THE JOYFUL REDUCTION OF UNCERTAINTY

Are The Amish Unhappy? Super Happy? Just Meh?

I.

Recently on Marginal Revolution: Are the Amish unhappy?

The average levels of life satisfaction [among the Amish] was 4.4; just above the neutral point…the Amish fall lower than members of many other groups. In a study of more than 13 thousand college students from 31 nations, for example, only students from Kenya (whose average life satisfaction was 4.0) scored lower than the Amish (Diener & Diener, 1995).

Sounds like Amish people are quite unhappy. This came as a surprise to me, since I’d heard from Jonah Lehrer and Business Insider that the average Amish person is as happy as the average non-Amish billionaire, proving once and for all that community and old-fashioned values are more important than money:

As an illustration of the striking disconnect between money and happiness, the average life satisfaction of Forbes magazine’s 400 richest Americans was 5.8 on a 7-point scale. Yet the average life satisfaction of the Pennsylvania Amish is also 5.8, despite the fact that their average annual salary is several billion dollars lower.

I actually care about getting this one right. There’s a lot of discussion over whether modern society produces ennui, meaninglessness, atomization, etc – and whether our material wealth has really brought us happiness. The data tend to support a story where more modern and developed countries are happier, but not without some ambiguity and contradiction (a few Latin American countries seem to do better than much richer European ones). But there’s always a concern that the least-developed areas today – like sub-Saharan Africa – are places that have absorbed the worst parts of modernity – like totalitarianism, pollution, and slums – but not the good parts like not-dying-of-cholera. The Amish are about as close as we can get to surveying 1700s-Europe. If we can figure out how happy they are, maybe it would tell us something new about the good life.

Unfortunately, we can’t. This field is full of conflicting data, shifting methods, unreplicated surveys, and – and I didn’t even realize this was a problem it was possible for a field to have – is super-confusing because everyone involved is named Diener. I tried to get the above-cited Diener & Diener 1995, but carelessly bought Diener, Diener & Diener 1995 instead. Cowen’s source is a book by Robert Biswas-Diener, who is comparing a study by Diener & Diener to a study by Biswas-Diener, Vittersø, & Diener, the last of which was do-able only because:

It was both coincidental, and helpful, that my surname — Diener — is also a relatively common Amish surname. This curious point of contact allowed me to introduce myself and my project.

Sure. Whatever.

The Marginal Revolution excerpt comes from Biswas-Diener, Vittersø, & Diener (after this: BDVD). This study was part of the authors’ project to prove that most people are happy. In a previous paper, they had determined that most people in modern societies are happy; in this one, they look at three different traditional societies (Amish, Inughuit Eskimos, and Maasai) to see if they are mostly happy was well. On a 1 – 7 scale, they find:

They don’t formally compare these to the modern societies numbers in the paper. The Biswas-Diener book linked by MR does compare them, finding the Amish are lower than every modern society except Kenya, but there are two important caveats.

First, the Biswas-Diener book compares the survey of Amish (mean age 44) to the Diener & Diener survey of college students in modern society. If college students are happier than 44-year-olds (they are), that’s a potential confounder.

Second, the book notes that the Amish’s self-reported total happiness is lower than their self-reported happiness with any individual facet of their lives. Just look at the table above – their romantic life is a 6.1, their health is a 5.7, their attractiveness is a 5.1 (those beards, right?) – but the two totals, self-satisfaction and life-satisfaction – are 4.2 and 4.4 respectively. It seems like they’re averaging a bunch of numbers and getting an average lower than any of the individual inputs. This is especially bad since modern people tend to do the opposite; report an average happiness higher than their happiness with any individual part of their lives. Biswas-Diener guesses that modern people like to present themselves well (the “have a Facebook feed full of spectacular parties and meticulously-prepared plates of food even when your life is falling apart” effect), and traditional societies are more likely to value humility and treat pride as a sin. As far as I know, there are no studies that have ever measured a non-Amish society using this exact breakdown.

Third, as far as I can tell, the Diener & Diener paper doesn’t actually show Kenyans having the lowest life satisfaction, or Kenyans having a life satisfaction of 4.0:

This is the male table. There’s another one for women, but it’s very similar, and neither the male table, the female table, nor the average of the two tables matches the claim that Kenya is 4.0 or that nobody else is less than 4.4. My guess is all the Dieners share preliminary data with each other, and Biswas-Diener is going off some older or unpublished version of this, but I’m not sure and I might just be missing something.

The public version of Diener & Diener does generally backs up the claim that 4.4 is kind of on the lowish side. But on the other hand, the Maasai number of 5.4 would be the highest one on the whole chart (tied with Finland), which would suggest there’s no clear traditional vs. modern society dichotomy.

So the result of this comparison seems to be “The Amish are above neutral happiness, but less happy than almost any modern society. On the other hand, the Maasai are more happy than almost any modern society. However, a lot of this could be about self-presentation, and the data for modern societies are kind of unclear.”

II.

What about the “Amish are as happy as billionaires” claim?

The billionaire numbers come from Diener’s Happiness Of The Very Wealthy and seem to check out. It finds billionaires are happier, though not vastly happier, than everyone else. Billionaires have an average happiness of 5.8 – remember, the highest national sample above was Finland at 5.4.

This time, the Amish numbers come from Diener and Seligman’s Beyond Money: Toward An Economy Of Well-Being, which presents this graph:

It doesn’t explain where the table comes from, but the use of the same three traditional societies (Maasai, Inughuit, and Amish) suggest the BDVD paper above (which shares one of its Dieners with the Beyond Money paper). But its numbers for all three groups are very different, and its headline result – the one about Pennsylvania Amish as happy as billionaires – isn’t in the BDVD paper at all and has no citation.

The only clue to this discrepancy is that the Beyond Money paper cites the BDVD paper as “manuscript submitted for publication”. Perhaps the peer reviewers made comments which caused BDVD to drop their Pennsylvania Amish result and analyze some of the other results differently? In any case, since the Amish = billionaires data seems to have been quietly dropped by the authors, we probably shouldn’t put much stock in it.

Does this mean we should default to the “Amish less happy than anyone else except Kenyans” data? I say no. If the study authors got data consistent with “Amish are as happy as billionaires”, and later on it got changed to “Amish less happy than anyone”, plus they changed the Kenyan stuff around too, then I really don’t care about the “correction”, this research isn’t rigorous enough, or fixed enough, to convince me of anything.

All of this is from long before the replication crisis started improving methodologies, and I don’t trust it enough to consider it worth trying to smush everything together into a coherent whole. Sweep the billionaires/Kenyans issue under the rug, and there are still too many questions. Is there really a gulf between Pennsylvania Amish and Illinois Amish as vast as that between Swedes and Calcutta slum-dwellers? Are the Maasai really so much happier than modern societies, even as the Amish are so much less happy? Is there really an entire scientific field where everyone is named “Diener”? We just don’t know.

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148 Responses to Are The Amish Unhappy? Super Happy? Just Meh?

  1. drethelin says:

    Has anyone tried doing fecal transplants from happy people to depressed/unhappy people?

    • MawBTS says:

      Some people undergo fecal transplants from hunter-gatherers, and HGs seem happier than agrarians (or at least Benjamin Franklin thought so). Someone should ask this guy how it went.

      AS THE SUN set over Lake Eyasi in Tanzania, nearly thirty minutes had passed since I had inserted a turkey baster into my bum and injected the feces of a Hadza man – a member of one of the last remaining hunter-gatherers tribes in the world – into the nether regions of my distal colon. I struggled to keep my legs in the air with my toes pointing towards what I thought was the faint outline of the Southern Cross rising in the evening sky. With my hands under my hips – and butt perched against a large rock for support – I peddled an imaginary upside down bicycle in the air to pass the time as I struggled to make sure my new gut ecosystem stayed put inside me.

      With my butt cheeks flexed and my, you know what puckered, I wondered if I had just made a terrible mistake

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Maybe there should just be a bot that posts this on all of my articles.

      “Has anyone tried fecal transplants to lower their free energy?”

      “Has anyone tried acausal fecal transplants?”

      “Has anyone tried fecal transplants from Jordan Peterson to people whose lives lack meaning?”

      • Anaxagoras says:

        On that last, couldn’t his books be understood that way?

        (I do not actually have an opinion on Jordan Peterson, but I couldn’t resist.)

        • achenx says:

          I also do not have an opinion on Jordan Peterson, but that just made me laugh more than anything else today, so thanks to drethelin, Scott, and you for that excellent thread.

      • MawBTS says:

        People take enough shit from Jordan Peterson.

      • Well... says:

        We can at least confidently say that Jordan Peterson gives a crap.

  2. robdonnelly says:

    I had to check the publication date to make sure this wasn’t some sort of surrealist replication crisis April Fool’s Day joke.

  3. MawBTS says:

    You touched on a question that needs to be addressed more fully: is self-reported happiness reliable?

    How can we be sure some groups aren’t prone to overstating or understating their level of happiness? I lie about my happiness every day, as I’m sure many commenters here do. Most people say “fine” in response to “how are you?” like an involuntary muscular reflex. It’s just the socially acceptable thing to.

    My own preconceptions suggest that Christian religious communities might overstate their happiness (due to prosperity doctrines, etc), as might people in unconventional relationships (I’ve heard lesbians complain about the pressure to be seen as “perfect lesbians”, lest they let the side down, or something). Do we have a way of controlling for honesty?

    • Scott Alexander says:

      From the paper called BDVD above:

      The finding that most people are happy is consistent with earlier work on the Pollyanna Principle, which was reviewed by Matlin and Stang (1978). These authors proposed that there is a broad tendency for people to be ‘‘Pollyannas,’’ able to more accurately and efficiently process pleasant than unpleasant or neutral items. They reviewed evidence showing that this tendency is reflected in language, perception, learning, memory, and cognition. For example, people rate stimuli such as political figures as more positive than negative (Sears and Whitney, 1972), perceive and remember more positive than negative events in their lives, respond with more positive than negative words in a free association task, and react more quickly to positive words than to negative words. Interestingly, Matlin and Stang note that most people think they are not only happier than the average person, but also are currently happier than they themselves typically are! They also report that people tend to remember events as more pleasant with the passage of time. We suggest that the extensive findings on positivity reviewed by Matlin and Stang are consistent with the argument we make here

      Are people truly happier, or do they only avow happiness for self-presentational purposes? Our use of multi-method measurement to some degree supports the former. Not only did our respondents report positive levels of subjective well-being on broad interview items, but their friends also overwhelmingly thought that they were happy. In addition, the Inughuit reported high levels of happiness when contacted at random moments in time. Further, our respondents were able to remember more positive than negative events from their lives. None of these measures is definitive in showing that the respondents were ‘‘truly’’ happy. Nonetheless, taken together they do suggest that the findings are not merely based on self-presentational style in an interview setting. People’s friends think they are happy, respondents remember more good than bad events from their lives, they rate the domains of their lives as positive, and they report more positive than negative experiences when contacted in their everyday lives. Although these findings do not conclusively prove that people actually experience a preponderance of happiness, they are certainly suggestive in this regard. If it turns out, however, that most people merely avow happiness to others, this would be an important finding in itself.

      • drunkfish says:

        This seems really weak. All of their independent constraints but one are “different ways of asking people if they’re happy give similar results”, but that doesn’t preclude consistent lying at all.

