Pursuit of Happiness Spectacularly Unsuccessful in Modern America

March 24, 2010


by Rusty Pritchard

[Ed. note: This article is part of our series of weekly reflections, called Deep Down Things, published on Wednesdays.]

What makes a person rich in happiness? (cc image courtesy kevindooley on flickr)

The U.S. Declaration of Independence highlights the fundamental right to the pursuit of happiness (actually, my close reading of the original parchment indicates a right to the purfuit of happinefs, but that may be a handwriting issue). So, how are we doing in that regard, compared to recent history here, or compared to other countries—say, Nigeria? You have to actually ask people about their level of satisfaction with life to make a sensible statement in this area. And, lately, economists and other social scientists have been doing just that.

Elizabeth Kolbert has a fascinating review of several new books on the relationship between economic prosperity and happiness in the New Yorker. You’ll be surprised at what you find, and it raises questions about the supposed tradeoff between saving the planet and making people better off. Like, “Why are we trashing the planet when economic growth isn’t making people any happier?” You know, questions like that.

She summarizes data from the new book The Politics of Happiness by Derek Bok, former president of Harvard:

Over the past three-and-a-half decades, real per-capita income in the United States has risen from just over $17,000 to almost $27,000. During that same period, the average new home in the US grew in size by almost 50 per cent; the number of cars in the country increased by more than 120 million; the proportion of families owning personal computers rose from zero to 70 per cent; and so on. Yet, since the early ’70s, the percentage of Americans who describe themselves as either “very happy” or “pretty happy” has remained virtually unchanged. Indeed, the average level of self-reported happiness, or “subjective well-being,” appears to have been flat going all the way back to the 1950s, when real per-capita income was less than half what it is today.

And a few paragraphs later…

America’s felicific stagnation shouldn’t be ignored, Bok argues, whatever the explanation. Growth, after all, has its costs, and often quite substantial ones. If “rising incomes have failed to make Americans happier over the last 50 years,” he writes, “what is the point of working such long hours and risking environmental disaster in order to keep on doubling and redoubling our Gross Domestic Product?”

Lest you think that you’ll agree with Bok, Kolbert also highlights his recommended policies on inequality: “Do nothing” sums it up:

It’s true, Bok acknowledges, that rich Americans tend, on average, to be happier than poor ones. It’s also true that the incomes of the country’s top earners have, in recent decades, grown several times as fast as those of the earners at the bottom. But the statistics show that, over the past few decades, the subjective well-being of those at the bottom has remained unchanged. If the poor aren’t bothered by the growing disparity, Bok asks, why should anyone else be?

What messes with your mind more is the satisfaction of the Nigerians. Kolbert reviews Happiness Around the World: The Paradox of Happy Peasants and Miserable Millionaires by Carol Graham, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland. It looks at international datasets to assess relative happiness across countries. Those Nigerians?

The country’s per-capita GDP last year was about $1,400. (In real terms, this is significantly lower than it was when the nation declared its independence, in 1960.) Yet the proportion of Nigerians who rate themselves happy is as high as the proportion of Japanese, whose per-capita GDP is almost 25 times as great.

Kolbert notes that Graham seems disturbed by these results. We all should be.

And, Kolbert argues, we should also be disturbed by our own individual inability to judge what will make us happy. The final part of her New Yorker review deals with Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert, a psychology professor at Harvard. Winning the lottery is no panacea, and becoming paralyzed is not the end of the world: Data from interviews indicates that there’s not even a slight rise in happiness for lottery winners (relative to a control group of non-winners), and paraplegics had higher hopes for the future than jackpot winners. Go figure.

This research not only raises questions about why we continue to sacrifice our planetary life-support system in aid of an expanding economy, but also makes us reconsider our commitment to using GDP as a measure of national economic welfare.

With regards to economics and happiness, we seem to have no idea what we’re talking about. But researchers like these may begin to give us a clue.

Rusty Pritchard is president and co-founder of Flourish.

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