Why Don't Boom-Times Make People Happier?

Recessions are no fun, but, annoyingly, periods of growth aren't as fun as they should be.

Daniel Lee/Flickr

We know what effect recessions and booms tend to have on our bank accounts. But what about our feelings and wellbeing? The equation should be simple, right? Recession = sad. Economic boom = happy! But it’s a bit more complicated than that.

Recent research says that those who graduate during recessions are happier in the long run—satisfied with being employed unlike boom-time graduates who wonder if they should be doing better. Emily Bianchi, associate professor at Emory’s Goizueta Business School, likens this to research showing that bronze medalists at the Olympics are happier than silver medalists (who wonder why they didn’t win gold).

But what about the rest of us? New research from Jan-Emmanuel De Neve and Michael Norton, professors at the London School of Economics and Harvard respectively, looks at four decades of data (collected from more than 150 countries, including one dataset from the Centers for Disease Control and covers 2.5 million U.S. respondents) to investigate the relationship between life satisfaction and the business cycle. What they found was that well-being is two to eight times more sensitive to negative economic times: Psychologically, a recession hurts a lot more than a boom helps.

De Neve says that this “untold story” is one of the unaccounted costs of a recession.  But why do we feel worse during recessions? This asymmetry can be explained by what economists call "loss aversion"—the human tendency to feel losses more strongly than gains, as demonstrated by the research of economists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky.

The most extreme example of De Neve and Norton's finding is Greece: When GDP grew 50 percent from 1981 to 2008, happiness went up 5 to 10 percent. When the recession hit, well-being in Greece not only reversed all previous gains, but dropped to the lowest on historical record.

The research touches on an even bigger question: Does more money mean more happiness? According to what's known as the Easterlin Paradox, the answer is no: Over the long-run, happiness does not go up with income. In the last decade, however, that contention has been debunked, defended, and debunked again. But De Neve and Norton's research seems to stand on Easterlin's side of the debate, that taking into account the magnitudes of change in wellbeing, recessions undo the gains from boom periods.

"When considering the available longer term data that cover entire business cycles, it would appear that wellbeing reports have not risen in most of the world’s economically developed nations, despite having their real GDP almost doubling over the past four decades," they write.