Talking Travel with Will Wilkinson

Will Wilkinson is a policy analyst at the Cato Institute, whose work focuses on topics like happiness research and economic inequality. He is also the man behind an economics blog called The Fly Bottle, which discusses not only economics, but pop culture, morality, politics, and freedom of movement. Will has also written for publications like The Economist, Slate, and reason, and he makes regular appearances on Bloggingheads TV.

I recently asked Will a couple travel-related questions via e-mail, and here are his responses:

1. My parents have a wedding anniversary coming up. Why should I buy them, say, a trip to Hawaii or an Alaskan cruise rather than a new flat-screen TV?

You should buy them what they want! If they don’t like traveling, bring the world to them — in HD! But if they’re indifferent, go for the equivalently-priced trip.

According to psychologists, we are prone to “adaptation” or “habituation,” the tendency for changes in our experience to become the new normal. When you jump into a swimming pool, it’s really cold at first, but then suddenly it’s not. Getting new stuff is a lot like that. After a while, the novelty of a sweet flat-screen will wear off, and Seinfeld reruns will be no funnier.

Travel, however, constantly stimulates our taste for novelty. Habituation is precisely why people feel they are “sleepwalking” through their daily routine–the familiar recedes into the deep background of consciousness and only changes register. That’s why you feel more “alive” in a new place: your mind takes very little for granted. You are awake to everything. Also, long after mom and dad have retired their once-new TV, they’ll still value the memories of their trip.

2. Travelers to poor countries often remark that many of the locals seem happy with their lives– they have tight-knit families, close communities, and busy but ultimately satisfying lives. Not to mention that they are often more hospitable to travelers than inhabitants of more developed areas. So why do the world’s poor often appear happier than the world’s wealthy?

I don’t know about you, but I’m from Iowa, and people in Iowa are plenty nice. People in lots of places are plenty nice. We are just more likely to take notice of new kinds of nice. Also, you should always be aware of power differentials. You are a rich, powerful, exotic, foreigner. And perhaps also an exploitable, gullible rube. People are often exceedingly nice to those with more money and power, because they might get something out of it. That sounds cynical, but its true, and the larger the differential in wealth, the more likely it is to be true.

Second, habituation cuts both ways. We can become accustomed to a fair amount of deprivation, and when other good things are scarce, we hold on tight to what we do have — mainly people close to us. So poor people who aren’t sick or starving may be fairly well satisfied, relative to their expectations. That said, poverty is objectively terrible, and we never completely adapt to it subjectively. That’s why in international happiness surveys the poorest countries cluster toward the bottom and the richest countries cluster toward the top. Other things equal, richer people are happier. If rich travelers think the world’s poor are happier than the people back home in the U.S. or Germany or wherever, then they are probably making a mistake. They are probably underestimating the importance of wealth and overestimating the satisfactions of family and community ties you cannot escape.

3. In your research, what have you found to be the happiest and most unhappy places on earth? What sorts of values, institutions, customs, etc. are responsible for the difference?

The happiest places on earth are wealthy, free, liberal, tolerant, democratic capitalist societies. The least happy countries in the world are either the poorest, or those that have had a hard time making the transition out of communism.

4. Do subjective happiness surveys really tell us anything meaningful about the well-being of people worldwide? If a poor man from Haiti says he’s a “6 out of 10” on the happiness scale, and a wealthy doctor from San Diego says he’s a “5,” shouldn’t we just throw these numbers out the window?

We should take them with a big grain of salt. But the consistency with which happiness scores correlate with other indicators of well-being, like wealth, health, freedom, educational attainments, etc., does a good deal to vindicate their validity.

5. You recently did a Bloggingheads diavlog with Geography of Bliss author Eric Weiner. What was your opinion of that book?

It is a wonderful mix between a Bill Bryson-style travelogue and pop social science. It’s the most fun-to-read introduction to happiness research I’ve seen. In fact, I found myself mildly bitter that Weiner was the first to have the idea of traveling the world looking for the happiest places. A great idea, entertainingly executed. The bastard.

Check out past Gadling posts on Will here and here.