These law profs say an increasingly mature field of research known as "hedonic psychology," or simply hedonics, has developed tools for longitudinal measurements of happiness and a consensus on the effect of punishment on people's happiness levels. Based on this research, their article examines "how and to what extent do fines and incarceration negatively affect happiness or well-being," then demonstrates how the results have major implications for utilitarian, retributivist, and mixed punishment theories.
Much early hedonics research focused on people with disabilities, resulting in the surprising discovery that their happiness levels adapted quite well to even radically changed physical circumstances. (An early study found little difference in happiness levels among groups of para/quadraplegics compared with lottery winners!) Within this relatively new subspecialty:
Among its most robust and consistent findings are two that are highly relevant to the study of punishment: 1) most life events, whether positive or negative, exert little lasting effect on an individual’s well-being because people adapt rapidly to them; and 2) people do not recognize or remember how quickly they adapt and thus make very poor estimates about the hedonic impact of future events. Studies have shown that, after immediate, short-term changes, people rapidly return to prior levels of well-being following experiences ranging from learning that they scored poorly on a personality test to becoming paraplegic.Over the past three decades, researchers focused these new tools on both the subjects of incarceration and financial loss, with potentially profound implications for how most of us think about punishment. Here's a good summary of what they describe as a consensus among existing research on happiness and punishment:
Contrary to expectations, adjusting the size of a fine or the length of a prison sentence does not meaningfully adjust the amount of unhappiness that is ultimately experienced by the offender. Paying more money or staying in prison for a longer period are highly susceptible to adaptation. As a result, virtually any fine imposes only fleeting harm. On the other hand, virtually any term of imprisonment imposes large and lasting harm by causing disease, unemployment, and loss of social connection; but longer prison terms do not diminish happiness much more than do shorter ones. It is therefore impossible to tailor a punishment to fit the severity of a crime, given the penal options available.There are major implications for this finding, which the authors accurately characterize as "depriving punishment of proportionality."
That said, humans adapt to some changes much better than others, it's just that incarceration and money fines aren't the big triggers. Researchers say the post-incarceration stigma and harm from severing family and societal ties is actually the greater "punishment," if punishment is defined as reducing "happiness."
While adaptation seems pervasive, further research has demonstrated its limits. Thus, people are less likely to adapt to some health-related stimuli like noise, chronic headaches, and certain degenerative diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, multiple schlerosis, HIV/AIDS, and hepatitis C infection. Additionally, socially relevant stimuli such as divorce, the death of a spouse, and unemployment prove incredibly difficult to adapt to, with hedonic penalties lasting even after remarriage or reemployment.The authors substantively discuss the major research backing up these findings, for those interested - I'm just hitting the highlights of a pretty substantial article. But it's a fascinating and counterintuitive notion that the portion of the punishment causing offenders the most unhappiness isn't prison but what happens to them when they get out. It makes sense, though, once you see the research about what does and doesn't affect happiness:
People who have spent any time in prison are significantly more likely to experience chronic, stress-related health impairments, unemployment, and the breakdown of psychologically vital social ties. Unlike fines and imprisonment itself, these post prison consequences of incarceration are likely to generate substantial and long-lasting hedonic penalties for ex-inmates regardless of the lengths of their sentences. (emphasis added)That last bit is key - the worst punishments according to this view are applied uniformly, after incarceration, regardless of how long someone is locked up.
The rest of the article applies this analysis to various, currently popular punishment theories. In particular, the discovery argues against the so-called utilitarian assumption that "the deterrent 'punch' of punishment [is] equal to the pain that punishment inflict[s] upon an offender." Thus to maximize deterrence, according to this worldview, one must maximize prison sentence lengths:
Among utilitarians, the temptation to impose increasingly harsher penalties is strong and omnipresent. The optimal social frequency of most crimes is exactly zero; the country would likely be better off if there were no murders, no armed robberies, no assaults, and so forth. ... Rather, from a utilitarian perspective, the most significant check on the degree of punishment is the cost associated with the punishment itself.However, if there's limited utility from deterrence due to longer punishments - i.e., if the punishment instituted is no harsher from the recipients' perspective when sentences are longer - then the only utilitarian purpose remaining for longer sentences would be cases where safety requires straight-up incapacitation. That's a significant group, to be sure, but only a small subset of those receiving years-long sentences now.
Research on happiness and punishment similarly throws a wrench in the gears of retributivist punishment theory, which holds that punishment should be based on what the offender deserves, not maximizing social happiness. If punishment must be based on deserts, though, then everyone receiving the same, harsh post-incarceration punishment is decidedly unjust, while the failure of longer incarceration lengths to punish more harshly calls into question whether they're justified based on desert alone.
Other "mixed" models of punishment similarly find their underlying assumptions challenged by hedonics, the authors show.
These research findings cast light on an obscure set of assumptions underlying how the criminal justice system assigns punishment. According to a hedonic analysis, "to some considerable extent, only two significant levels of punishment exist (any fine or any imprisonment)." Otherwise, say the authors, differences in punishments fail to impact the individual by reducing their happiness a greater amount. And the harshest punishments are applied across the board, even to the lowest level nonviolent offender.
I don't present this research to argue for any particular interpretation or punishment theory, nor do I fully understand yet all the implications for how this analysis might inform modern sentencing practices. I merely found the results interesting and probative, so I'm sharing them.
Questions raised by hedonics strike at core, first-order assumptions about the effects of punishment, some of which may turn out to be wholly incorrect. For the most part, they're questions about which no one had previously provided any evidence-based answers, so in that sense this research is quite exciting, cutting edge stuff.