Happiness

Lane Kenworthy, The Good Society
January 2015

Happiness consists of some combination of three elements: life satisfaction, which involves an appraisal of the overall condition of one’s life; positive feelings, such as pleasure and joy; and negative feelings, such as worry, frustration, anger, and sadness. Though happiness isn’t the only outcome on which a society should be judged, it clearly matters. And for some it is at the top of the list.1

Two facts about happiness in the United States are puzzling. First, despite a variety of favorable developments, Americans haven’t, on average, gotten happier over the past four decades. Second, despite our comparative affluence, Americans are only in the middle of the happiness pack among the world’s rich nations. But before exploring these puzzles, how do we measure happiness and what are its chief determinants?

MEASURING HAPPINESS

Scientists measure happiness mainly via public opinion surveys. People are asked either or both of the following questions:

  • “Taken all together, how would you say things are these days — would you say that you are very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?”
  • “All things considered, how satisfied are you with your life as a whole these days?” Respondents are instructed to indicate their satisfaction on a scale of 0 to 10.

Since the early 1970s, the General Social Survey (GSS) has regularly asked a representative sample of American adults the happiness question. Since 2008, the Gallup World Poll has asked adults in most of the world’s nations the life satisfaction question. And in five-year intervals since the early 1980s, the World Values Survey has asked both of these questions in a number of countries.2

Can we trust these measures to accurately tap people’s subjective well-being? Yes. Responses tend to correlate strongly with the assessments of friends and family and with clinical assessments. There is no indication of desirability bias in responses. When the same people are asked these survey questions over time, their responses tend to be consistent, with predictable changes in the face of major life shocks such as divorce and unemployment. And when people are asked both the happiness question and the life satisfaction question, their answers are strongly correlated.3

DETERMINANTS OF HAPPINESS

What causes happiness? For any given person, genetics and unique individual circumstances play an important role. But scientists have identified a number of external factors that also tend to have an influence.4

Income. If we look across individuals or countries, those with higher income tend to be happier. This used to be conventional wisdom. Then, in the mid-1970s, Richard Easterlin posited that income boosts happiness only up to a point, after which it yields no further benefit.5 This came to be known as the “Easterlin paradox.” Recent studies with improved data tell us that the old view is correct.6 Additional income increases happiness less at high income levels than at low income levels, but the increase does continue at high levels. Figure 1 shows the pattern across individuals in the United States, and figure 2 shows the pattern across countries.7

Figure 1. Happiness by income across Americans
Each dot represents households in an income range of $5,000 (e.g., $50,001 to $55,000), in inflation-adjusted dollars. The line is a loess curve. Average happiness, with not too happy coded as 0, pretty happy as 0.5, and very happy as 1. 1972 to 2012. Sample size: 47,121. Data source: General Social Survey, series happy, coninc.

Figure 2. Life satisfaction by GDP per capita across countries
The dots are countries. The line is a loess curve. Average life satisfaction in 2008. Scale is 0 to 10. Data source: Gallup World Poll, via the World Database of Happiness, series O-SLW-c-sq-n-11-a. GDP per capita in 2007. In purchasing-power-parity-adjusted dollars. Data source: World Bank.

We see this not only in the pattern across persons or countries at a particular point in time. It’s also the case that as nations get richer over time, their average happiness tends to increase. Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers have examined over-time developments in eleven nations for which good data are available, and they find that in almost all of them economic growth has produced rising subjective well-being.8

Income inequality. People compare their income to others, so relative income, not just the absolute level, may affect happiness. If so, higher levels of income inequality will tend to reduce happiness.9

Unemployment. Being unemployed decreases happiness. In the General Social Survey data, for example, 32-36% of people employed full-time, employed part-time, or “keeping house” say they are very happy, compared to just 19% of those who are unemployed.10

Work conditions. Autonomy at work tends to increase happiness. Work stress and a long commute to work are associated with lower happiness.11

Education. People with more education tend to be happier, though the payoff comes largely via higher income.12

Age. Happiness tends to decrease steadily until middle age — the late forties — and then begins to rise again.13

Health. Physical health is positively associated with happiness. Obesity has a separate happiness-reducing effect. Perceived physical health may matter more for happiness than actual physical health.14

Family. Being married is positively associated with happiness.15

Friends. Having close friends boosts happiness.16

Individualism. People tend to be happier in societies with “individualist” rather than “collectivist” value orientations. This refers to cultural norms that encourage people to think of themselves as autonomous individuals as opposed to norms that encourage conformity or obedience to authority.17

Tolerance. Tolerance of diverse lifestyles is positively associated with happiness.18

Trust. Trust in other people is positively associated with happiness.19

Religiosity. Frequency of attendance at religious services is positively associated with happiness, though this may be solely because it increases friendships.20

Can happiness increase? For individuals, that is more the exception than the rule. People have a strong propensity to adapt to changes in life circumstances and revert to their earlier level of happiness. Yet average happiness in countries can and does change, for two reasons. First, adaptation is partial; some individuals do experience lasting changes in happiness over time.21 Second, even if the happiness of particular individuals remains constant, if average happiness among younger cohorts is higher, cohort replacement will produce a rise in overall average happiness over time.

