♠ Posted by Emmanuel in Welfare Economics at 9/08/2010 12:14:00 AMOne of the main innovations to emerge from the marginal revolution was the idea of utilitarianism. That is, economic definitions of value began to acquire more hedonic overtones: what does x or y mean to me? To this end, utilitarians naturally went down the road of measuring "utility." What makes one happy? Back in the day, British economist (and obviously a utilitarian) William Edgeworth imagined a device that would measure such things; a "hedonimeter" as it were:
To precise the ideas, let there be granted to the science of pleasure what is granted to the science of energy; to imagine an ideally perfect instrument, a psychophysical machine, continually registering the height of pleasure experienced by an individual, exactly according to the verdict of consciousness, or rather diverging therefrom according to a law of errors. From moment to moment the hedonimeter varies; the delicate index now ﬂickering with the ﬂutter of the passions, now steadied by intellectual activity, low sunk whole hours in the neighbourhood of zero, or momentarily springing up towards inﬁnity. The continually indicated height is registered by photographic or other frictionless apparatus upon a uniformly moving vertical plane. Then the quantity of happiness between two epochs is represented by the area contained between the zero-line, perpendiculars thereto at the points corresponding to the epochs, and the curve traced by the index; or, if the correction suggested in the last paragraph be admitted, another dimension will be required for the representation. The integration must be extended from the present to the inﬁnitely future time to constitute the end of pure egoism.And so I experienced a momentary spike in happiness when I serendipitously came across this new thingamajig: while logging on to my LSE e-mail account, I accidentally found myself browsing the LSE front page instead. And there it was: a new iPhone app to measure happiness as suggested by Edgeworth incorporating advancements such as GPS, albeit with not quite yet the same level of precision he imagined. As a brief background, (modern) utilitarian Richard Layard--who wrote a generally well-received book a few years back on Happiness: Lessons From a New Science--heads a centre for well-being here at the LSE. This book expanded on ideas he first put forward in a series of lectures dating from 2003.
Anyway, George MacKerron and his (our?) colleagues at the Geography department took inspiration from both Edgeworth and Layard, culminating in their "Mappiness" project that aims to spatially and chronologically map happiness. (Alas, international readers, only data from UK-based iPhone users will be used for now.) Here is the LSE blurb:
Mappiness, an iPhone app mapping happiness across the UK, is officially launched today at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). The project will help researchers understand how people's feelings are affected by their immediate environment -- including features such as pollution, noise, weather conditions and green space.As an admittedly grumpy sort--that's why I have a blog, dammit--I take issue with the overwhelmingly happy sample of folks from early returns. Already, I'm thinking that there's an inherent sample selection bias in that iPhone buyers tend to buy into Apple's lifestyle shtick too much--"Oh, how happy and complete a person I've become since I bought my iWhatever..."
The app, which is the first of its kind, pings users daily to ask how they're feeling, and uses satellite positioning (GPS) to discover their location while they answer. Response locations are linked to environmental data, which will be fed into statistical models of wellbeing.
Lead researcher George MacKerron, of LSE's Department of Geography and Environment, said: 'Tracking happiness through time alone is an idea with history: in the 19th century economists imagined a 'hedonimeter', a perfect happiness gauge, and psychologists have more recently run small-scale 'experience sampling' studies to see how mood varies with activity, time of day, and so on.
'What's exciting here is the addition of the spatial dimension. By tracking across space as well as time, and by making novel use of a technology that millions of people already carry with them, we hope to find better answers to questions about the impacts of natural beauty, environmental problems -- maybe even aspects of climate -- on individual and national wellbeing.'
Professor Lord Richard Layard, director of the Well-being Programme at LSE's Centre for Economic Performance, said: 'Mappiness is a revolutionary research idea. It is the best method so far devised for understanding how people's emotions are affected by the buildings and natural environment in which they move.'
National happiness levels are updated in real-time on the project website, www.mappiness.org.uk, alongside maps and timelines derived from the response data. App users also get access to personalised charts analysing their own mood in return for taking part. Mappiness is a free download on Apple's online App Store. The researchers aim to get at least 3,000 people joining in the project. All iPhone owners are invited to take part.
Anyway, for those curious, it's certainly worth supporting our colleagues' imaginative project by downloading the free app if you've got an iPhone (or iPod Touch for that matter). Even if I'm neither a utilitarian nor an iSycophant, I do support worthwhile projects.