Using Goodhart’s Law to Find Happiness

Using Goodhart’s Law to Find Happiness January 12, 2016

Early metal detector / Wikimedia commons
Early metal detector / Wikimedia commons

My parish kicked off its Adult Sunday School (taught by Dominican friars) this past week with a class on happiness. We started off going through a discussion of all the things happiness is not (wealth, power, fame, honor, etc) and I liked some of the reasoning given about how you could recognize these as not quite the answer to “What will make me happy?”

I already knew the way the answer worked for things like wealth, power, influence, etc — these are instrumental goods.  People only want them in order to acquire something else that will make them happy (or to safeguard the thing presently making them happy).  You should look at what you mean to acquire or protect with these goods, not the goods themselves, to figure out what causes happiness.

But when it came to some of the other goods (fame, honor, etc), the answer I had about why these fell short of happiness was different than the one the Dominican gave.  I had a Stoic answer all cued up — these are goods that are dependent on other people, things outside your locus of control, and if you want to find happiness, you shouldn’t rely on such an unstable source of it.

But the answer the friar gave about how to recognize these as insufficient sounded more like Goodhart’s Law than Marcus Aurelius.

Charles Goodhart, an economist, gave his law as follows: “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.”

And Goodhart’s Law comes up a lot in econ and everywhere else: people boost SAT scores using tricks that don’t necessarily have anything to do with the kind of intelligence the exam is meant to measure, cops reclassify crimes to come in under a quota for major crimes, or anything else of that type.

If money and power are instrumental goods, fame and honor turn out to be Goodhart goods. The problem isn’t my stoic objection–that they’re not under my direct control (neither is grace!).  The problem is that the reason we value honor is because it’s essentially an indicator variable for the thing we actually value: being honorable.

And, in that case, happiness isn’t found in getting the right readout from the indicator variable but from actually having the thing the variable is intended to detect.

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