WHY HASN’T HAPPINESS INCREASED IN THE UNITED STATES?

Figure 3 shows the pattern of responses among Americans to the General Social Survey’s happiness question since the early 1970s. Happiness hasn’t changed much. The share responding very happy has declined and the share saying pretty happy has increased, but these shifts are relatively small. Figure 4 shows the average level of happiness. It confirms that happiness has been essentially flat in the United States during this four-decade period.

Figure 3. Happiness
Data source: General Social Survey, series happy, with adjustments in 1972, 1980, and 1985-87 suggested by Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers.

Figure 4. Average happiness
Calculated with not too happy scored as 0, pretty happy scored as 0.5, and very happy scored as 1. Data source: General Social Survey, series happy, with adjustments in 1972, 1980, and 1985-87 suggested by Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers.

The lack of increase in happiness since the early 1970s is surprising because a number of known happiness boosters have improved during this period:

  • Economic growth
  • Rising educational attainment
  • Better physical health
  • Lower unemployment
  • Greater tolerance

The United States has gotten richer. GDP per capita increased from $25,000 in 1972 to $48,000 in 2011 (in inflation-adjusted dollars).22 This ought to have increased happiness. Educational attainment has increased. For instance, the share of American adults with four years of college rose from 12% in 1972 to 31% in 2012.23 Life expectancy has increased from 71 years in 1972 to 79 in 2012.24 Even with the deep economic downturn in 2008 and subsequent slow recovery, the unemployment rate fell from an average of 7% during 1972-1992 to 6% during 1993-2012.25 And Americans have grown increasingly tolerant in the past four decades. For example, the share of Americans saying they feel homosexuality is “always wrong” has dropped from 73% in 1973 to 46% in 2012.26

Given these developments, what accounts for the lack of increase in average happiness? Do these happiness boosters no longer have an impact? While that’s possible, the stagnation in happiness is more likely due to a variety of offsetting developments:

  • Slow household income growth
  • Rising income inequality
  • The baby boom and happiness over the life cycle
  • More obesity and declining perceived physical health
  • Less marriage
  • Reduced trust
  • Declining religiosity
  • Longer commute time

For most Americans, the income growth that’s occurred since the early 1970s may have been too slow to improve happiness. While GDP per capita has nearly doubled, median household income has risen only modestly. And that increase owes mainly to the fact that more and more households have shifted from one earner to two, so lots of Americans may feel no better off despite substantial economic growth.27 Moreover, since the 1970s income inequality has risen sharply in the United States, so if Americans are making relative comparisons, many may feel their economic situation has gotten worse rather than better.28

The movement of the large baby boom generation through the happiness life cycle may have depressed average happiness in recent decades. Baby boomers (born 1946 to 1964) were on the downward part of the happiness life-cycle curve beginning in the late 1970s and began reaching the low point (late forties) around 1990. The incidence of obesity increased sharply in the 1980s and 1990s and then stayed constant in the 2000s.29 Among American adults, perceived health didn’t improve in the 1970s, 1980s, or 1990s and then decreased in the mid-to-late 2000s.30 The share of American adults who are married has declined from 75% in the mid-1970s, 55% in the mid-to-late 2000s, with never-married and divorced each increasing by about 10 percentage points.31 The share of Americans saying “most people can be trusted” dropped steadily between 1972 and 2012, from 46% to 32%.32 Attendance at religious services has decreased in recent decades.33 Finally, average commute time has increased steadily since the 1970s.34

So the explanation for stagnant happiness among Americans seems to be that while a number of happiness boosters have improved, their impact has been offset by lack of improvement, or worsening, of some important happiness depressors.

WHY AREN’T AMERICANS HAPPIER THAN THEIR COUNTERPARTS IN OTHER RICH NATIONS?

Figure 5 shows country averages for the Gallup World Poll’s life satisfaction question as of 2008. The United States is in the middle of the pack.

Figure 6 shows the association between life satisfaction and GDP per capita among these countries. The pattern is consistent with that in figures 1 and 2, but the US underperforms. It lies below the line, ranking second in affluence but only eleventh in life satisfaction. Why is that?

Figure 5. Life satisfaction in 21 rich nations
Average life satisfaction in 2008. Scale is 0 to 10. Data source: Gallup World Poll, via the World Database of Happiness, series O-SLW-c-sq-n-11-a.

