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Sweet fruits and the bed

May 13, 2016

Presumably, nobody would call the late Peter Alexander a protest singer; rather, he will be remembered as the musical incarnation of the "golden Viennese heart". Still, there are positively prophetic undertones of social criticism in at least two of his songs. As early as in the 1960s—at a time when the real earnings of top managers were a tenth as high as they are today—he claimed that one must get up high in order to enjoy the sweetest fruits. And in another song he unashamedly romanticized the bed as being the coziest and nicest place on earth. This may be perfectly understandable, but where is the social criticism?

Research on happiness factors has produced rather sobering results so far. Even variables that are considered to be crucially important, e.g. somebody's earnings, marital status, educational background or employment status, help explain, at best, only 15% of the differences in individual happiness levels. What about the rest?

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Daniel Kahneman, who has been awarded the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, argued that data collection methods were to blame for this weak correlation. Most surveys focus on "global" happiness in the sense of "How happy and satisfied are you overall?" The problem with such retrospective analyses of the big picture is that the positives and the negatives tend to fade, resulting in highly inaccurate outcomes. According to Kahneman, measuring the positive and negative feelings and emotions experienced during specific episodes of the day would make the differences much more apparent. His reasoning is based on the plausible assumption that rich people, for instance, frequently go to "feel-good places" such as golf courses or restaurants, while the not-so-wealthy spend their free time watching television or queuing up in the supermarket. Hence, one would expect episodic measurements to produce clearer evidence of the happiness-inducing effects of affluence.

However, exactly the opposite has turned out to be the case. Beyond a certain basic level, the results of measuring the positive and negative feelings and emotions experienced during diverse episodes of the day as well as the aggregate balance of affect (positive affect minus negative affect) derived therefrom show virtually no differences between individuals who are wealthy, educated, spoken for, employed, etc. and their counterparts who fare less well off in these respects. In other words, what makes the sweetest fruits enjoyable is not so much their particular sweetness but the fact that one does not have to go hungry. Beyond a basic level, which is fairly low, the meager 15% difference in individual global happiness seems to be attributable to people's naive theories about everyday life (along the lines of: "I am rich, so I am fine") rather than the feelings and emotions they actually experience.

And this is where the bed comes in: what effect will additional earnings of 60,000 dollars annually have on somebody's episodic quality of life compared to an extra hour of sleep (six hours or less as opposed to seven hours or more). There is research evidence to suggest that getting an additional hour of sleep will improve one's quality of life FOUR (!) times as much as earning an extra 60,000 dollars per year. Bearing this in mind, Peter Alexander was perfectly right never to claim that those who get up high have it cozy and nice.

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