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December 29, 2005

The Economist on Happiness

In the past couple of years, it's been interesting to observe a promising idea--that happiness should count as much as economic indicators--become almost mainstream. This week, for example, The Economist published a long, meandering article that examines the concepts of relative poverty and relative happiness. It compares two men--a doctor in Congo and a retired coal miner worker in Kentucky--who earn about the same amount of absolute income. The contrast proves to be a good set-up for some provocative questions:

What is the relationship between wealth and happiness? And what is the significance of relative poverty? Mr Banks makes $521 a month in a country where median male earnings are $3,400 a month. Dr Kabamba earns $600 a month in a country where most people grow their own food and hardly ever see a bank note. The two men's experiences could hardly be less similar. But which of the two would one expect to be happier?

Puzzlingly, though, the article doesn't fully explore this question. It does bring up some important factors, such as the complexities of measuring happiness across different cultures and geographies; the role of relative wealth and poverty; and the role of politics and geography (both Congo and Appalachia are known for mineral wealth and corrupt politics).

But it neglects the new wealth of research that has been released on the economics of in recent years--and one of the most consistent findings: that the correlation between financial wealth and well-being is relatively weak, especially as countries become wealthier (see this post). The US and Canada aren't doing too badly on the happiness scale, but neither are countries that have a far smaller GNP per capita.

As more large-scale studies of happiness are completed, perhaps The Economist will pay closer attention to why indicators of subjective well-being matter--not just as an interesting lifestyle comparison, but as tools that can be eventually used in public policy. For now, though, we'll have to be happy with seeing happiness make it into the news.

P.S. The article includes a discussion on the validity of the United States' poverty rate, suggesting that America overcounts the number of poor. For a healthy debate on the poverty rate as a measure, see this post.

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Today's New York Times provides a good op-ed on the historical perspective of happiness. It's written by Florida State history professor, Darrin M. McMahon, author of the forthcoming book, "Happiness: A History."

McMahon points out that, although the right to pursue happiness is part of our nation's Declaration of Independence, "in fact this preoccupation with perpetual happiness is relatively recent." That is, it has only been "morally acceptable" and "commendable in and of itself" since the 17th century.

He sheds further light on the history of happiness by quoting 19th century philosopher, John Stuart Mill, who came to believe that happiness in itself is not a pursuit. Rather it is a by-product of those "who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way."

Therefore, happiness is not just about feeling good. It is about actively engaging in the world to make it a better (happier) place for not just oneself, but mankind.

Posted by: Michelle Parker | Dec 29, 2005 12:45:12 PM

Oh yeah, the link:


Now I'm happy!

Posted by: Michelle Parker | Dec 29, 2005 12:49:08 PM

I think US happiness *is* correlated with income, because the US is not a very good place to be poor!

In countries with efficient support for basic needs, people in poverty are happier. Happy people don't make waves -- this may eventually come back to bite those in the US who have been so niggardly with social support systems.

I live in voluntary simplicity, well below the poverty level. I can only do this in the US because I am in relatively good health (uninsured), am self-employed (thus some of my advanced needs, like computers, are business expenses), and have some savings to fall back on.

As long as the CEO and the janitor pay the same health insurance rates, the US is not going to be a happy place for the poor -- and eventually for the super-rich, when there are eventually enough poor to foment revolution. This is definitely a "when" rather than an "if".

Posted by: Jan Steinman | Dec 29, 2005 6:34:37 PM

The "happiness vs. policy" wonks miss the evolutionary neurobiology angle.

I found Descartes' Error to be a great read on that.

Or as I put another blog comment today:

That book, combined with “The Blank Slate” (which I suppose everyone has read), reinforced my view of emotions as part of a survival system.

Maybe this is my engineer’s perspective on that system, but I think a return-to-neurtal is entirely consistent with a feedback based control system.

That means diminishing returns, and maybe an alternate explanation for your “maxed out” contingent … no human body is going to stay “very happy” .. there is no survival advantage in that.

(much year-end posting on happiness going on)

Posted by: odograph | Dec 30, 2005 4:54:06 PM

embedded links didn't go ...

"Descartes' Error":


"another blog comment":


Posted by: odograph | Dec 30, 2005 4:55:34 PM

more happiness blogging here:


Posted by: odograph | Dec 30, 2005 4:57:12 PM