Figure 6. Life satisfaction by GDP per capita across countries
The line is a loess curve. Average life satisfaction in 2008. Scale is 0 to 10. Data source: Gallup World Poll, via the World Database of Happiness, series O-SLW-c-sq-n-11-a. GDP per capita in 2007. In purchasing-power-parity-adjusted dollars. Data source: World Bank.

Here too it makes sense to think about happiness boosters and depressors that might offset America’s comparatively high GDP per capita. Prime suspects include:

  • Income inequality
  • Education
  • Health: life expectancy and obesity
  • Family
  • Trust

If the effect of income on a person’s happiness is partly relative — that is, affected by their position in comparison to others in their society — then countries with higher income inequality should tend to have lower happiness. Income inequality is greater in the United States than in any other affluent nation.35

There is one dimension of educational attainment on which on the United States ranks comparatively high: the share of the adult population (age 25-64) with a university degree. But in other respects it is middling or worse in the rank-order: university completion among recent cohorts, the share with at least secondary education, and literacy.36

In health, America is at or near the bottom among the rich countries. The US has the lowest life expectancy and the highest incidence of obesity.37

The US also has one of the lowest shares of households consisting of a couple, and the highest with just one adult.38

Finally, there is, according to the best available measure, less generalized trust in America than in half of the other rich nations.39

HOW CAN WE INCREASE HAPPINESS?

Larger increases in income for ordinary Americans — both in absolute dollars and relative to those at the top — probably would help. So would boosting educational attainment, lowering unemployment, reversing the rise in obesity, and reducing commute time. As it happens, these are all win-win strategies in the sense that they would be valuable in and of themselves, apart from their impact on subjective well-being.

But we don’t have a good sense of which approach would help most. There are many plausible culprits for why happiness hasn’t increased in the United States over the past four decades, and researchers haven’t provided a compelling assessment of their relative importance. Though our understanding of happiness has improved significantly, we have a long way yet to go.


