The Wealth (and Happiness) of Nations

More

Clive Crook has an insightful post up about an Aspen session on the economics of happiness. The two panelists from this discussion, Justin Wolfers and Robert Frank, have both given a lot of thought to the age-old question of whether rich people truly have better lives than poor people do. 

The Ideas ReportWolfers, a Wharton professor with an Australian accent and surfer-style blond hair, certainly seems like someone who should be an expert on happiness. And he has solid data to back up his claims: His research indicates that money really does correlate with well-being, not just for individuals but for entire countries. 

Frank, a professor at Cornell's MBA program, refuses to see things so simply. He insists that status makes a difference -- moving from a poor nation to a rich one isn't a ticket to happiness if it means suddenly having much less than the people around you.

Crook is convinced by Wolfers' rebuttal: If relative wealth mattered so much, Americans would be rushing south across the Mexican border. Instead, Mexicans are flocking to America -- even when that means becoming the poorest people in their new society. This thought experiment, coupled with the data he goes on to present, seems to prove that rich countries are simply happier.

Later, though, Wolfers's conclusion is challenged by an audience question from Dalia Mogahed, an Egyptian-American scholar who heads the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies. As Mogahed points out, the economies of Egypt and Tunisia have been growing faster than those of other Arab countries. And yet, after the events of last winter, it would be hard to argue that the those countries were becoming happier. 

This question gives Frank a chance to repeat his basic point: When people know they aren't as rich as the family -- or the country -- next door, it's natural to be discontent. He gives the example of East Germany, where Berliners on one side of the city could pick up television signals from the west and see exactly what they were lacking.

Wolfers doesn't have a response except to say that in 2010, he turned down an invitation from the Gallup Center to study their newest data on those countries. "That," he admits in hindsight, "was the greatest missed opportunity of my professional career."

More video from the 2011 Aspen Ideas Festival

Jump to comments
Presented by

Jennie Rothenberg Gritz is The Atlantic's digital features editor. More

Jennie Rothenberg Gritz, an Atlantic senior editor, began her association with the magazine in 2002, shortly after graduating from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. She joined the staff full time in January 2006. Before coming to The Atlantic, Jennie was senior editor at Moment, a national magazine founded by Elie Wiesel.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Is Technology Making Us Better Storytellers?

How have stories changed in the age of social media? The minds behind House of Cards, This American Life, and The Moth discuss.


Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Is Technology Making Us Better Storytellers?

The minds behind House of Cards and The Moth weigh in.

Video

A Short Film That Skewers Hollywood

A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?

Video

In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.

Video

What Is a Sandwich?

We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.

Video

Let's Talk About Not Smoking

Why does smoking maintain its allure? James Hamblin seeks the wisdom of a cool person.

Writers

Up
Down

More in Business

Just In