The New Economics of Happiness

New studies -- including a report on the happiest countries on the planet -- suggest that building a theory of "happynomics" is harder than you'd think

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Economists can measure unemployment, GDP growth, and housing prices. But do they know how to measure happiness? If they did, what would we even do with the results?

Each year, the OECD produces the Better Life Index, a comprehensive report on the well-being of advanced countries based on a long list of factors, including income, housing, and life satisfaction. In the 2012 survey released this week, Australia took the top spot. The U.S. finished third.

Does that mean Australia is objectively the best place to live in the world? Absolutely not. Even the architects of the index would tell you that the "good life" is utterly subjective, and different people have different values. If you equally measure income and work-life balance (two real metrics in the OECD study), you assume that everybody in the world values money and down-time the same. In the real world, some people like smaller houses, some prefer long vacations, and some choose to work in banking because they like having money and don't care for down-time.

The nice thing about the Better Life Index is that it lets users weight the 11 metrics to emphasize the values that matter most to you. When I emphasized income, housing (e.g.: rooms/person and dwelling size), and jobs (e.g.: employment, long-term unemployment), the United States came out way ahead. From these metrics alone, we really might be number one.
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But when I lowered those metrics and instead emphasized community (via surveys on quality of support network), life satisfaction (via surveys) and work-life balance (e.g.: time devoted to leisure), Denmark moved from number 15 in the world to the runaway winner. The United States fell from number one to number 18. Only Switzerland and the Netherlands hung around in the top five. Australia, the overall winner, didn't even appear in the top seven in either list.

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The OECD's metrics are not inscribed by the Almighty on stone tablets. They're just educated guesses about what makes for strong communities a decent environment and so on. But they help to tell an important story: If you want to measure what makes people satisfied, you have to understand what they value. And that is really, really hard work.


The most commonly cited statistic in happiness economics is the rule that somewhere between $40,000 and $110,000, a higher salary doesn't buy much more joy or satisfaction. Many people draw the bright white line at $70,000. This provides a strong utilitarian impulse to raise taxes on the rich, who apparently can't buy much happiness with their extra millions, and to funnel the money to the poor to bring them closer to $70,000.

But that's an awfully blunt instrument for maximizing happiness. But one reason why incomes differ is that some people care more about making money than others.

Take, for example, two equally capable students graduating from the University of Michigan. Student A goes into Acting, because he likes the stage and doesn't mind being poor. Student B goes into Banking, because he likes money and he doesn't mind working 100 hours a week. The federal income tax code will implicitly punish Student B's decision with higher rates and reward Student A with maybe even a net tax credit, even though Student A didn't care about money in the first place. If you nationalize this lesson, it suggests that, in our imprecise efforts to funnel money from the top to the middle, we wind up taking money from people who care overwhelmingly about having a high income and distribute it among people who don't.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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