        The friends one is interesting, but also not really compelling at all. As MawBTS said, many people lie about their happiness every day. I certainly do, and I’d confidently predict that the vast majority of my friends think I’m happier than I actually am (with the exception of the few I complain to the most).

        The “people usually say they’re happier than their average happiness” is a really interesting bit though. It seems possible that maybe psych experiments are fun or something and the question is biased just by being asked, but it also seems like a fairly plausible phenomenon in general. It sortof feels like it might be based in pessimism than anything else though, with people underestimating their own baselines (or am I just a pessimist?).

        • Vamair says:

          I’m not sure people don’t recalibrate their happiness scale in comparison to the ones they live with. So you’d get that a 9-happy Kenian is much happier than a 3-happy Kenian, and that’d give the same results using any metrics, but that still wouldn’t allow you to say that a 5-happy Kenian and a 5-happy American are on the same level (or not).

        • James says:

          Yeah, I’m slightly horrified at the thought of someone asking around my friends about me and concluding that I’m A-OK tip-top perfectly content.

        • beleester says:

          I feel asking from enough different angles should add up to something. At the very least, each new way of asking puts a boundary on the ways their “unhappiness” can affect their life.

          I feel if you get too pessimistic, you’ll end up saying “Yeah, he says he’s happy, his friends say he’s happy, he’s had all sorts of good experiences in his life, he’s married to a woman he loves and has two kids that he loves, and he recently went to Disneyland, but can we really be sure he’s happy?”

          Is there any action a person could take that you would accept as proof that they are happy or unhappy?

          • drunkfish says:

            This is an interesting point, I sortof am making unhappiness unfalsifiable. I guess I’m not trying to say these surveys are definitely worthless, but I do think that adding more ways of asking has very limited value.

            The reason I’m concerned about the value of the surveys is I’m concerned that people might be inclined to lie about their unhappiness. I don’t see how asking them in other ways changes that at all. There might be other possible issues with just “how satisfied are you with your life” that asking from other angles can address, but I don’t think it can help at all with “maybe we’re being lied to”.

            Is there any action a person could take that you would accept as proof that they are happy or unhappy?

            Totally airtight proof? Obviously not. Convincing me enough that I set aside concern/skepticism? Definitely. I have friends whose happiness I’m not terribly concerned about.

            If you mean is there anything a person studying happiness demographics can do to convince me that their methods are sound… I’m definitely open to it as a possibility, this isn’t a field I know anything about so I don’t expect to be able to think of all possible clever tricks. When I started reading Scott’s except I was pretty excited to see how they handled these issues. I don’t, however, find “we asked them a bunch of different questions so they probably aren’t lying” compelling at all.

      • MawBTS says:

        Thanks.

        Perception by friends would be a good method, but a friend can’t look inside your head, they can only go by your outwards social cues.

        “I remember more good experiences than bad” sounds like a very different proposition to “I am happy”. It seems like you could have lots of positive experiences, rate the domain of your life as positive, and yet still be unhappy. There’s a cultural stereotype that Jews are prone to “kvetching”, despite Ashkenazi Jews being wealthier as a group than the average American.

        But maybe all of those factors together get us pretty close to the truth. I don’t know. It doesn’t cast a question mark over the finding, but it probably should at least cast an asterisk.

        • Matty Wacksen says:

          > But maybe all of those factors together get us pretty close to the truth.

          That’s a really strong maybe. Many bad data points don’t in general give a good data point once you average. I don’t see why it should here.

        • Yosarian2 says:

          There has been research that when a person is depressed they’re more prone to remember negative memories and have a harder time remembering times when they were happy. So “person X can remember more positive things than negative” might be a way to test if they are actually happy.

        • quaelegit says:

          >There’s a cultural stereotype that Jews are prone to “kvetching”, despite Ashkenazi Jews being wealthier as a group than the average American.

          The stereotype might have arisen before Ashkenazim became wealthier as a group. (Quick googling suggests that “kvetch” started becoming common in English publications in the 1950s, 30~50 years after the first big wave of Jewish immigration, so maybe not. I wouldn’t draw conclusions based on anything I’ve found.)

          • Nancy Lebovitz says:

            Perhaps part of what’s going on is that non-Jews (WASPs?) place(d) a value on not complaining.

          • russellsteapot42 says:

            And/Or that complaining for jews is just a part of standard social expectation, so you feel like you have to come up with stuff to complain about just to have anything to talk about at all.

          • quaelegit says:

            @Nancy Lebovitz — like a keeping a “stiff upper lip”? (Or is that just Brits?) 😛

            @russellsteapot42 that reminds me of a discussion on the West Wing Weekly podcast where Josh Malina said Jews don’t like to express hopeful/positive outlook on something for fear of jinxing it. He grew up adding “pooh-pooh” to the end of positive statements (if I remember correctly, like “Hopefully I aced the test, pooh-pooh”) to diminish the statement and avoid the jinx, or something like that.

          • Nancy Lebovitz says:

            quaelegit

            Or praising people by saying that they don’t complain.

        • benwave says:

          If the reason people report higher than actual values of happiness is to maintain a social image of being happy, then surely what friends think of their happiness is a Uniquely poor estimator of true happiness?

      • vV_Vv says:

        The friends one is interesting, but also not really compelling at all. As MawBTS said, many people lie about their happiness every day. I certainly do, and I’d confidently predict that the vast majority of my friends think I’m happier than I actually am (with the exception of the few I complain to the most).

        Even without deliberate lying, people from different cultures might respond differently when you ask them to rate their happiness on a 7 point scale, as they might have different preconceptions about what neutral, maximum and minimum happiness should be.

        Or the same people might give very different answers depending on how the question is asked, which could explain why the results are all over the place.

      • Matty Wacksen says:

        > Not only did our respondents report positive levels of subjective well-being on broad interview items, but their friends also overwhelmingly thought that they were happy.

        Wouldn’t people who care about being seen as happy care even more about their friends seeing them as happy?

        > Although these findings do not conclusively prove that people actually experience a preponderance of happiness, they are certainly suggestive in this regard.

        Well no. Just because you have many data points that are crappy doesn’t mean you can average them to get a good data point. Cultural differences exist and will influence answers (even translating a simple word like “happy” is difficult), I don’t see how anything meaningful can be derived from data as this.

        • Gareth Allen says:

          Different cultures will certainly have different definitions of “life satisfaction.” Which is different from happiness even though all the above articles reference happiness.

          “Satisfaction: fulfillment of one’s wishes, expectations, or needs, or the pleasure derived from this”

          So there are six ways to interpret “satisfaction” just by definition. And that’s before we get into translations. Also note that this definition probably doesn’t reflect the ennui of modern life, in which “everything is amazing and no one is happy.”

      • Desertopa says:

        That the only method they use to explore how happy people are aside from different methods of directly asking them is asking their friends suggests a major weakness in the data: if they’re systematically misrepresenting their happiness to researchers, it’s entirely likely that they’re also systematically misrepresenting their happiness to their friends.

      • Edward Scizorhands says:

        Won’t different subcultures have biases about how likely they are to report *anything* on a scale of 1-to-7?

        Like, ask someone how big the Earth is, on a scale of 1 to 7. Or how hot the sun is.

        When I take a 1-to-10 survey, I almost never answer in the 1’s or the 10’s, unless something was incredibly bad/good, but I’ve seen lots of other people just slam in all 1’s or all 10’s and then move on.

        There’s literature on everything, so there must be literature on this.

        • pdbarnlsey says:

          I’ve done related work on arbitrary numerical scales, though not specifically dealing with the cultural bias point.

          Basically, if you treat the interaction as a cooperative signalling game, where the respondent is trying to convey to the questioner the underlying value of a parameter on a continuous unbounded scale using the signal of a discrete bounded variable then the distribution of the underlying continuous variable across the discrete reported scale will be the inverse of the frequency with which that value is selected.

          Which is to say – reported observations across a discrete scale are cardinal only if each value is reported with equal frequency, and otherwise the distance between, say, 6 and 7 relative to 5 and 6 is proportional to the frequency of 7s relative to the frequency of 6s. If sevens are rare, it must be (consistent with you optimising to minimise signal error) because they are a strong signal – there must be a big gap between your 6 and your 7.

          Using some (pretty strong) assumptions you can then rescale the raw data so that it is cardinal and you can take means, etc.

          These studies look to have just averaged ordinal data, which probably correlates with the true underlying parameters you’re trying to measure, but is very messy and potentially very wrong.

          • Aapje says:

            @pdbarnlsey

            Except that many people may put in more 10’s than 9’s, 8’s and 7’s…

            When you have multiple groups using different strategies, it may be reasonably be possible to figure which strategy each individual survey taker uses and weigh their answers differently based on that. However, it seems rather impossible to do this objectively, so then it’ll probably be unavoidable that you’d greatly influence the outcome based on how you weigh it.

          • pdbarnlsey says:

            Aapje,

            All of this relies on them adopting the optimal strategy in the cooperative signalling game, and that they know (or “know” in some sense) the value of their underlying utility parameter.

            There are infinite nonoptimal strategies respondents could adopt, and they could render the link between reported SWB and underlying utility completely arbitrary, but a reasonable starting point (certainly compared to treating the data as either cardinal or uninformative) so to assume that the respondent population plays the optimal strategy on average.

    • peterispaikens says:

      Furthermore, you’d expect that the overstating/understating is different in different cultures.

      As you say, “Most people say “fine” in response to “how are you?” like an involuntary muscular reflex. It’s just the socially acceptable thing to.” because that’s true in USA and some other cultures, but there are many cultures where a question “how are you?” is likely to be answered with “ah, I’m dead tired and just want to pass out” or “all my bones hurt in this weather” and that would be socially acceptable (and, in relation to that, it wouldn’t be socially acceptable to ask “how are you?” if you aren’t close enough to discuss how they’re *actually* feeling), and that would likely be correlated with the tendency to publicly overstate/understate your happiness level.

      Alternatively, the field might consider introducing terms such as “level of *expressed* happiness” and contrast it with some indirect measures (perhaps measurements of some hormones/chemicals in a blood test? Tests of involuntary facial expressions or answers to “what would you do in situation X” questions?) of “underlying happiness”.

    • Protagoras says:

      Amartya Sen is one who has been quite skeptical of self-reports and seems to recommend instead looking at things like physical health issues known to correlate with stress, depression, etc. as a measure of unhappiness (leaving only an absence of such things as a measure for happiness, but then Sen seems more interested in reducing misery than trying to make OK people happier). I don’t know what sort of picture emerges if you look at evidence like that.

    • Lambert says:

      I suppose what we really want to know, when we ask about happiness, is how many hedonic utils a person has.

    • fortaleza84 says:

      A lot of the time, I’m not really sure how happy I am.

  4. russellsteapot42 says:

    I hear about a lot of what’s essentially religious bullying in Amish communities, possibly in response to the regular contact with the modern world.

  5. pontifex says:

    An author list of “neener, neener, neener” would be good for an April 1st paper.

  6. Nabil ad Dajjal says:

    It’s a shame that research into this question has been so shoddy. It would be very interesting to know whether or not the Amish way of life differs from our “English” way of life in terms of happiness, and if so whether they’re doing better or worse.

    That said, I’m not sure that it matters. Whether or not the Amish way of life brings individual happiness, it is enormously adaptive. If the Old Order Amish were a nation, they would come in somewhere in the top three worldwide in terms of fertility with an incredible 6-7 births per woman. After accounting for defection, their population still doubles in size roughly every twenty years.

