Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Does a positive-sum attitude promote happiness?

I finished a recent post wondering whether there is any evidence that people who view life as a positive-sum game are generally happier that those who view it as a zero-sum game. I have not been able to find any direct survey evidence relating to this question. However, there are two different avenues of research that seem to me to be relevant.

The first is a study by Bruce Headey using German panel data which assesses the effects of different life goals on happiness (“Life goals matter to happiness”, Discussion paper 639, DIW, 2006). Headey suggests that goals relating to personal success can be viewed as zero-sum, whereas altruistic goals and goals relating to family life are positive-sum goals. The rationale for this classification is the view that a lot of success goals involve competition to acquire positional goods – as in the game of “monopoly”, success comes at the expense of other players. However, Headey’s success goals do not seem to me to be all about competing for positional goods. He includes “fulfilling your potential” as a success goal even though this does not necessarily involve competition with others.

Nevertheless, Headey’s results are interesting. He finds that “success goals” have little effect on happiness at a point in time, but persistence in pursuing such goals has a negative effect on happiness. Altruistic goals have positive effects on happiness, but the results for family goals were somewhat ambiguous.

The second avenue of research relates to neuroeconomics experiments in which participants play games relating to cooperation and trust. It seems reasonable to suppose that people who believe that others can generally be trusted would tend to have a positive-sum attitude to life. The results of this research tend to confirm that this is so.

Participants in games in which players are rewarded if they cooperate will often reject offers that they consider to be unfair, even when this means that they suffer a pecuniary loss. Unfair offers activate parts of the brain involved in negative emotional states such as disgust. This suggests one reason why people should be less happy in countries with high levels of corruption, insecure property rights and low levels of trust. Unfair processes and systems invoke feelings of disgust. A further reason is the effect of low levels of trust on transactions costs and hence on economic outcomes (as discussed by Paul Zak and Stephen Knack in ‘Trust and Growth’, “The Economic Journal”, 2001).

Research by Paul Zak (described here) suggests yet another reason to expect people to be more happy in countries with low levels of corruption and high levels of trust – the pleasure that people obtain from being trusted and the positive effect this has on their behaviour.

In the trust game, player A has the option of giving some of her attendance money player to player B whom they do not know. The amount given to B is tripled, and then B is given the option of giving some money back to player A. If A can trust B to reciprocate there is potential for mutual benefit, but B has no economic incentive to reciprocate. The experimenters found that oxytocin – a hormone that rises during social bonding – increased in B when A showed trust by investing a lot. When trust is shown only a small proportion of players (sociopaths) fail to reciprocate by sharing their gains.

Summing up, it would seem that there are a variety of reasons why people who view life as a positive-sum game should be happier than those who view it is a zero-sum game. They do not perceive their happiness as depending on acquisition of positional goods which are beyond the reach of most people. They do not perceive themselves to be living in an unfair society in which they need to be very careful to guard against the opportunism of others. They perceive themselves to be living among people who trust them and frequently feel the satisfaction which comes from being trusted.

Martin Seligman's consideration of the evolutionary purpose of postive feelings is also relevant. He writes: "Just as negative feelings are a "here-be-dragons" system that alarms you, telling you unmistakably that you are in a win-lose encounter, the feeling of positive emotion is also sensory. Positive feeling is a neon "here-be-growth" marquee that tells you that a potential win-win encounter is at hand. By activating an expansive, tolerant, and creative mindset, postive feelings maximize the social, intellectual, and physical benefits that will accrue" ("Authentic Happiness", 2002: 44). This view turns my question inside out. It implies that happiness is a positive-sum (or win-win) attitude.


inland empire restaurant and food reviews said...

I think attitude is everything!!

Winton Bates said...

I think there is a lot of evidence that attitude is a very important determinant of happiness. The posts on my blog on the life stories topic suggests that how people respond to challenges is particularly important.
Someone on my other blog suggested that people who are too trusting tend to get hurt. That is a good point - but you can have a positive attitude to life and still remember to lock your doors etc.


There are as many nights as days, and the one is just as long as the other in the year's course. Even a happy life cannot be without a measure of darkness, and the word 'happy' would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness.Yours is a wonderful blog! Nice Post!

Winton Bates said...

Thanks Michael.


What everyone wants from life is continuous and genuine happiness.Yours is a nice blog.

Winton Bates said...

Thanks Ronald.

Global Maket said...

Great post, and great website. Thanks for the information!
positive thinking