Are we getting happier over time?

The field of happiness studies has moved out of psychology and into economics. It is folk wisdom that money is no guarantee of happiness. And arguably it is happiness that we care about, not wealth. So rather than looking at aggregate wealth, an alternative research strategy asks people if they are happy. This may sound naive, but in fact people’s answers are correlated with their health, how much they smile, whether their friends rate them as happy, and information from brain scans. We should not so hastily dismiss questionnaire evidence about happiness.

Andrew Oswald, of the University of Warwick, is one of the leading researchers in this area. His home page offers a good range of readings in the area. One forthcoming paper of his, for the Journal of Public Economics, addresses the question of whether we are becoming happier or not. He finds the following:

1. Americans as a whole have not become happier over the last several decades.

2. American blacks have become happier over the last several decades.

3. American women have been the biggest happiness losers since the 1970s.

4. Being unemployed has a “happiness cost” of about $60,000 a year.

5. Being black has a “happiness cost” of about $30,000 a year. Both these figures can be interpreted in terms of a low happiness value for extra dollars, rather than a huge happiness penalty for being unemployed or black.

6. A lasting marriage is worth about $100,000 a year in terms of happiness.

7. Happiness is U-shaped with age, with the minimum coming at about 40. (Hey, wait a minute, I am 41 and happier than ever before!)

8. Relative income matters per se.

My take: I find least persuasive #1 and #7. Americans are happier as a whole because they are living longer and have access to much better medical care. Your chance of dying of a heart attack at age 50 is much lower than before. That being said, if you take a pre-selected group living under normal circumstances, they may not come across as much happier as their predecessors from earlier decades. So many of the benefits of the modern world come in the form of avoiding tragedies.

By the way, this excellent book review defends the role of the market in bringing us happiness.

A richer world also makes us happier by giving us better jobs. Read Oswald on how to find a job to make you happy. Here is his advice:

1. Work for a non-profit

2. Be a woman.

3. Be old (he suggests that your earlier failures tame your expectations with age).

4. Don’t get overqualified.

5. Avoid a place where the boss controls the pace of the work.

I’ve got #1 and #5 down to perfection, and I am working on #3.

Thanks to Mark Brady for directing my attention to the paper and the links.


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