    If choosing happiness over unhappiness is a no-brainer, then what do you call choosing life over death? The Amish and Old Order Mennonites are thriving while we are dying out. Clearly they’re doing something right.

    • j r says:

      If choosing happiness over unhappiness is a no-brainer, then what do you call choosing life over death? The Amish and Old Order Mennonites are thriving while we are dying out. Clearly they’re doing something right.

      This doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, likely because I don’t share this concept of equating life or death with the reproductive success of my tribe. One day I’m going to die. I’d like any progeny that I leave behind to lead happy and successful lives, but I don’t view their success through the lens of my own reproductive success or failure.

      • Well... says:

        I’d like any progeny that I leave behind to lead happy and successful lives

        That’s kinda the point. If there is value in leaving progeny behind so they can lead happy and successful lives, then there is value in your progeny leaving progeny behind to lead happy and successful lives, and for your progeny’s progeny to leave behind progeny…etc.

        • rahien.din says:

          there is value in leaving progeny behind so they can lead happy and successful lives

          This construction strikes me as very odd. Thinking out loud :

          My wife and I didn’t have our kids so to grant happiness and success to our kids. Those things aren’t fully in our power, in large part because our children are independent human beings. Having kids is a risk. We took that risk because we wanted our kids ; we work for their happiness and success because we love them. Those are two very different things.

          I guess you could cast this on a population level as “If no one has enough kids, and the supply of humans dwindles, that will make it harder on the kids I have already chosen to have.” But this moves the valuation from your own kids to other people’s actions – you are hoping they will not leave your kids in the lurch, since you have chosen to have them. (Moreover, the instant one chooses not to reproduce, that valuation goes nearly to zero.)

          Furthermore, all your kids need is for other people to reproduce at some sustaining level (whether the benchmark is “don’t lag behind death rates” or “meet some minimum growth standard”). Thinking of your own progeny doesn’t really cause you value higher-than-sustaining reproductive rates, without some other greater hope for society as a whole. If j r has the same attitudes about tribe/society as they do about their own life and death, it’s perfectly congruent for them to not value 6-7 mean kids per couple over 2-3 mean kids per couple.

    • rahien.din says:

      If choosing happiness over unhappiness is a no-brainer, then what do you call choosing life over death? The Amish and Old Order Mennonites are thriving while we are dying out. Clearly they’re doing something right.

      If 6-7 kids is doing something right, is 8-10 kids even more right? 12-17? 30-40? Clearly, this does not scale monotonically. And there’s a line.

      That line is defined not a valuation of mere birth rates, but by some goal for society, for which birth rates are one available means. IE, birth rates are a way for a society to adjust to stimuli. In which case, higher birth rates may be evidence that a society is incapable of using other strategies.

      So the competing hypothesis is : the Amish do enough things wrong that they must compensate by excess fertility.

      • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

        There are physical limits how many healthy children a woman can have. Women who give five or more times, called grand multiparity, are at higher risk for maternal and neonatal complications. It seems as though the Amish are having roughly as many healthy children as modern medicine will allow.

        So in that sense you’re right: there is a line above which it doesn’t make sense to keep having children. And if your argument was that the line was 4, that multiparity is fine but grand multiparity is too risky to normalize, then I would have a hard time arguing with you. Luckily for me you are implicitly arguing in favor of our society’s line of 1, that nulliparity or primipartity is the sign of a healthy society, which is easily rebutted.

        A society which adamantly refuses to perpetuate itself is definitely doing something wrong.

        • rahien.din says:

          It seems as though the Amish are having roughly as many healthy children as modern medicine will allow.

          Eh, that’s a benchmark of pure recency. If medicine advances to the point that having [X weirdly-large number of kids] is both possible and safe, would people be right to have as many children as medically-possible?

          Moreover, people used to have many more children in eras when childbirth was far more dangerous. I don’t think you can claim this medical benchmark while (I presume?) implicitly preferring the fertility of those eras. If anything, modern medicine has made it more possible to have larger families in relative safety, and even the Amish have less excuse for stopping at 6-7 kids.

          Applauding the Amish for larger family sizes in an era of safer childbirth is a weird combination of nostalgia and recency bias.

          A society which adamantly refuses to perpetuate itself is definitely doing something wrong.

          I guess? This seems more aphoristic than actionable, and it raises more questions. “Perpetuate itself” does not equate to “continue important norms/institutions/practices” or “reproduce to the maximal medically-safe extent.” Furthermore, the kinds of forces/norms/decisions leading a society to embrace its own finitude would have to be essential and fundamental components of that society. The society would have to significantly alter itself in order to survive. (There’s a ship of Theseus lurking somewhere in there.)

          What about the society forced to choose between physical existence and their important ways of life? What about the society in which extra children would, on the balance, be a burden?

          you are implicitly arguing in favor of our society’s line of 1

          I can understand why you made that inference, but it’s not really my intent to argue for our below-replacement Western status quo. Registered : at minimum, I think it’s fine/defensible/good to advocate for reproductive sustainability, in and of itself (whether the benchmark is “don’t lag behind death rates” or “meet some minimum growth standard”).

          I just don’t think that pure fertility is an adequate indicator of societal wisdom, success, or viability. You say “Look at all the babies, they must be doing something right!” and I think “It’s possible they are doing something wrong.” Maybe having lots of kids is the wrong idea. Maybe their fertility rates are good, but only because they cover up some other societal deficit. Think of the semi-apocryphal Welfare Queen, having bastard child after bastard child, and by her fertility heaping more mouths onto the dole. Is that person doing something (anything?) right?

        • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

          @ahien.din,

          That’s fair, I misunderstood your point.

          I think that the phenomenal growth of the Amish is a fairly impressive achievement on its own but the point that I was gesturing towards, and should have explicitly stated, is that their population is growing while ours is collapsing.

          If American families averaged 2-4 kids, like we did any time in our history prior to the 1960s, then Amish fecundity would be a curiosity. Today when the entire western world apart from the Mennonites and possibly the Mormons is dying off, their example is critically important. We have forgotten how to do something essential to maintaining civilization and need an example to work from.

          • rahien.din says:

            The Amish population is growing while ours is collapsing. We have forgotten how to do something essential to maintaining civilization and need an example to work from.

            Fair points, and I agree! (And I may have been overzealous…)

  7. Matty Wacksen says:

    “Garbage In, Garbage Out”.
    As long as you’re just asking people questions, cultural differences regarding how to answer the question will give you meaningless answers. You might be able to get a better comparison if you were able to ask people who had lived in more than one culture to give their opinion on how their happiness was in each, but good luck getting any meaningful data there either…

    • Garrett says:

      You’d also face a problem of separating why someone switched cultures. I moved from Canada to the US because I like many aspects of life here more. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have moved. So almost by definition people who have switched cultures voluntarily are going to find the new culture preferable.

      You’d almost need to find people who have switched cultures involuntarily. Something like DACA children who are repatriated involuntarily or something.

      • A1987dM says:

        Still, if many more people voluntarily moved from A to B than vice versa (and few of them regret doing so) that’s still evidence that B is better than A.

    • Matt M says:

      Right. Any study that tries to measure “happiness” can only succeed to the extent that we have universal agreement as to what “happiness” actually is and how it can be measured.

      Good luck with that one.

  8. Bugmaster says:

    What are you really measuring when you are asking people if they’re happy ? One answer is, “well, there’s a Happiness Score that applies to every person in the world, and we’re trying to get an estimate of the Happiness Score in a population”. The problem is, reality is not a simple computer program. There may not be a global “Happiness Score” at all; what one person means by “happiness” might be completely different from what another person means by the same word. When you are trying to compare people’s behaviours across radically different cultures, you are dealing with a whole bunch of orthogonal variables, not a nice single scalar value.

    Alternatively, think of it this way. Let’s say the research is correct, and the Amish are much happier than members of modern societies. Then why are you, at this very moment, writing Internet blog posts on a computer — as opposed to, say, milking a cow or raising a barn ? Why aren’t you Amish, or some Amish-equivalent ? If you offer this choice to an average person — become Amish or keep using the Internet and all of the other fruits of the modern society — what do you think he would choose ? You might object that the average person doesn’t know any better, but in that case, how come all the Rationalists aren’t joining the Amish en masse ?

    I am not a sociologist, but my guess is that the answer has something to do with my first paragraph; and a lot of things to do with the sheer amount of technological power that a modern person can wield at will. It’s the same reason why most people consider wireheading repugnant — despite the fact that, in terms of expected utility, it is always the best possible option.

    • quaelegit says:

      I agree with your first paragraph but I think the questions in the second don’t really apply. Scott (and afaict all the commenters) are placing very low confidence on this result, and it wouldn’t make sense to make such a big change in your life (if you even can join an Amish group in your thirties?) if you aren’t the least bit sure it will work. (Also are the numbers for life-long Amish only, and would they apply to adult converts?) Rationalists as a group probably wouldn’t do well in Amish communities — there seem to be some MAJOR values differences.

      • Bugmaster says:

        Scott (and afaict all the commenters) are placing very low confidence on this result

        You’re probably right about this specific study; but in general, the common consensus seems to be that low-tech cultures have higher happiness than high-tech ones. Hunter-gatherer societies are especially high regarded… by other people, that is, not by me.

        Rationalists as a group probably wouldn’t do well in Amish communities — there seem to be some MAJOR values differences.

        This would strongly imply that measuring “happiness” across different cultures is meaningless.

    • drunkfish says:

      I’m pretty prepared to believe (though it still requires decent evidence) that Amish are generally very happy. I would be shocked if a typical modern American could join an Amish society and end up happy. I think upbringing and the expectations entailed are a major component of whether a situation brings happiness, so I don’t think “why aren’t you moving” is a very useful metric.

      I agree though that “happiness” might be too overloaded a word to easily measure across cultures. It would be really nice if some proxy existed though…

  9. behrangamini says:

    People get used to almost anything life throws at them, good or bad, and recalibrate their happiness. Even when the results replicate, you’ll get a person who’s had 3 kids die during birth reporting a happiness score that’s the same as someone whose biggest complaint is having the smallest yacht in the marina.

    Let’s assume these comparisons are meaningful (big assumption). Now, what you do with these results. Is the best way to make Fresno CA homeless (score: 2.9) happier to 1) send them to a Calcutta slum (score: 4.6), or 2) simulate the Calcutta slum environment for them in Fresno?

    Why stop at 4.6? Let’s shoot for the top! If the numbers mean anything, 50% of the Fresno homeless would choose to become Amish in PA (score 5.8) and the other 50% would choose to be billionaires (score: 5.8).

    Also, I’ve also always had a problem taking an ordinal scale (1-5) and averaging it to get decimal points. Is the distance between 1 and 2 the same as the distance between 2 and 3?

    In summary: Research based on self-reported happiness is good for an article in Business Insider or similar clickbait site. It tells us little more than “people get used to things and recalibrate,” and it does not operationalize.

    • holomanga says:

      Allowing the homeless people to build a slum might actually be a good idea; to a very limited extent, that’s sort of what loosening land use regulations would do (slums, small apartments, what’s the difference?). It’s better to live in a bad house than no house!

      • Fuge says:

        …until someone gets drunk, sets a fire, and causes massive loss of life because of shoddy slum housing. Building codes are there for a reason.

  10. Anatoly says:

    Besides the concerns with self-reported happiness noted above, I wonder if there’s been any attempt to measure variance in happiness – not variance between people, but within one person’s life?

