Historically the province of philosophers and theologians, the relationship between wealth and happiness has recently been taken up by a cadre of social scientists seeking to quantify and compare levels of well-being worldwide.
What Makes Us Happy?
An inside look at an unprecedented seven-decade study of a group of Harvard men suggests that one thing, above all, truly makes a difference. By Joshua Wolf Shenk
The results of their research, thus far, are clear: money does buy happiness—but only to a point. Study after study shows that inhabitants of richer countries are, on average, significantly happier than those of poorer ones. This is true even controlling for other variables that rise with income and that may influence personal happiness: education, political freedom, women's rights, and so forth. National income appears to be one of the best single predictors of overall well-being, explaining perhaps 40 percent of the difference in contentment among nations. For individual countries, with few exceptions, self-reported happiness has increased as incomes have risen.
The attached chart shows survey data on happiness for fifty-four countries, compiled throughout the 1990s by the Dutch sociologist Ruut Veenhoven. These data indicate a robust, if inexact, relationship between per capita income and "life satisfaction."Veenhoven's findings provide an unexpectedly sunny view. First, they indicate that most people worldwide say they are fairly happy. It is debatable whether most people have ever viewed life as nasty, brutish, and short; but on balance, they don't now. (Even citizens of impoverished or politically star-crossed countries, such as the Philippines and Romania, or of countries with high levels of income inequality, such as Brazil and the United States, report being at least somewhat happy on average.) Moreover, though the fact that richer countries are in general happier than poorer ones may not seem terribly surprising, it does suggest that continuing economic development will generate rising happiness worldwide.