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. [Read more…]