    What’s better, to be kind of content throughout your life, or to have periods of anguish and ecstasy? Is the answer to this question itself culture-dependant?

  11. Steve Sailer says:

    How much do different interviewers affect responses to happiness questions? One way to get people to take your interview, for example, is to be charming (i.e., to make them momentarily happy in your presence).

    With famous anthropologists, for example, it often seems as if they manage to impress their personalities on the tribes they study. The Yanomamo were the “fierce people” around Napoleon Chagnon, who is a fierce person in general. I bet he’d be a helluva Pop Warner football coach at getting his kids to play fierce.

    • MawBTS says:

      I once read a journal by an early 20th century anthropologist. He said that he encountered certain tribes in the Congo who were compulsive white-liars (literally). When you asked them a question, they would give the answer they thought you wanted to hear, regardless of the truth. If you asked “I am crossing the […] river, does it have crocodiles?” and they could tell you were afraid of crocodiles, they would answer no, even if it was the most crocodile-infested river in Africa.

      Trying to find a source for this.

      • I have seen a similar pattern described for modern India. You ask someone if he can do something for you and if he can’t he doesn’t want to say so. So he says he will and then keeps putting it off. There are apparently conversational tactics for working around this used by the locals, but I no longer remember the details.

  12. Steve Sailer says:

    How much has the field of happiness research actually accomplished over the decades? I’m a big fan of most kinds of social science research, but happiness studies don’t give me a warm feeling like I’ve actually learned anything from them.

    • j1000000 says:

      I agree that they’ve accomplished little, but that in itself seems fairly significant to me.

  13. Steve Sailer says:

    The percentage of Amish who drop out when given a chance to before adult baptism appears to have dropped over the generations. Harpending and Cochran speculated in 2014 that as those less satisfied leave, the Amish have been evolving to become “plainer” (i.e., more satisfied with the Amish life):

    http://takimag.com/article/race_of_the_amish_steve_sailer/print#axzz5BHqRM5nD

    • Well... says:

      That’s the “boiling off” effect, right?

      • Doctor Mist says:

        Surely not exactly. In a given population, like a political movement over a moderate span of time, you would expect boiling off to make the group more uniform and thus to decline, purely as a “thermodynamic” effect.

        But if successive generations of Amish are becoming less likely to drop out, it does suggest to me that there is something more systemic going on.

    • johan_larson says:

      Another possibility: the gap between contemporary American society and the Amish is widening, making it harder to leave. If you live in an Amish community that pretty much froze its tech level at 1900, making the jump to 1950s America with phones and cars was manageable, but jumping to 2000s America with the Internet and smartphones is much harder. Just to begin with: the Amish don’t have high school degrees, and you’re kind of screwed today without one.

      • Amish seem to do pretty well at starting small businesses, which is the sort of thing that doesn’t require a high school degree, might be easier if you have been brought up helping your parents run a farm or household.

      • Matt M says:

        How does this contrast with all the stories you read about illiterate African farmers who use smartphone apps to sell their crops?

        I’m just not sure I buy your premise. A lot of the advances in technology in recent years have been in the vein of advance in UI designed such that technology is more intuitive to use.

        Is an iphone inherently harder to use than a rotary dial telephone?

  14. Zephalinda says:

    Also worth tossing into the “Are happiness measures reliable?” pileon: are we sure that happiness even exists as a substantive part of the universal human experience? The concept as it’s being used in these studies, i.e. as an ongoing interior feeling of “deep contentment or pleasure,” and incidentally a rating of subjective life success, certainly feels very Modern Commercial West to me in itself. I can’t see why we would expect this to be a thing that people in non-modern and/or non-Western cultural milieus would feel or reliably report, much less reliably report in comparison with us.

    Case in point: The historical-usage section of the Oxford English Dictionary lists “happy” meaning only “fortunate, lucky” as regards objective exterior circumstances, well through the 16th century. After that, you start seeing it used to report feelings of subjective pleasure in response to specific conditions or states (marriage, living in a particular country), but the first listing they give that approximates the sense in these studies is from 1785, and is an Enlightenment thinker, William Paley, specifically trying to establish happiness as a construct: “In strictness, any condition, in which the amount or aggregate of pleasure exceeds that of pain,..may be denominated happy.”

    These are just dictionary examples, so I’d expect our current usage to have been emerging since quite a bit before that, cf. Declaration of Independence. But still, trying to find a word that expresses what we mean by “happiness” even back before the mid-17th century is pretty tough. There’s contentment, but that has more to do with resignation to circumstances, and lacks the aspirational demand-more spirit of present-day American happiness. Cheerfulness captures that smiley, feeley quality of our happiness, but is also supposed to be more an act of the will than a natural response to circumstances (you can, and indeed should, work to bear suffering “cheerfully,” and that doesn’t make the cheer fake or anything). Being pleased or taking pleasure is clearly situational. “Joyfulness” is, again, a response to a situation. Being “satisfied” conveys willingness to accept the current situation, but doesn’t have a particularly strong affective component. So really, was anyone happy at all back in 1710? Is there anyone in Shakespeare who’s clearly feeling or expressing the Diener version of “happiness”? Is there in Homer?

    Asking about “happiness” across cultures feels to me like doing a cross-cultural survey of the subjective “spiciness” of people’s diet: there may be some core of common biology as regards stress hormones/ heat receptors, but it’s filtered through so many layers of cultural and individual framing that what you get on the 7-point scale at the end will be effectively meaningless.

    • Doctor Mist says:

      This is really interesting. I don’t have much to add but I wanted to call it out in the hopes that others will notice it.

      Is there anything to learn from the fact that Jefferson’s “pursuit of happiness” could easily have been “property”, as it was expressed by Locke? Perhaps by “happiness” Jefferson indeed meant something more like “luck”, and its pursuit was “the freedom to take a chance at bettering one’s situation”; in that context “property” might mean simply that one has the right to keep what one has won, and the two phrases are perhaps closer in intent than they seem centuries later.

      A quick google leads me to this interesting essay, showing that Locke used the phrase in another context, and seems to have meant something closer to what I might call “self-respect”, deriving from the Epicurean formula

      Happiness the aim of life.
      Virtue the foundation of happiness.
      Utility the test of virtue.

      (Jefferson’s formulation)

      I’m about halfway through Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed (in which “liberalism” means the whole Western project, encompassing both classical liberalism and progressivism), and he makes a similar claim, that the post-Enlightenment writers co-opted the word “liberty” to mean something very different from what it meant to classical and early Christian writers, who, he says, meant something more like what I might call “self-mastery” — freedom from enslavement to one’s own appetites, weaknesses, and flaws. I’d be very interested in hearing a rebuttal of that claim if there is one.

      Searching through Shakespeare for the word “happy” agrees with your observation. In all the cases I have found, “lucky” is just as good a meaning as “joyful”, and often arguably better — though of course in almost all cases it’s easy to imagine that a lucky person would feel joy at the luck. But I see lots of uses with the structure, “If this happens you will be happy,” and so far none with the sense “If this happens it will make you happy”. One passage is puzzling: in Love’s Labours’ Lost, the gentlemen disguise themselves as Russians (okay) to spec out the ladies. There is badinage, and later Rosaline relates the experience:

      We four indeed confronted were with four
      In Russian habit: here they stay’d an hour,
      And talk’d apace; and in that hour, my lord,
      They did not bless us with one happy word.

      “Happy” here obviously doesn’t mean “lucky”, but it certainly doesn’t mean “cheerful” either; it seems to be closer to “well-chosen” or “sensible” or “worth my time to hear”.

      This is fun.

      • Matt M says:

        Is there anything to learn from the fact that Jefferson’s “pursuit of happiness” could easily have been “property”

        I recall hearing that in the original draft it was “property,” but the abolitionist-leaning side demanded it be changed out of fear that it would imply a perpetual right to own slaves.

        • Doctor Mist says:

          Interesting.

          Wikipedia actually has a page on the phrase, which says it was “pursuit of happiness” even in Jefferson’s first draft, partly at the instigation of Franklin, who considered property to be a “creature of society” and hence a legitimate object of taxation. Go figure.

          I had thought that the Virginia Declaration of Rights was the obvious predecessor to this passage, with the change from property to happiness, but in fact it has both:

          the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety

          That certainly reads just fine if you imagine “happiness” meant what we mean today, though arguably it works as well if you take “happy” to mean “fortunate” and therefore “happiness” to mean “fortune”.

          Wikipedia doesn’t say anything about mollifying abolitionists, but it’s certainly a plausible speculation. It’s worth noting that the Virginia Declaration of Rights was the Virginia Declaration of Rights.

    • Douglas Knight says:

      Sure, sometimes new words appear because new concepts appear, but sometimes they just replace old words. The Online Etymology Dictionary says that happy replaced “blithe.” Shakespeare only used it 4 times, so it’s hard to be sure what he meant by it. For most purposes, you could say that it didn’t exist. But if you’re asking whether anyone in Shakespeare is happy, consider those as 4 challenges.

      Then sigh not so, but let them go
      And be you blithe and bonny
      Converting all your sounds of woe
      Into hey nonny, nonny.

      • Zephalinda says:

        OED has “blithe” as “merry,” “joyous,” or “gladsome” which agrees with my understanding of it in that passage– again, seems to express a transient experience of positive emotion, or at most a constitutional tendency to a positive and optimistic outlook (compare “sanguine”), rather than any sort of affective metric of one’s overall life satisfaction.

        In those cross-cultural surveys, “How happy are you [full stop, OR with your life, your attractiveness, your choices]?” is not at all the equivalent of “How merry are you, in general?” or even “How glad do you feel about things?”. It’s my sense that the difference reflects a lot of distinctly 18th-century assumptions baked into our use of “happiness,” which makes it an unhelpful concept for understanding the experiences of people in cultures that don’t share those assumptions.

        (The “happy word” in LLL is using it in the sense of our “felicitous,” I assume– both referring to a kind of artful good luck in hitting on a clever expression.)

  15. nameless1 says:

    How useful is self-reported happiness anyway? Everybody understands by know that asking people questions is biased towards what the subject considers the expected answer and it is better to observe actions. Are there typical things happy people do? Smile? Laugh? That could be measured? Or something more biological – serotonine levels, pupil dilatation?

    Please consider the opposite end from happiness depression. Asking people “are you sad?” is NOT a good way to diagnose depressions for the well known reasons. If people say well I guess I am not sad, but observing them you see they have insomnia, little appetite, low energy, little interest in non-mandatory activities, you would still suspect they may be depressed.

    This happened to several of my female relatives. They interpret the “are you sad?” question as “can I say in good conscience my life is so bad that I should complain? No, my life is better than the average and I feel guilty over not being thankful for it” so the answer is no, yet watching them drag themselves through their tasks was an obvious depression suspicion. The female depression denier thinks she does not want to seem ungrateful, the male depression denier thinks he does not want to seem weak. Humanity is such a logical bunch…

    So really Scott and other people at the very least turn the depression test on its head and use the opposite as a happiness test! Ask people how many hours they are sleeping (and occasionally check if they are not lying), how many hours they spend on freely chosen hobbies or activities, look at their body composition, watch if they seem to be tired…

    ESPECIALLY don’t ask religious people if they are happy! For them not being happy means being ungrateful for God’s blessings – a sin. There is an old Jewish saying if life hurts don’t say it’s bad, it’s bad, say it’s bitter, it’s bitter because G-d does not give you bad medicine, but He may give you bitter medicine. Asking him if he is happy about his life is entirely useless.

