by J. Barkley Rosser, Jr.
January 21, 2018
1) This talk follows and extends a talk given about a decade ago at HUU by Ed Piper, then the minister at Waynesboro UU. While I disagreed with some of what he said, I agreed with his main points. Numerous studies of this subject agree that the most important contributors to happiness and life satisfaction are good family and friend relations, health, and employment for those of working age who wish to work. Things that can make one unhappy are sharp declines of those: death of spouse or child or close friend, sudden sharp decline in health, involuntary loss of a job, along with such other things as being in a dangerous war zone, in an epidemic zone, being in a severely oppressed group, and being arrested and put in jail.
2) While they are closely correlated (on the order of 85%), happiness and life satisfaction are not identical. The former seems to be tied more to momentary states of mind or being, while the latter involves looking over a longer time horizon of one’s life. Something that tends to differ for them, and this was a topic on which Ed Piper and I differed, involves income and wealth. These do not seem to matter too much for moment to moment happiness, but more so for life satisfaction as does professional success and social status. Regarding income and life satisfaction, there remains a positive relation as income rises, although it weakens as income rises. However, it is not true that the relation ends once one reaches a level of $70,000 per year as Ed claimed and which I have seen repeated even recently on the internet and some media. The relation continues, but steadily weakens.
3) We need to talk about the data on which these erstwhile findings are based, some of them controversial and debated. Basically they come from asking people how happy or satisfied with their lives they are, usually on a 1-10 point scale, although sometimes on a 1-5 point scale. These studies have now been going on since World War II in an increasing number of countries with a wide variety of specific forms for the studies. Summaries of much of these have been gathered in Rotterdam by the sociologist, Ruut Veenhoven, and reports of country comparisons of happiness usually come from there, with Denmark and Costa Rica currently contesting for being the world’s supposedly happiest nation (from here on we shall use happiness and life satisfaction interchangeably for convenience). The UN reports on Happiness of Nations, but has a complicated way of measuring it with Nordic nations and Switzerland on top. Finland is fifth on their list, even though it is 16th in suicide rates in the world. Which brings us to the fact that cross country comparisons are difficult to make because of cultural differences. Americans are supposedly happier than the French, but we have a higher suicide rate. In France one tends to look down on “being happy.” One is proud of having existentialist angst as one consumes good French food and wine at the nice café on the street, while Americans are happy to brag about being happy. The most reliable data are for individual people over time. We should also recognize that many simply do not accept people answering such surveys as meaning much, and this is the attitude of many hard-nosed economists who say that all that matters is what people do, not what they say.
4) Which brings me to the fact that this talk is partly inspired by my having recently edited a special issue of the Review of Behavioral Economics (2017, Vol. 4, Issue 4) honoring Richard A. Easterlin, known as “The Father of Happiness Economics,” who is 91 years old, not yet retired, apparently happy, and pleased with the issue, along with being the major professor of my major professor. An important point he makes, along with supporting the general list of sources of happiness and life satisfaction given at the beginning above, is that people’s happiness very much involves their social relations, with some of this involving them comparing themselves to those in their “reference group,” especially those family and friends close to them. This also includes the sensitive matter of income and wealth. Thus an old wisecrack has it “That man is happy whose wife’s sister’s husband makes less money than he does.” This emphasis on social comparisons derives from the work of the major professor of the major professor of the major professor of Easterlin, Thorstein Veblen, who published The Theory of the Leisure Class in 1899. In that book he coined the term “conspicuous consumption,” which emphasizes how people engage in actions to impress those around them. This idea ties to Easterlin’s most famous idea, “The Easterlin Paradox.” This is the apparent fact that at any given time in a nation higher income people are happier than lower income ones, but if all incomes rise, average national happiness does not necessarily do so as well. Indeed, Americans appear to have been at their happiest in 1956. Some question this idea, but in the special issue Dick provided a firm defense of his famous idea against his various critics, and he is pleased with the special issue.
5) A deep idea is that most of the time for most people they seem to have sort of baseline level of happiness that they tend to return to after either upward (winning the lottery) or downward (death of a spouse) shocks after some time. But then sometimes they do not make such a return, or not fully. And, indeed, the studies of what influences happiness and life satisfaction include both those things that can lead to temporary deviations from someone’s “normal level” as well as things that might permanently shift that normal level somewhat, not to mention why normal levels might vary across groups.
6) One paper in the special issue addresses the question of gender and happiness. Generally women are happier than men. However why that is is not clear. Men tend to make more money. Studies do not seem to find this to be tied to clear emotional or personality differences. The paper (by Claudia Senik) ends up saying that for all the hassles it leads to, the multi-tasking women do may be part of it, giving them more balance and a broader perspective than men. A more depressing reason is that women tend to have come to expect the discrimination against them in matters of pay and employment, which suggests that improvements on those fronts may not lead too much in the way of higher life satisfaction or happiness.
7) Finally there is a paper by Kelsey O’Connor on age and happiness, using data from western European nations. This is one of the most debated and unresolved questions in the happiness literature. An old view has it that happiness peaks around 50. But a much larger literature has just the opposite: that people are happiest around 20 and then get less happy into middle age, bottoming out around mid-40s to 50, with happiness levels then steadily rising thereafter. This larger literature tries to account for other factors. So income levels are highest in middle age, but taking away the effect of that leaves the middle aged less happy. It is especially difficult to estimate what is going on with older people because those who live the longest tend also to be the happiest. So what is really needed are good data samples following individuals through their lives, but those are only now coming out. Anyway, that is the sort of data O’Connor has, and he finds a pattern of an-M shape: happiness peaking around 30, not 20, then falling to about 50, then rising to about 70, but declining somewhat after then. And with that I conclude and wishing all hearing or reading this the greatest happiness and life satisfaction.