The ultra-Orthodox as (happy) threshold earners

Asher Meir writes to me:

I enjoyed your post today especially since it is one that actually interfaces with my research and not just my teaching of basic micro/macro.

Israeli Ultra-Orthodox are threshold earners in both the positive sense (they don’t on the whole strive to earn more than some basic level) and also the normative sense (they are really more interested in other things.)  

Here is an interesting demonstration, you can easily do it yourself using the Israeli CBS “Social Survey Table Generator”. (

One thing you can easily verify is that the Haredim (you can find them using Topic = Religion and Religiosity, Variable = Religiosity Jews and value is “Ultra Religious/ Haredi) have a reported life satisfaction that is through the roof. It is hugely higher than that of any other sector. (Get there from: Topic = Satisfaction – general; Variable = Satisfied with life.)

But you might say that could be because even though their economic situation is admittedly dire, they care more about other things. Now check out “Satisfaction economic situation”. They still come out way on top. They are not only happiest despite their economic situation, they are happiest with their economic situation. (I am aware that reported happiness and reported life satisfaction are different, I am just expressing myself briefly.) I’m attaching the spreadsheet.

Now here is the real threshold earner criterion: For each group, figure out the average life satisfaction for each earnings level. Then calculate the correlation between life satisfaction and earnings. For every population group it is positive, except for the Ultra-Orthodox. Their coefficient is not significantly different from zero. (J27 is the coefficient, J28 the standard error.)

I’m attaching an Excel spreadsheet that does this for 2012 but I’ve done it a number of times. I do not include the regressions for other sectors but you can easily do so and verify that the income coefficient is positive.

I calculated life satisfaction using a linear weighting, zero for Not so satisfied, one for Satisfied and two for Very satisfied. (Note that the “Not satisfied at all” column is empty. No ultra-orthodox gave this answer.) I used the middle of the income range for income. But in my experience it doesn’t matter much how you do this.

I played around with this once using the WVS to see if I could find some other group in the world for whom life satisfaction was totally uncorrelated with income. I didn’t find any but I imagine that Hal Varian would find it easy to do so.

Those are intriguing results.  One possibility is that (some?) religions make people pretty happy.  Another is that lack of money does not make you unhappy, provided that a) you can cite a good reason for having a lower income, b) you have peer and family support for your situation/decision, and c) there is no negative selection into the other lower income individuals you will end up hanging around.  Bryan Caplan might cite the large number of children as a source of life satisfaction.

If one was looking for grounds to be skeptical, perhaps extremely religious groups use the concepts of happiness and life satisfaction in different ways.  For instance complaining about your life satisfaction might be considering a signal of impiety and thus the extremely religious might put a better gloss on things than their actually happiness would warrant.  Of course “pretending to be happy” may itself be a possible source of happiness.


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