  16. Aapje says:

    Interestingly, the UN’s World Happiness Report doesn’t use measured happiness at all, but instead calls countries happier when they do better at various benchmarks, like real GDP per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity, and perceptions of corruption.

    Whether (only) those variables actually make people happier and by how much the algorithm weighs them, is very questionable, of course.

  17. bean says:

    Is there really a gulf between Pennsylvania Amish and Illinois Amish as vast as that between Swedes and Calcutta slum-dwellers?

    I take it you haven’t spent much time in Illinois.

    (I’m originally from St. Louis, and simply couldn’t resist.)

  18. SamChevre says:

    Possibly worth noting: the Amish (and the Plain world generally) really prize, and work very hard at developing, self-control. I still remember an article in one of the major FUBU Amish magazines (Family Life) on “how to interact with the health-care system if your child is in the hospital.” The two key points: have someone there to translate (adults know English, but children don’t know it as well and their competence will slip under stress) and be clear about pain/discomfort levels vs some objective comparison point, because self-reported pain levels will be much lower than English patients and this will result in less-than-optimal treatment.

    This is talking about preschoolers.

    In other words: there’s a reason that the response to “Wie gehts?” is “Es geht” and not “fine”.

  19. Swami says:

    Even assuming happiness (and/or subjective well being) is the same in non modern societies, we need to remember that the few remaining agricultural, herder and forager societies today are not currently restricted by Malthusian pressures of competing societies encroaching from all sides on their limited space. IOW they gain the benefit of a non zero sum wider environment to flourish in.

    Thus we are comparing non Malthusian foragers, herders or farmers to modern society, not the type of society which would have been predominate back in that era. Possibly a significant difference which would prevent us from concluding modernity has no effect on happiness.

  20. Well... says:

    I’m just surprised to see research on the Amish conducted by someone other than Donald Kraybill.

  21. jonm says:

    Another problem to throw on the pile is translation. A lot of these questions were translated a while ago before we had a good methodology for checking their quality. The results are not always very impressive.

    I wrote a paper a while back that found that one of the measures of postmaterialist values (basically when societies start to value things beyond money and survival) had a massive translation error that translated the English “ideas” into “ideology” in Russian and Polish and “spirituality” in Chinese, which led to some very weird time trends:
    https://www.nuffield.ox.ac.uk/politics/papers/2011/Jon%20Mellon_working%20paper%202011_08.pdf

    On the happiness side, you have real problems with the intensity of the “happy” translation. i.e. are you accidentally asking “are you ecstatic with your life?” in Denmark but “is your life at least acceptable?” in Rwanda.

    • pontifex says:

      I think “rate X on a scale of 1 to 5” style questions are interpreted different ways by different people.

      For example, Uber asks passengers to rate drivers from 1 to 5. For a while I was rating most drivers a 4, since I reserved a 5 for drivers that were exceptional in some way. But then I learned that Uber has a target of everyone rating drivers a 5, and drivers who get too many non-5-star reviews get punished. Their concept of a 5 seemed more similar to my concept of a 4.

      I think a lot of companies have caught on to this, and now ask people only to rate things “good” or “bad”. Zoom does this, for example– they ask you to give a thumbs up or thumbs down after conference calls. It’s much easier to agree about what thumbs up and thumbs down mean than a scale.

      • jonm says:

        I’m not sure if that’s really true though. The data is cleaner, but you have exactly the same problem that you and I may put our thumbs up cutoff in different places. If I only give thumbs up if everything was perfect and you give thumbs up for anything that was on balance OK then we have the same problem over again.

        • pontifex says:

          Thumbs up versus thumbs down has an obvious meaning, though— satisfied versus dissatisfied. 3/5 is a lot more ambiguous, unless the asker supplies some criteria for what each number means. For example, like the Glasgow Coma Scale.

  22. Jiro says:

    Even ignoring all the holes people have already poked in this, there’s another one: Blissful ignorance. Most people in comparing happiness assume some kind of base state from which happiness is assessed. If someone has a condition which alters that state (such as an intellectual disability which makes them unable to see why they might want something, or lack of knowledge of a distressing truth, or wireheading), it doesn’t count. So if your wife is cheating on you (and you’re not polygamous), that’s bad because in a state where you knew about it it would make you unhappy, even though it’s being concealed from you so you’re not actually unhappy right now.

    Asking whether people with no experience as functioning members of modern society are happy won’t produce a useful answer by this standard, since their answers would be affected by ignorance. You’d have to ask “of someone with experience in both societies, which would he be happier in”.

    • Ghatanathoah says:

      I’m concerned about this as well. My personality assigns great value to knowing the truth of the world, and to getting better and better at approximating it. In modern society my preference is better satisfied than it would be in Amish society. I have access to all sorts of books and articles about the history of the world and various fields of science and philosophy. In Amish society people like me probably think they are satisfied because they have access to Biblical truth. But really they are not.

      Modern and Amish versions of me are both happy that they know so much truth. But one of them is right about that, while the other is wrong. That counts for something pretty significant.

  23. David says:

    Whenever I see anything like this, my first reaction is this:

    Surveys measure survey-answering behavior. Even if survey taking behavior on other surveys correlate with other things, this is still just a measure of survey-answering.

    Just because surveys are easier and cheaper to administer than any other means of inferring “happiness” doesn’t mean that they have validity. Even if these results were perfectly replicable, it would not mean that the survey-answering behavior of one population is the comparable to the survey-answering behavior of another population. Validity and reliability are independent aspects of interpreting research, and often particularly tricky with social science research on large populations.

  24. Quixote says:

    The Maasai have a pretty good life satisfaction number of 5.4. But the Maasai are not exactly like other traditional societies, or like any modern societies. The typical Maasai is a stupendous bad ass. From the age of 13 onwards, the typical Maasai could 1v1 a lion with nothing but a small leather shield and a long spear. They could win a foot race against 99.99% of the world’s Non-Maasai population. The Maasai are awesome. The Maasai know they are awesome. A background objectively true certainty in one’s own awesomeness has to do a lot for life satisfaction.

  25. zima says:

    I think a better measurement would be comparing the number of people who leave the Amish versus the number of people who join the Amish or similar communities. As many commentators have said, it is hard to make cross-cultural and cross-language survey comparisons, but people’s actual actions can be compared to each other. I don’t know if that comparison has actually been done, but it seems that modern society would win that one by a huge margin. An Amish website I googled said that outsiders are allowed to join but “seldom” do so in part because it is “extremely difficult” for someone used to modern conveniences to get used to the “austere” Amish lifestyle: https://lancasterpa.com/amish/amish-frequently-asked-questions/. That’s not to say Amish life wouldn’t be better for some people, or that there aren’t things we could learn from the Amish, of course. It just seems to me that the large majority of humans would prefer modern society, and modern society does a decent job of allowing alternative cultures such as the Amish to exist for people who prefer those cultures.

  26. Ghatanathoah says:

    If Amish are so much happier than moderns, why do they need to shun people who leave the community? Why does there need to be a sharp divide where you can’t be modern without giving up your family ties. Why do they force people to choose between loved ones and modern life?

    Why not just let people who choose to no longer be Amish visit their relatives whenever they feel like it, without being shunned? Instead of one Rumspringa, just let everyone take a couple vacations to the “English” world every year. Get all of the benefits of both worlds.

    There is no reason to have to make this a binary choice. There is no reason to require that you are either Amish or English. Why not have some people who stay, some people who leave, and some who half-stay half-leave?

    The fact that this doesn’t happen indicates to me that there is something not quite right about Amish life. If Amish people were so much happier, Amish people who left for a few years could just see the error of their ways and come back, no shunning required. The fact that shunning has to be used to remove this option raises more red flags than the Soviet Union. If you are forcing people to choose between their family and modernity, that must be because you know modernity would win in a fair fight.

    • quaelegit says:

      In Legal Systems Very Different From Ours (Scott has a book review, and David Friedman has a draft online), Friedman says that shunning is one of the main punishments, and thus key to enforcing community laws.

    • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

      “You know what those people who organized their whole society around being separate from the world and worldly concerns need? To be more connected to the world and more concerned with it! I wonder what dark reason they could have for not being enthusiastic about this plan?”

      This argument, which I see whenever the topic of the Amish comes up, gives the lie to the whole idea of liberal tolerance. The Amish can keep their costume, their language, and shoofly pie but any aspect of their culture which would serve to differentiate them from the swarming mass of bugmen must be suppressed.

      This is the totalitarianism at the heart of liberal capitalist* democracy. Every good, every service, even every idea is judged solely by how well it sells in the one Market. If you don’t want to sell your children’s souls in the marketplace of ideas or sell their bodies in the labor market then we’ll take your children away “for their own good.”

      It’s less murderous than totalitarian fascism and socialism, which is greatly to its credit, but for all that totalitarian liberalism is no less inhuman than the other twentieth century ideologies.

      *If your definition of capitalism includes the Amish or a medieval town with guilds then feel free to drop this word. I’m not arguing for socialism or central planning.

      • Ghatanathoah says:

        To be more connected to the world and more concerned with it! I wonder what dark reason they could have for not being enthusiastic about this plan?

        I have no problem with any Amish person wanting to not be connected to or concerned with the world. What I have a problem with is them emotionally blackmailing their children into sharing that lack of concern. If being unconcerned with the world is so super-wonderful the children should choose it of their own volition, without needing to be deprived of their connections with their family.

        This argument, which I see whenever the topic of the Amish comes up, gives the lie to the whole idea of liberal tolerance. The Amish can keep their costume, their language, and shoofly pie but any aspect of their culture which would serve to differentiate them from the swarming mass of bugmen must be suppressed.

        There is no “they.” There are a bunch of Amish people who don’t want to interact with the world, and another bunch of Amish people who do. The former group uses shunning to emotionally blackmail the second group into doing what they want.

        If you really love your children and want what’s best for them, you shouldn’t do that. Being a decent and loving parent or other family member means accepting and helping your relatives become who they want to be, even if it means being something other than what you want them to be. If you don’t want to be concerned with the world, but your children do, you should support them for their sake. My parents supported me when I was concerned with dinosaurs, sci-fi novels, and other things they didn’t care about, because they weren’t garbage parents.

        You are using language in such a way as to portray the Amish as a monolith that all want the same thing, and are being persecuted by liberal culture for nonconformity. The truth is that they are persecuting other Amish people for nonconformity, and I want them to stop. You are basically claiming my desire to protect people from intolerance is a form of intolerance, because you have lumped the group being intolerant in with its victims and declared that they are all the same kind of person and I need to mind my own business and not interfere in “their” affairs. Again, there is no “they,” there are only individuals.

        If you don’t want to sell your children’s souls in the marketplace of ideas or sell their bodies in the labor market then we’ll take your children away “for their own good.”

        I’m not arguing that the Amish should be forced to sell their children’s souls. I’m arguing that they shouldn’t punish their children for making a choice they disagree with. Children are human beings with goals and desires of their own. Your argument only makes sense if you view children as passive extensions of their parents.

        • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

          Roughly a quarter of all Amish leave every generation in exactly the way you claim that they are unable to. If you had spent a few minutes looking at the numbers for defection or at how Amish adult baptism works you would have realized that nobody is being forced to stay against their wills.

