Thank Fathom it's Friday

Would you rather be the first person on Mars or starring on Love Island?

4 September 2020|

A sideways look at economics

In old TFiFs, I found myself arguing that happiness is mostly a subjective state that is hard to achieve through the completion of tasks, setting rigid goals or the narcissistic pursuit of social status. Rather, it’s more easily attained through new experiences, chasing curiosity and meaningful social interactions with little regard to the possibility of regret or failure.

In mainstream economics, the notions of utility, status and happiness are often used interchangeably and limited to the rather narrow axiom of higher incomes leading to higher utility, happiness and status. The past two decades have seen a lot of theoretical and empirical work refining this rather simplistic view and borrowing findings from the field of experimental psychology. While no final, unified view of utility, happiness and status has yet emerged, it has become generally accepted that happiness is related to utility and income, but certainly not wholly defined by them.  Likewise, the quest for social status has increasingly been modelled as one of the important drivers of people’s happiness and choices. One paper, for example, shows that happiness is not only negatively related to a person’s past income, but also to the income of others (i.e. status).

More philosophically, however, addressing the theoretical relationship between happiness, status and income doesn’t tackle the deeper question of why we would actually care about maximising any of these states. My personal view is that people do so because they seek a piece of immortality by creating a legacy. This may simply be their offspring, the history books, founding a company or, if you’re Elon Musk, even more literally.

I must admit that regular field work shows that support for this theory is not very robust. I often canvass a sample of Fathom employees at the pub about their preferences for choosing between being the first person on Mars with a high risk of premature death versus, say, starring on Love Island. Worryingly, the split has tended to be only marginally in favour of Mars even adjusting for the number of beers consumed over time.

Putting empirical testing aside for a minute and assuming there is some validity to the ‘pursuit of immortality’ argument, then which one of happiness, status or income should one focus on? Maximising happiness would, at first glance, appear to be neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for the fulfilment of this goal. Equally, wealth accumulation seems more a means to an end rather than an end in itself. Conversely, maximising status would seem a much more promising strategy to enhance the probability of being remembered well past one’s inevitable demise. Interestingly, there’s also a body of work arguing that higher social status actually improves longevity (although there’s still some debate about the actual direction in causality). In one intriguing paper, Oscar-winning actors and actresses were found to live almost four years longer than other less well-known performers in the same movie or other nominees that never actually won. This is a big difference in survival and similar to what one would see among smokers and non-smokers that have reached the age of 70 (see here). [1]

Overall, higher status might indeed kill two birds with one stone: ensuring your place in history while buying more time on this earth. The effort required and probability of success are, however, two important aspects that are overlooked in these papers, as well as the idea that not all types of status might be created equal.

Some of these are explored in another nifty paper. By comparing the life expectancy of US athletes who have won an Olympic medal, the authors find that silver medal winners are significantly outlived by gold medallists. There’s a twist, though. Silver medal winners also live less long than bronze medallists (whose longevity is not statistically different from that of gold medal winners). From a behavioural and psychological perspective, this finding suggests that silver medallists put more weight on missing out on gold than they do on their Olympian elite status (unlike the bronze winners). The authors imply that the stress associated with this near miss causes long-term health effects compromising the athletes’ relative life expectancy.

The implications from the papers are multiple. First, higher status does not translate into proportionally greater longevity. Second, the scarring effect on longevity from ‘missing out on gold’ is significant and persistent. Finally, winning any medal doesn’t produce a lasting reduction in mortality relative to the general population. In other words, the personal dissatisfaction with an outcome has more tangible negative effects than the benefits associated with the pursuit of a highly desirable, but competitive status.

The main point is that competing for a high status may guarantee a place in the history books, but it’s hard. Success still requires a subjective assessment, and the costs of failing are largest where the margins for success are tightest. To be clear, I’m not trying to dissuade readers from achieving success. I’m pointing out that achieving success does not have to equate with competing over status. Indeed, I firmly believe that the pursuit of happiness in the form of a passion, fun, an ideal or life-long curiosity is more likely to lower the costs and increase the likelihood of achieving successful outcomes, higher status and building some form of lasting legacy. As for my own answer to the Mars vs Love Island choice? Mars, but perhaps that says more about the relative ages of me and the other respondents than any true insights about my relative preference for status, legacy and the pursuit of happiness.

Mars or Love Island

Source: NASA

[1] Another study finds a similar, albeit less strong effect, among Nobel prize winners outliving other nominees by up to two years.


Thank Fathom it's Friday

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