at 19:32

    Consider germane to the mood of the above…..

    The greatest advance in utilitarian happiness in modern history is 20 mg of Prozac for $10 for a 90 day supply at Walmart. For 33c a day, a small percentage of the 5-10% of the population with both severe and subsyndromal gloom is a lot better. Better than any expensive material good or complicated social success could provide.

    And the marginal revolution continues…Its unstoppable….Every year the biochemistry of depression and bipolar and psychosis treatment gets better. And cheaper. In a 100 years, our children will look back and wonder about things like school shooters, megalomaniac world leaders, and what is presumed to be the normative depression of getting old.

  20. Gravatar of ChrisA ChrisA
    2. December 2019 at 22:02

    @JonB, I don’t know about prozac (I hear there is controversy about whether or not it actually works) but your overall point I agree with. If materialism and pain alleviation have reached the end of their capability to improve happiness then there are almost certainly other methods. I think it is true that some people are happy almost regardless of their circumstances and some people are sad even when their personal circumstances are objectively good (which is a weak version of Scott’s hypothesis that we have a happiness set point). If we could understand why this is so, we could probably improve happiness for those sad people. Maybe it is biochemical, or maybe it is some other reason that we can develop strategies for. But I believe it is a problem we can solve. I would like to recommend again David Deutsch’s Beginning of Infinity for further optimism on this point.

    Scott – I am afraid your set point hypothesis has been demolished so you are no retreating to saying that people in the past suffered less pain. Personally I don’t think this is true, yes there are some instances today of people in pain due to being kept alive, but I would say this is much less than before, the time duration they are in terrible pain is shorter, and good painkillers are available for those people. I have lived in many poor developing countries, and the amount of pain that people live with on a long term basis was much more than in the West due to lack of adequate medical care. I also think it is very significantly more worse when a young child dies in pain than an old person as well, especially for the close relatives. And why don’t you believe self reported happiness? Are you saying that Venezuelans are lying when they say they are miserable? Why is there such a good relationship between GDP and self reported happiness at the low end? Surely if it is just cultural bias then we would see a random association.

  21. Gravatar of Tom Brown Tom Brown
    3. December 2019 at 10:19

    Does that illustration depict what life is like in Mission Viejo?

  22. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    3. December 2019 at 12:28

    Jon, That’s certainly a much stronger argument than the claim that more gadgets makes us happier. I don’t know enough about anti-depressants to have an informed opinion on how they work. What does Scott Alexander say?

    Chris, Doesn’t Central America score highest on happiness surveys:


    Venezuela has been going downhill, so of course they are not happy. They recall better times.

    You seem to think that very sick people today don’t suffer from chromic pain. I assure you that they do.

    Tom, No, the Bora Bora airline poster a couple posts back show what it’s like here.

  23. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    3. December 2019 at 15:48


    1) You sound as if you have a depressive mood. Or even more.

    2) Your view of Stone Age people is indeed incredibly romanticized.

    3) Bonus question: Why did they become farmers in the first place when their lives were so brilliant? I read the entries from Scott Alexander about this, if I remember correctly he isn’t convinced at all that life in the Stone Age was better. (And if he is I can’t help him.)

    We see something similar even today with indigenous peoples: most adapt extremely quickly to modern life as soon as they come into contact with it. I’m not talking about coercion here, but the cases of voluntary contact without any coercion.

    4) Suicide rates don’t go up. This story comes every year in the media. For 50 years. It makes a “great” story but it’s fake news. The rates hardly differ.

    5) A fuzzy and subjective term like “happiness” is not necessarily a good indicator for anything.

    6) Even if it were a good indicator, you admit that there have been huge changes. You say that we are good at adapting and that our “thermostat” has adapted multiple times. But then you admit that there have been relevant changes in the first place.

    7) You sound a bit like Marx, who also romanticized Stone Age people terribly. I consider myself conservative, but what you wrote is more than that, it’s reactionary.

    8) Maybe one only has to ask oneself a very simple question: At what time do you want to live?

    If you say the Stone Age or even the 1930s, you are really depressed. People seem to forget really fast how life was back then. Go to a good retirement home from time to time, the old people there tell interesting stories.

  24. Gravatar of Enoch A Lambert Enoch A Lambert
    3. December 2019 at 19:15

    A single global tribe–yes! Tribes don’t treat their members like strangers in a marketplace, or each other like boss-employees. They assist the unfortunate in being able to thrive and find places for the talents and quirks of each.

  25. Gravatar of Christopher Moore Christopher Moore
    3. December 2019 at 19:53

    wow, glad to have come here from Marginal Revolution. Great to see a 949 denizen in the economics blogosphere. As to this post, have you read Nassim Taleb’s work on mild stressors making a system antifragile? He makes the same point as you.

  26. Gravatar of JL JL
    4. December 2019 at 04:28


    You raise very valid questions, but I remain unconvinced about your conclusions.

    It does seem that a minimum level of misery is required to enable happiness and it could very well be that for optimal utility we need to account for this.

    As for the respect thing, while I agree that e.g. rent control leads to undesirable outcomes, it is obviously desired by many people. Instead of telling them that what they want is bad, it is better to identify what they want (good, affordable housing) and provide a better solution to achieve that.

  27. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    4. December 2019 at 22:23

    Christian, Why even bother commenting?

    Christopher, I haven’t read that, but I should.

    JL, You said:

    “Instead of telling them that what they want is bad, it is better to identify what they want (good, affordable housing) and provide a better solution to achieve that.”

    Why not both?

  28. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    5. December 2019 at 07:01

    Scott, Typical question of a depressed person. The real question is: Why not?

  29. Gravatar of ChrisA ChrisA
    5. December 2019 at 09:22

    Scott – the link you provide is for “positive events per day”, not happiness. Plus it is from the Independent, which is not a reliable source for anything (think Buzfeed but less reliable). Here is a better link, which indicates the strong link between “life satisfaction” and happiness.


  30. Gravatar of ChrisA ChrisA
    5. December 2019 at 09:24

    To help you, this is the graph of interest;


  31. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    5. December 2019 at 10:21

    Chris, thank you so much. Finally the real data and not the gut feelings and misunderstandings of Scott. Almost every graphic in your link is gold.

    “(Mis)Perceptions about the happiness of others” also presents great results. They don’t even have a good final explanation for it, but the finding in itself is gold.

  32. Gravatar of Bob OBrien Bob OBrien
    5. December 2019 at 22:35

    Scott said:

    “That’s not to say I don’t think we should try to reduce pain, I do believe it’s important. But I’m agnostic on the ultimate effect for society as a whole. Certainly there are individual cases of people who are happier due to modern medicine”

    When I was 28 I had a severe sciatic pain in my back that made me miserable and unhappy for a couple years. Then I had an operation and have been pain free in my back for the last 40 years. I am just one person but my guess is that there are many millions who have had experiences like mine. Us millions are much happier in these modern times!

    I think health insurance/care is the single most important political issue of our time (“…agnostic on the ultimate effect for society as a whole.” ??) and by far the biggest reason people living today are more happy than in the past.

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