          So why this supposed concern about the well-being of people who you have never met, people who you have no evidence to suggest are being oppressed, people who in fact seem to be doing just fine on their own?

          It’s because they have values that stubbornly exist outside the liberal wordview. That refusal to acknowledge that we’re at the End of History is the true crime that they’re guilty of.

          I’m not arguing that the Amish should be forced to sell their children’s souls. I’m arguing that they shouldn’t punish their children for making a choice they disagree with.

          Here’s a good example.

          The way I was raised, and I was brought up pretty damn liberal, there was a word for parents punishing their children for making choices that they disagree with. Parenting.

          A parent who doesn’t reward good behavior or punish bad behavior isn’t worthy of the name. Because then they aren’t teaching their children any values and they aren’t teaching them the discipline to follow those values.

          How little would you have to care about your children if you would nod in approval every time they made a mistake which could impact the rest of their lives, much less a mistake that could endanger their immortal souls? Would you be happy for your child’s choice to start taking meth, or their choice to join a street gang?

          But a child with a good upbringing and personal discipline doesn’t need to cultivate a brand image nor any use for totalizing political ideologies. The End of History demands blank slates washed clean by the fluorescent light of television and smartphone screens. And if CPS agents need to confiscate those kids at the end of a gun to get them in front of those screens, then so be it.

          • Ghatanathoah says:

            Roughly a quarter of all Amish leave every generation in exactly the way you claim that they are unable to. If you had spent a few minutes looking at the numbers for defection or at how Amish adult baptism works you would have realized that nobody is being forced to stay against their wills.

            I am completely aware of that. I always was. I know the Amish only use nonviolent methods like shunning to prevent their children from leaving.

            That’s not good enough. It’s wrong to even use nonviolent methods to control your children like that. It shouldn’t be illegal, no Amish person (or any person for that matter) should go to jail for shunning their adult children. But it’s still wrong and deserves condemnation. Just because you have a legal right to do something, doesn’t mean it’s a good thing to do. It is cruel and manipulative to the child.

            So why this supposed concern about the well-being of people who you have never met, people who you have no evidence to suggest are being oppressed, people who in fact seem to be doing just fine on their own?

            Because if they are doing just fine they should be able to get their children to stay Amish without shunning them. They should be able to say “You get to come back to the farm and visit us and we’ll still talk to you and love you. If you leave for the modern world, you won’t suffer any negative consequences other than a strongly and politely expressed wish you wouldn’t do that.” If the same percentage of children stayed Amish after that, then maybe I’d believe they weren’t doing anything wrong.

            The way I was raised, and I was brought up pretty damn liberal, there was a word for parents punishing their children for making choices that they disagree with. Parenting.

            No, good parenting is helping children develop the skills they need to make their own choices, not making choices for them. Parents who try to control the choices and lives of their children are bad parents. If the life the parent wants for their child is so awesome, they shouldn’t need to punish the child with shunning for not choosing it. The child should choose it for themselves, without any additional incentives.

            A parent who doesn’t reward good behavior or punish bad behavior isn’t worthy of the name. Because then they aren’t teaching their children any values and they aren’t teaching them the discipline to follow those values.

            But the problem is that Amish parents aren’t punishing bad behavior. They are punishing nonconformist behavior.

            Also, in this case the punishment seems grossly disproportionate to the crime. Your child wanting to live in a different community/religion does not seem worth cutting off all contact with them. In fact, it seems actively counterproductive, since if you still see them occasionally you’ll have chances to get them to change their mind later.

            How little would you have to care about your children if you would nod in approval every time they made a mistake which could impact the rest of their lives

            There’s a difference between expressing verbal disapproval at your adult children’s choices and punishing your adult children for their choices. The first is being caring, the second is being a control freak. A truly responsible and mature parent should respect their adult children’s’ autonomy, even if they disagree with the choices they make with it.

            Would you be happy for your child’s choice to start taking meth, or their choice to join a street gang?

            No, but I wouldn’t cut off contact from them unless their choices began to pose some sort of physical threat to me. Meth and street gangs are bad examples because meth addicts and gang members often threaten their families with physical harm, whereas Amish people who leave the community do not.

            A better analogy might be something like if my children were in different fandoms than me, shipped different characters from me, believed in astrology, or joined a different political party than me. In which case, no, cutting off contact with them would be stupid.

            In fact, it happens that my brother did join a religious group that I disagree strongly with. I still talk to him and visit him frequently, because I respect him even though I disapprove of his actions.

            The End of History demands blank slates washed clean by the fluorescent light of television and smartphone screens.

            Mass media makes people smarter and more individualistic. The idea that TV and the Internet rot your brains is an idea that should have died last century. It’s just snobbery posing as concern.

            And if CPS agents need to confiscate those kids at the end of a gun to get them in front of those screens, then so be it.

            Why do you keep bringing CPS up? We are talking about how parents should treat their adult children.

          • quaelegit says:

            >Why do you keep bringing CPS up? We are talking about how parents should treat their adult children.

            Ah, you might be talking past each other. I assumed you were talking about minor children until the sentence “There’s a difference between expressing verbal disapproval at your adult children’s choices and punishing your adult children for their choices.” Possibly Nabil ad Dajjal assumed the same.

          • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

            @Ghatanathoah,

            But the problem is that Amish parents aren’t punishing bad behavior. They are punishing nonconformist behavior.

            Also, in this case the punishment seems grossly disproportionate to the crime. Your child wanting to live in a different community/religion does not seem worth cutting off all contact with them.

            It is extremely bad behavior if you actually believe in your community and religion.

            “Oh, you want to reject God and the traditions which we’ve lived by for years to live a life of hedonism in New Babylon? Great, don’t forget to write home!”

            That’s nuts if you take either religion or traditional morality (Christian or otherwise) even remotely seriously. From that perspective, your kid isn’t just rejecting the path not just to eudaimonia on Earth but to eternal paradise in heaven! That’s damn near the most serious screw up someone could possibly make.

            There’s a difference between expressing verbal disapproval at your adult children’s choices and punishing your adult children for their choices. The first is being caring, the second is being a control freak. A truly responsible and mature parent should respect their adult children’s’ autonomy, even if they disagree with the choices they make with it.

            I’m sorry but that’s nuts.

            If my father found out that I was fathering illegitmate kids or mugging people for drug money he would hop in his car and drive back up here to kick my ass in person. And I sure as hell am going to make sure that my kids don’t act like savages no matter how old they are.

            You don’t let someone that you claim to care about ruin their lives or turn themselves into a monster.

            Why do you keep bringing CPS up?

            Because that’s the obvious remedy according to your logic.

            The Amish raising their children Amish is intolerably illiberal and probably abusive. Therefore we need the liberal state to step in to end this abuse by taking their kids away and shooting any dogs which happen to be nearby. Don’t worry, there are a lot of friendly pedophiles in the foster care system to take care of them and make sure they get their puberty blockers.

          • mdet says:

            The Amish raising their children Amish is intolerably illiberal and probably abusive. Therefore we need the liberal state to step in to end this abuse by taking their kids away.

            Maybe I’m reading Ghantanathoah wrong, but I feel like you are grossly misrepresenting them. As I read G’s comments, they’re saying that they personally think that someone who leaves the Amish and comes back deserves to be welcomed — like the parable of the Prodigal Son. But instead (according to my understanding of G’s comments) someone who leaves and comes back is shunned and ostracized.

            I don’t know if you’re trying to make a slippery slope type argument, but turning “I personally think the Amish should be more like the father of the Prodigal Son” into “It is right and just to use government force and coercion to prevent people from raising their children in the Amish beliefs” looks like an enormous straw man to me.

            Edit: Ok maybe not quite like the Prodigal Son, since he apologized and repented on his return while G is including people who still intend to return to modern life. But still, could you be a little more charitable and try saying “I think the Amish would have a very hard time maintaining the distinctness of their culture if they allowed the border between themselves and modernity to become porous, and I think it’s ok to value that distinctness even if it comes at the cost of some children being cut off from their parents” instead of immediately accusing G of being a totalitarian who wants to use the government to abolish the Amish at gunpoint?

          • Nornagest says:

            Weren’t we just talking about the fallacy of “you believe X, I believe X implies Y, therefore you believe Y”?

          • quaelegit says:

            Also sorry to pile on, but @Nabil ad Dajjal — did you see G’s post (and my response) where they clarified that they were talking about ADULT children? CPS isn’t for people over 18.

          • I know the Amish only use nonviolent methods like shunning to prevent their children from leaving.

            Shunning, Meidung, is the last ditch sanction for someone who has sworn as an adult to keep the rules, violated them, and kept doing so despite a series of lower level sanctions. Nothing in Amish rules requires parents whose child does not decide to join the church to shun him.

            You appear to be criticizing the Amish on the basis of a misunderstanding of their rules. Obviously a family, Amish or not, could choose to refuse to associate with a child who has done something they disapprove of, but that isn’t part of the Ordnung, the rules of an Amish congregation.

            In the case of a child who, as an adult, has become Amish then changes his mind, the ultimate result is meidung. That doesn’t forbid all communication, but it limits it. A member of the family who is being shunned doesn’t eat with the family. A payment to someone being shunned isn’t done directly but by leaving money on a table for him to pick up or similar indirect method. If a husband is under meidung and the wife is not they are not supposed to sleep together.

            All of which has to be qualified by the observation that each congregation has its own Ordnung, some stricter than others, so details of the interpretation of meidung will vary.

          • LadyJane says:

            It is extremely bad behavior if you actually believe in your community and religion.

            Yes, but I reject the object-level claims of the Amish worldview, so that point is irrelevant in my assessment of their actions, which I’m judging through the lens of modern liberal standards of morality. To the Aztecs, rejecting the practice of ritual human sacrifice would be considered “extremely bad behavior,” but that doesn’t mean I would consider them to be morally justified in sacrificing anyone who criticizes the practice.

            If your point was simply that the behavior of the Amish makes sense within the context of their own worldview, then I agree. But it seemed like you were making a broader point that the rest of us shouldn’t find their behavior objectionable, and I can’t agree with that.

          • Deiseach says:

            It is cruel and manipulative to the child.

            Perhaps, though I do wonder how cruel it is to a thirty year old. But there is cruelty in any decision; the cruelty seems to be “you are judging your child instead of accepting everything they want to do themselves”.
            But someone who leaves the Amish community but wants to come back and visit and be treated the same as always is also making judgments on “I may love you but I disagree with your values and think your beliefs are mistaken and I reject them”.

            You don’t think parents also find it cruel and manipulative to be told “if you really loved me like you claim you do, you’d drop all your deepest values and pretend it doesn’t matter that I’m living contrary to all your principles”?

        • @Ghatanathoah:

          I think you are confusing two different situations. If an Amish child decides not to be Amish and leaves, there is no reason for other Amish to shun him. The Amish are Anabaptists—they don’t believe in infant baptism. Shunning would only apply to someone who has chosen to become Amish as a (possibly young) adult. And at that point he is told that it is better not to join than to join, swear to follow the rules, and then defect.

          • Ghatanathoah says:

            Thank you for the clarification. You are right, it is significantly less cruel if the Amish stay in contact with their children if they choose to not be baptized. If that’s the case I object far less to their behavior.

        • Lasagna says:

          If you really love your children and want what’s best for them, you shouldn’t do that. Being a decent and loving parent or other family member means accepting and helping your relatives become who they want to be, even if it means being something other than what you want them to be.

