What Makes Us Happy? Not Jobs..

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Joshua Shenk's Atlantic essay on happiness has gotten plenty of response (see David Brooks in this yesterday morning's New York Times), but one thing that I find striking about the piece is how little focus there is on material gains as the right route to happiness. When the doctor in charge of the Grant Study lists the factors that predict happy aging -- education, stable marriage, not smoking, not abusing alcohol, some exercise, maintaining a healthy weight and employing "mature adaptations" -- there is no mention of career success or even career stability. Relationships matter; incomes don't.

This comports pretty well with my general understanding of self-reported happiness studies and gives me a chance to print my second favorite graph in the history of economics:


gdp and happiness.png
(This particular one is in the UK, but you can find versions of it for the US, or Europe, or pretty much any industrialized country.)

I like this graph because it makes me teeter on the edge of nihilism. If all that growth isn't making anyone happier, what's the point? Why compete for jobs and material rewards at all?

On the other hand, a few points keep me from falling over the edge. They are:

1. This apparent stagnation in happiness only holds for countries that have passed some GDP per-capita threshold. People in the US are not any happier today than they were 40 years ago. But impoverished people in sub-saharan Africa are not happy. Indeed, being dirt poor does not generally make people happy. So, to the extent our growth can help lift some people above the GDP threshold, you might say we have some moral obligation to keep growing.

2. It's unclear what would happen to the self-reported happiness line if the growth line in the graph above were flat. Maybe we need to maintain some minimum level of growth just to keep happiness constant. (On the other hand, growth rates do very between industrialized countries today -- say, between the US and Europe -- and there does not seem to be much variation in happiness.)

3. Maybe we should reject the whole utilitarian calculus and say that growth matters for moral reasons. (I believe Benjamin Friedman makes this argument.) The argument runs like this: There might be some disagreement about the direction of causality, but it's clear that there's an empirical link between growth and democracy. We like democracy for moral reasons. (Pace, Bryan Caplan.) So maybe we shouldn't mess with democracy by abandoning growth.

4. You could say we're just programmed by evolution to do things that create growth. Human nature limits the realm of the possible. Maybe fighting the impulse to compete for jobs and invent new technologies and grow the capital stock is a little like fighting the impulse of jealousy or the fear of heights. Easier said than done.

5. You could question the entire notion of "self-reported happiness." Perhaps these things just depend on the level of generality at which one asks the question. If I were to report my happiness now, I bet it would look pretty much the same as it did three years ago. But if you were to ask me a question like, "Isn't your life better now that you have an iPhone?" I would probably say, "A thousand times yes!"

So which response is right?

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Conor Clarke is the editor, with Michael Kinsley, of Creative Capitalism. He was previously a fellow at The Atlantic and an editor at The Guardian. More

Conor Clarke is the editor, with Michael Kinsley, of Creative Capitalism, an economics blog that was recently published in book form by Simon and Schuster. He was previously a fellow at The Atlantic and an editor at The Guardian. He is also on Twitter.
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