          This is a strange definition of being a “decent and loving parent”.

          “Daddy, I want to be a pornographer! Or a drug dealer! Or become a skinhead! Or a professional baseball player, even though I’m 30 and never even made the farm team! Help me!”

          A parent’s job is often to say “no”, and to offer wise counsel a child may not want to hear. Your definition of a good parent as eternally indulgent is bizarre.

          And you aren’t being tolerant. “Tolerance” requires you to accept different cultures, not simply different choices made by completely autonomous individuals.

          • Ghatanathoah says:

            A parent’s job is often to say “no”, and to offer wise counsel a child may not want to hear. Your definition of a good parent as eternally indulgent is bizarre.

            There’s a difference between being a parent who gives advice when a child makes bad decisions and a parent who tries to control their child’s life. The difference is that in the first case, the parent is trying to help the child achieve something the child wants, and is giving them useful advice on how to accomplish that. In the second case, the parent wants something for the child other than what the child wants for themself, and cares so little about their child that they run roughshod over them.

            For instance, in your baseball example, a good parent would say something like “It looks like you love baseball, but you aren’t good enough to be a pro, why don’t you play baseball as a hobby and get a day job?” A controlling parent would say “Baseball is the devil! You should work on my farm instead, even though you hate farming!”

            Also, some of the other examples you give I can’t see how a good parent could disapprove of. Pornography makes the world a better place, so any parent should approve of their child going into such a virtuous profession. It is illegal to sell many drugs, so a good parent might encourage their child to become a bartender or liquor wholesaler so they will be safe from the police when they sell drugs, but otherwise I don’t see the problem.

            And you aren’t being tolerant. “Tolerance” requires you to accept different cultures, not simply different choices made by completely autonomous individuals.

            Isn’t it the same thing? Cultures are just large collections of individuals. If I accept choices made by members of a culture, it’s the same as accepting a culture. If I try to protect one member of a culture from other members of it I am not being “intolerant” of that culture.

          • Lasagna says:

            @Ghatanathoah:

            I really, really disagree with almost all your positions here – your ideas of what constitutes a “culture” for example, I think are way off; they are larger then a collection of autonomous individuals – but I deeply respect your courteous, thought out and reasonable presentation of your arguments. 🙂 Thank you for an interesting discussion, and I look forward to reading more of it. You didn’t even respond harshly to what was, in hindsight, a kind of jerky tone in my hastily drafted post.

            This type of polite discussion is what keeps me coming back to SSC.

          • Randy M says:

            “Tolerance” requires you to accept different cultures, not simply different choices made by completely autonomous individuals.

            Tolerance is a word that can be used is more contexts than multiculturalism.
            It is also not a value that is an absolute good in any context., of course. Discrimination, after all, is a synonym for wisdom.

      • Doctor Mist says:

        Up the page a bit I mentioned Deneen’s How Liberalism Failed, which (so far) I think you might like. Your characterization of the situation is in terms used by the Conservative wing of modern liberalism, while the Progressive wing would talk about self-actualization or some such, but in both cases it’s about how the liberal yardstick of atomized individuals is seen as the only legitimate way to evaluate something.

        I’m a libertarian of long standing, so my first reaction to this kind of claim is that it is the only legitimate way — norms that hobble the free individual are bad norms. But Deneen tells the story of how this philosophy has continually led to greater statism (!): as we look to the state to free us from stultifying local norms, liberal culture aggressively destroys other cultures, and in the end contains the seeds of its own failure.

        Not sure I believe it all yet, but it has caused me to see a few things on “my side” a little differently.

        • LadyJane says:

          I’m somewhat libertarian-leaning myself, and I feel rather conflicted about this. There’s a part of me that believes that maybe the Amish and the Mormons and the Evangelical Christians and the Hasidic Jews and the Islamic fundamentalists and the Black Nationalists and the Neo-Nazis and the Marxist-Leninists should be able to form their own isolated communities where they can run things their way. Even if their ways of life are illiberal and repressive, they made the choice to live that way, as is their right. And hopefully, having their own enclaves would prevent them from trying to enforce their ways of life on everyone else. Plus it would enable liberals to form their own enclaves centered around their own values, without being forced to dilute their ideals to accommodate the needs and wants of all those illiberal groups.

          But there’s another part of me that feels like that kind of Archipelagean thinking is naive and that it would never work in real life. Partially because land and resources are extremely limited, partially because modernization and globalization is making it increasingly difficult for self-sufficient isolated communities to exist at all, and partially because the desire to spread one’s own values may very well be hardwired into humanity.

          And there’s yet another part of me that wonders if that sort of Atomic Communitarianism would really be desirable, even if it was possible: If living under a particular system causes people to be less happy and/or have less control over their own lives, then should the system in question continue existing at all? And if people keep freely and happily choosing a system that makes them less free and less happy overall, isn’t that a sign that they’re not clearly and rationally thinking the choices through, especially if they’ve been indoctrinated to believe in that system for their whole lives? And that’s without even getting into the moral complications of allowing new children to be raised under such a system. Maybe we’d all be better off in the long run if we allowed liberal Western universal culture to continue on its current course of world domination, without giving any quarter or reprieve to its enemies.

          It really depends on whether the values of liberalism can be applied to the meta-level where liberalism itself resides. Can freedom of choice be extended to letting people choose to give up their freedom of choice? Can tolerance of others be extended to those who refuse to tolerate others? Some liberals would argue they can’t; others would argue they must, for those principles to have any meaning at all. Myself, I’m honestly not sure, and my own feelings echo Scott’s closing statements on How The West Was Won: “I am mostly just on the side of consistency. After that I have no idea what to do.”

          • Partially because land and resources are extremely limited, partially because modernization and globalization is making it increasingly difficult for self-sufficient isolated communities to exist at all

            Julian Simon titled one of his books “The Ultimate Resource,” meaning people. In the modern world a group of productive people don’t need to be given land or other resources, they can trade for them.

            And they don’t have to be self-sufficient. I don’t see a conflict between the picture you were suggesting of different communities with different rules and the existence of trade between them. The Amish are not self-sufficient, although they could probably come closer than most of us if the chose—they buy things from and sell things to non-Amish.

          • Deiseach says:

            And if people keep freely and happily choosing a system that makes them less free and less happy overall, isn’t that a sign that they’re not clearly and rationally thinking the choices through, especially if they’ve been indoctrinated to believe in that system for their whole lives?

            Which could equally apply to liberal universal culture, because an outsider could always point to “look at these people and the terrible choices they are making which ruin their lives, plainly your system is not working” and “you only think your system is good because you’ve been indoctrinated into it”.

            There’s no easy, perfect system to say “yes, this has no flaws at all and will always work out great”.

          • SamChevre says:

            If living under a particular system causes people to be less happy and/or have less control over their own lives, then should the system in question continue existing at all? And if people keep freely and happily choosing a system that makes them less free and less happy overall, isn’t that a sign that they’re not clearly and rationally thinking the choices through

            I think you are entangling “freedom/control over one’s own life” and “happiness” in a way that makes this decision more difficult.

            Giving up (some) freedoms/capabilities for happiness/satisfaction is a very common trade-off in life–marriage is a central example, but having children, deliberately not having children, taking a job, going to college….all involve reducing your options to get something you value. And in most cases (obviously, not for me) that’s what the Plain are doing–giving up options in favor of a commitment they find satisfying.

          • Which could equally apply to liberal universal culture

            If anything more strongly. Anyone growing up Amish can see the non-Amish culture around him and form some opinion of it. In some but not all Amish communities, teenagers are expected to participate in the non-Amish culture, at least to the extent of going to movies and possibly driving cars and doing various things that the Amish don’t do.

            Someone who grows up in mainstream American culture has much less exposure to alternatives such as the Amish, hence is in a worse position to compare them to his culture.

            And the same is true of subsets of mainstream culture. I remember my sister commenting at some point long ago that although I liked writing poetry, it wouldn’t occur to me to move to Greenwich village and try to live there as a poet. Given my background, the obvious life choice was to be a professor or some other profession along vaguely similar lines—she ended up as a lawyer.

    • Edward Scizorhands says:

      A primary feature of the Amish is “no ongoing connections to the outside world.” You can’t have that and also connections to the outside world.

    • SamChevre says:

      I think you are missing something critical. Almost anyone can leave the Amish, without being shunned: a lot of people do. The key point is, you cannot do that AFTER, as an adult, joining the group and agreeing to be bound by its rule.

      The question you are asking makes the same lack of sense as “why can’t Joe’s ex-wife be happy to hang out with him after he left her for someone twenty years younger?”

      • Jiro says:

        The key point is, you cannot do that AFTER, as an adult, joining the group and agreeing to be bound by its rule.

        I don’t believe in contracts that let you sell yourself into slavery, or sign away certain basic rights or obligations. And I think it is evil to willingly accept such a contract from someone else. The fact that the Amish have an internal system which says that they can shun some people because these people made “agreements” means nothing to me; no parent should accept a contract which lets them penalize the child by withdrawing parental affection when the child breaks the contract.

        This is doubly so because I don’t see the people making the “agreements” to be agreeing with informed consent anyway.

        • Doctor Mist says:

          That’s a pretty broad denial. If I paid you ten billion dollars to never vote again, or to never drive again, or to never own a firearm, would that be evil of me?

          I suppose the answer might be, Yes, a tiny bit evil, because it validates a form of contract that at its extreme leads to making Soylent Green out of the poor.

          From a different direction, is there nothing a child might do that would justify a parent withdrawing affection? I don’t believe that, and I doubt that you do either. [Edit: in fact, I see below that you do not.] If so, what you’re really saying is that you disagree with this particular set of values because you think the punishment is not commensurate with the offense. But it’s harder to hold that as the high ground.

    • Deiseach says:

      Why not just let people who choose to no longer be Amish visit their relatives whenever they feel like it, without being shunned?

      Freeloaders. Slope off to the wicked decadent Worldly World and enjoy the pleasures of Vanity Fair, then when you need help go home to the poor but virtuous family. You don’t contribute anything to them and bear no costs but get the benefit of their lifestyle.

      How would you feel about Cousin Fred always dropping in to your house to crash on your couch when he gets kicked out for non-payment of rent, borrowing money from you that he will never repay, eating food and using the facilities of your house but not contributing in doing chores, expecting you to do paperwork for him that he is too lazy to bother doing himself, etc etc etc? Wouldn’t you shun Cousin Fred after a while or instigate some kind of “if you want to stay in my house, you need to do this” policy? How would you react to “But why can’t Fred just visit his family (you) without being penalised” from an outsider?

      Even without Fred being a moocher, there can be resentment over the City Cousin who drops in on the Country Cousins and expects to be entertained, fed, brought around to the tourist places, all at the drop of a hat any time day or night (this happens often with Irish families where American or English cousins arrive to the Old Home and don’t seem to realise that the relatives have jobs and lives of their own and can’t be on hand 24/7 to ferry them around as tour guides and entertainers and home cooks, especially if the cousins don’t contribute anything to the cost of all this).

      It’s the same argument about illegal immigrants or UBI versus jobs and the rest of it: if people can have the benefits of X without needing to pay the penalties of X, how is that fair to those who do pay the penalties? It’s the Little Red Hen – if you want to share in eating the loaf, you need to have helped somewhere along the line in producing it.

      • Doctor Mist says:

        All right, all right, I can take a hint.

        –Fred

      • Jiro says:

        Parents have obligations to their children that you don’t have to your city cousin who drops in, and that the country doesn’t have to foreigners. Wanting to not be shunned isn’t mooching just because the child wants to be not-shunned without paying to be not-shunned.

        • Deiseach says:

          Do children not have obligations to their parents? If the country parents go to visit the city child, does the city child feel obliged to change everything in order to fit in with what the parents like/believe, or does the child say they’re living their own life now and some things are different?

          I see enough examples of people willing to drop and shun family members over being insufficiently liberal or LGBT rights friendly or the wrong politics or ‘a woman’s right to choose’ or racism, so the shunning isn’t all one-way and confined to the conservative religious traditionalists.

          • Jiro says:

            Do children not have obligations to their parents?

            Yes, but only for very noncentral examples of obligations. For instance, if the child tries to murder the parents for their money, I would accept if the parents withheld love from their child.

            I see enough examples of people willing to drop and shun family members over…

            I’m not as leftist as you think and I would think it’s bad to shun children for those reasons too.

    • fortaleza84 says:

      One possible explanation is that most people have a tendency to make poor decisions. For example, an obese person might be happier in general if he were forced to stay on a strict diet, but if you give him freedom to make his own decisions, he might start pigging out on potato chips and cake. i.e. he might trade a short term spike in happiness for less happiness overall and on average.

      So perhaps shunning serves the purpose of imposing immediate and severe consequences for behavior, which is a better motivator than consequences which are more uncertain and amorphous.

  27. Antistotle says:

    …are places that have absorbed the worst parts of modernity – like totalitarianism, pollution, and slums

    I’ll give you the totalitarianism as a function of modernity but only because previous monarchs *couldn’t* enforce their will quite to the same degree without modern technology. However pollution and slums are not a feature of “modernity”, they’re parts of the past we haven’t managed to erase.

    Hell, weren’t you going on a month or so ago about some Victorian age English author talking about the hard life and times of Victorian coal mining communities? You think this is some curse that *started* during the industrial revolution?

    • millericksamuel says:

      Whilst pollution to some degree is older the Victorian age was well into the industrial revolution so I’m not sure how that is relevant.

  28. baconbits9 says:

    but there are two important caveats.

    First, the Biswas-Diener book compares the survey of Amish (mean age 44) to the Diener & Diener survey of college students in modern society. If college students are happier than 44-year-olds (they are), that’s a potential confounder.

    Just two caveats? It wasn’t even a sample of college aged kids, it was a sample of college students which has got to be its own set of confounders.

  29. Gil says:

    Scott points out that one of the studies compares 44 year olds to college kids. This seems like a huge issue with these surveys doesn’t it? I’m not very familiar with the literature on happiness or happiness studies but I would think that you would want to compare people at similar points in their lives. I would lean toward older people because they’ve had a chance to really experience their society throughout varying life stages and through all kinds of events and crises.

  30. vaniver says:

    Second, the book notes that the Amish’s self-reported total happiness is lower than their self-reported happiness with any individual facet of their lives. Just look at the table above – their romantic life is a 6.1, their health is a 5.7, their attractiveness is a 5.1 (those beards, right?) – but the two totals, self-satisfaction and life-satisfaction – are 4.2 and 4.4 respectively. It seems like they’re averaging a bunch of numbers and getting an average lower than any of the individual inputs.

    No, their rating of their self is 4.2. Note that this is basically the same as the Maasai, who only rate one component (their income) as lower than their total, in a way that suggests the minimum factor has to be at least half of the weight. The Inughuit aren’t far behind, with only three factors that are below the average.

    It seems not crazy that the worst factor in someone’s life would mostly determine their overall life satisfaction, rather than averaging together many different components, but it’s not obvious why the same doesn’t seem to be true for moderns.

  31. moridinamael says:

    Is there any source of data that could allow one to distinguish the happiness levels of hunter-gatherer groups, herding groups, farming groups, and moderns? I would expect a roughly decreasing ranking of happiness along that continuum.

    • beleester says:

      The first table includes the Amish (farming), Maasai (herding), and Inughuit (hunting and whaling). It doesn’t seem to match your hypothesis.

      Was there another source of data that you wanted or something?

  32. R Flaum says:

    Biswas-Diener guesses that modern people like to present themselves well, and traditional societies are more likely to value humility and treat pride as a sin.

    I’m skeptical of this explanation, for two reasons. First, you see something similar on customer satisfaction surveys. I’ve seen surveys done by Stop & Shop that asked people to rate stores from one to ten on various metrics (helpful staff, food quality, et cetera), as well as to rate the store as a whole, and the overall rating was often out of the range of the individual rating. Even stranger, the overall rating isn’t much affected by changes in the individual ratings — one store in Connecticut was seeing literally all of its individual ratings drop year-over-year, but its overall rating stayed almost exactly where it was.
    Secondly, imagine that studies showed the opposite of what they do — Amish rating their overall happiness higher than the individual facets and non-Amish doing the reverse. You could use exactly the same “humility” story to explain this. “Amish are supposed to be humble and satisfied with their lot in life, while modern society, which values humility less, encourages people to aim higher.”
    Also, trying to generalize from the Amish to “traditional societies” as a group doesn’t seem sound to me. There are plenty of pre-modern societies in which the nobility built huge extravagances to show off their wealth.

    • Aapje says:

      one store in Connecticut was seeing literally all of its individual ratings drop year-over-year, but its overall rating stayed almost exactly where it was.

      Perhaps the other stores got similarly worse?

      • R Flaum says:

        Why would that affect overall rating but not individual ratings?

        • Aapje says:

          I think you mean the other way around. If people judge the individual metrics by a more objective standard (or relative to non-store experiences), which has been declining, but the store is overall one of the better stores around, because other stores are getting worse as well, then you can get this pattern.

  33. Yavor Stefanov says:

    What would a survey result yield if the question was “how healthy are you?” or “how wealthy are you?” or “how normal is your weight?” Well, compared to what exactly?

    In order to answer correctly (assuming a good faith try and honesty, which is in itself a problematic assumption), one would need at the very least know the intent behind the question.

    Is the question really “how healthy are you compared to everyone else (average or median, makes a big difference?)?” or “how healthy are you compared to optimal human healthiness (which is maybe itself unknowable).” Or even “how healthy are you compared to your personal presumptive optimal?”

    In America, the default for many things is “great.” In a restaurant, if you tell the waiter the food was okay, a usual response may be “what did you not like about it?” That’s weird. On the flip side, if you said – Oh my god, I loved it, the waiter may not even think twice.

    Also, people always have to reinvent adjectives because of “positivity inflation” – just today a coworker said his salad was to die for. This is especially common with younger people who are always exaggerating wildly the nature of their experiences (the younger the person, the more you have to discount the self-reported awesomeness of the experience) … Meanwhile the plain old and simple word “happy” continues to be used in research.

    Ultimately, happiness is supposed to be subjectively experienced and we have absolutely no way to compare ours to anyone elses so the entire question is moot. It’s like asking “how strong do these roses smell?” How should I know?

    • A1987dM says:

      What would a survey result yield if the question was “how healthy are you?”

      Indeed, I seem to recall that Europeans on average say they’re less healthy than Americans the same age when asked that question even though by objective standards they’re healthier (or vice versa, or something like that).

  34. benwave says:

    What’s the self-reported happiness value for lizardmen?

  35. christhenottopher says:

    I think a question to ask is, why do you want research done on the happiness of the Amish (or any culture for that matter)? If your answer is “to understand how a different cultural group approaches the expression of the emotion happiness” then have it with all the methodological caveats mentioned in the post and the comments (some of which are excellent critiques).

    If your answer is “so I can decide whether or not I want to join an Amish community” then general happiness surveys should be considered to be nearly 100% useless. Even if you deal with the numerous critiques here (the selection biases, the problems with self reports, etc), this research would say nothing about what you would experience happiness-wise. You are entirely likely to have a different happiness response than either the average human or the average member of the group who is already a member. Ditching electricity is likely a lot harder for someone who grew up with it, not to mention the whole host of other environmental and genetic differences you are likely to have.

    Next, if you’re trying to decide which societies you just want to pull some ideas from, this research is still useless. We don’t have any idea how well “self reported happiness” correlates with “phenomenologically experienced happiness” on an inter-societal level. So if your goal is adding happiness to your society, this research is no better than deciding which societies to look at by drawing names from a hat. Not to mention that this research tells you nothing about which social rules or which combination of social rules is driving happiness differences. And the interaction of a rule or practice with other rules/practices, with the underlying populace, with geography, with the local wildlife, may be far more important to determining it’s impact on happiness than the average happiness of the members of that society. Social life is complex [citation needed].

    Finally, if you want to use this to try and determine which cultures should get wiped out as part of the Great Rationalist Save The World Project (or any save the world project), screw that. There is more to life than just one’s experience of happiness. Not to mention that different people will thrive best in different cultural environments. If a culture needs to be eliminated from practice there better be a REALLY good reason and “doesn’t smile enough” fails to make that cut. A single world culture to give to everyone is a terrible idea given the diversity of humans, so the real answer is diversity of cultures plus the ability to exit a culture. Happiness research doesn’t help with that.We don’t need it to determine if a culture is so pathological it should actually be destroyed (and if you add unneeded noise to your calculations you make them less accurate not more). Such cultures announce themselves by how hard they have to work to keep people from fleeing or overthrowing them. Or alternatively by their violent and unbounded versions of expansionism.

    So happiness research is valuable for one thing, and one thing only, satisfying the curiosity of how expressions of happiness vary between groups. If you want to improve your society, to find a new society to join, or to get templates to build you new society from, happiness research is noise, not signal. If you really think people should for their own good abandon modern culture, a much more convincing point than happiness research should be people who go out and do that themselves. Communes do get formed after all, but their failure is probably less due to “woe is humanity for we cannot recognize the collective action problem of going primitive” and more “actually for most people not brought up in agricultural societies, they aren’t really that great.”

  36. petealexharris says:

    I don’t trust anyone’s self-reported description of their own happiness measured on a scale that isn’t calibrated against anything. What is 3? Is a 3 for “self” commensurable with a 3 for “morality”?

    Examine people’s opportunities to change something about their life and measure revealed preferences by seeing how often they do.

    Or maybe maximise everyone’s freedom to change whatever they like about their life and let them sort it out themselves, whether you can draw any conclusions from it or not.

  37. Fuge says:

    I really doubt the Amish are happy. I don’t know many happy people who wall themselves off from the world in fear of pollution, to the point of disowning or shunning relations that challenge it. I think it was Chesterton who said something along the lines of “it’s only the sick person who worries about his digestion” i.e. the more you focus on needing to avoid and regulate to maintain purity and remove pollution, the sicker and weaker you are, not the stronger. Paul in the gospels made a similar point, because it’s the weaker brother who says do not eat, do not touch, etc. while the stronger ones realize we aren’t confined to those kind of rules as a way to holiness.

    I think a lot of people want them to be happy, because it would show that its better for us to live such a sharply limited life, but no.

    • I don’t know many happy people who wall themselves off from the world in fear of pollution, to the point of disowning or shunning relations that challenge it.

      I don’t think that describes what is happening. Amish pretty freely interact with non-Amish–buying from them, selling to them, talking with them. The shunning is specifically for people who, as adults, have sworn to obey the Ordnung of their congregation and then have clearly violated it and kept violating it. It’s not a way of walling themselves off from the world, it’s a way of punishing defectors.