  1. Richard Layard, Happiness, Penguin, 2005; Charles Murray, Coming Apart, Crown Forum, 2012. For contrary views, see Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Basic Books, 1974; Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom, Oxford University Press, 1999. 
  2. Ruut Veenhoven, “World Database of Happiness”; Martine Durand and Conal Smith, “The OECD Approach to Measuring Subjective Well-Being,” in World Happiness Report 2013, edited by John Helliwell, Richard Layard, and Jeffrey Sachs, United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network, 2013. A third common question is: “Please imagine a ladder, with steps numbered from zero at the bottom to ten at the top. Suppose we say that the top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you, and the bottom of the ladder represents the worst possible life for you. On which step of the ladder would you say you personally feel you stand at this time, assuming that the higher the step the better you feel about your life, and the lower the step the worse you feel about it? Which step comes closest to the way you feel?” 
  3. See Ed Diener, Richard E. Lucas, Ulrich Schimmack, and John F. Helliwell, Well-Being for Public Policy, Oxford University Press, 2009; Derek Bok, The Politics of Happiness, Princeton University Press, 2010, ch. 2; Benjamin Radcliff, The Political Economy of Human Happiness, Cambridge University Press, 2013, ch. 4. 
  4. Benjamin Radcliff offers a helpful analogy: “It may be useful to compare our conceptualization of happiness to that of obesity — or, to maintain the directionality of preferences over having this attribute, fitness. They are individual level characteristics that vary across both individuals and nations: within any country, some people are fitter than are others, just as mean levels of fitness vary across countries. Each concept is agreed to have a genetic or personality-driven component, but neither is entirely determined by this disposition. People are not obese entirely and only, or even primarily, because that is just the way they are. Instead, their latent disposition toward a given level of fitness is strongly affected and responsive to their diet and life-style. Similarly, the variation we see in levels of obesity across countries does not reflect so much the shared genetic inheritance of their citizens as the diet typical of the country. The high level of obesity in the United States, for instance, is widely agreed to be mostly a function of the American diet, not of the prevalence of a ‘fat gene’ that somehow dominates the U.S. gene pool. Even if some of the variation is indeed due to genetic structures, much of it, almost certainly most of it, is a function of the ‘objective conditions’ of American life, in the form of the national diet. The same, then, is likely to be true of happiness: genetics and/or similar unalterable features of individuals might play some role, but we can still identify the factors external to the individual, amenable to change, that also play a role. For the student of happiness, the goal is to identify those factors that play the same role as diet or exercise for obesity and, so armed, to suggest public policies that would encourage the appropriate behaviors.” Radcliff, The Political Economy of Human Happiness, pp. 93-94. 
  5. Richard A. Easterlin, “Does Economic Growth Improve the Human Lot? Some Empirical Evidence,” in Nations and Households in Economic Growth: Essays in Honor of Moses Abramowitz, edited by Paul A David and Melvin W. Reder, Academic Press, 1974. 
  6. Angus Deaton, “Income, Health, and Well-Being around the World: Evidence from the Gallup World Poll,” Journal of Economic Perspectives, 2008; Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, “Economic Growth and Subjective Well-Being: Reassessing the Easterlin Paradox,” Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, 2008; Stevenson and Wolfers, “Subjective Well-Being and Income: Is There Any Evidence of Satiation?” 2013. 
  7. Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton find that the positive curvilinear relationship holds for evaluations of life but not for positive and negative feelings. Kahneman and Deaton, “High Income Improves Evaluation of Life But Not Emotional Well-Being,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2010. 
  8. Stevenson and Wolfers, “Economic Growth and Subjective Well-Being,” pp. 35-60. 
  9. Glenn Firebaugh and Laura Tach, “Income, Age, and Happiness in America,” in Social Trends in American Life, 2012; Richard Layard, Guy Mayraz, and Stephen Nickell, “Does Relative Income Matter? Are the Critics Right?” Discussion Paper 918, Centre for Economic Performance, 2009; Richard Layard, Andrew Clark, and Claudia Senik, “The Causes of Happiness and Misery,” in World Happiness Report, edited by John Helliwell, Richard Layard, and Jeffrey Sachs, Earth Institute, Columbia University, 2012. 
  10. Layard, Happiness, ch. 5; Diener et al, Well-Being for Public Policy, pp. 160-165; Layard et al, “The Causes of Happiness and Misery”; General Social Survey, series happy, wrkstat. 
  11. Bruno S. Frey and Alois Stutzer, Happiness and Economics, Princeton University Press, 2002; Diener et al, Well-Being for Public Policy, pp. 150-154. 
  12. Layard et al, “The Causes of Happiness and Misery”. 
  13. David G. Blanchflower and Andrew J. Oswald, “Is Well-being U-Shaped over the Life Cycle?” Social Science and Medicine, 2008; Layard et al, “The Causes of Happiness and Misery.” 
  14. Layard, Happiness, ch. 5; Layard et al, “The Causes of Happiness and Misery”; Carol Graham, Happiness Around the World, Oxford University Press, 2009; Marina Selini Katsaiti, “Obesity and Happiness,” Applied Economics, 2012. 
  15. Layard, Happiness, ch. 5; Layard et al, “The Causes of Happiness and Misery.” 
  16. Layard, Happiness, ch. 5. 
  17. Ruut Veenhoven, “Quality-of-Life in Individualistic Society: A Comparison in 43 Nations in the Early 1990s,” Social indicators Research, 1999 
  18. Ronald F. Inglehart, Robert Foa, Christopher Peterson, and Christian Welzel, “Development, Freedom, and Happiness: A Global Perspective,” Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2008. 
  19. Layard, Happiness, ch. 5; John F. Helliwell and Shun Wang, “Trust and Well-being,” Working Paper 15911, National Bureau of Economic Research, 2010; Layard et al, “The Causes of Happiness and Misery.” 
  20. Robert Putnam and David Campbell, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, Simon and Schuster, 2010. 
  21. Diener et al, Well-Being for Public Policy, ch. 6. 
  22. St. Louis Fed, FRED Economic Data, series usargdpc. 
  23. Persons aged 25 and over. Census Bureau, “CPS Historical Time Series Tables.” 
  24. National Center for Health Statistics. 
  25. St. Louis Fed, FRED Economic Data, series unrate. 
  26. General Social Survey, series homosex. 
  27. According to Census Bureau data, median household income rose from $46,000 in 1972 to $50,000 in 2011. See Census Bureau, “Historical Income Tables”; Claude S. Fischer, “What Wealth-Happiness Paradox? A Short Note on the American Case,” Journal of Happiness Studies, 2008; Lane Kenworthy, Social Democratic America, Oxford University Press, 2014, ch. 2. 
  28. Lane Kenworthy, “Income Inequality,” The Good Society; Layard, Happiness, ch. 5; Shigehiro Oishi, Selin Kesebir, and Ed Diener, “Income Inequality and Happiness,” Psychological Science, 2011. Television accentuates the perception of one’s material circumstances being far below the norm. 
  29. Lane Kenworthy, “Weight Moderation,” The Good Society. 
  30. General Social Survey, series health. It isn’t clear why this happened. Perhaps better diagnosis increased our awareness of ailments and diseases. 
  31. General Social Survey, series marital. 
  32. General Social Survey, series trust. 
  33. General Social Survey, series attend. 
  34. Brian McKenzie and Melanie Rapino, “Commuting in the United States: 2009,” Census Bureau, 2011. 
  35. Lane Kenworthy, “Income Inequality,” The Good Society. 
  36. OECD, Education at a Glance, various years. 
  37. OECD, Health at a Glance, various years. 
  38. OECD, “OECD Family Database.” 
  39. The trust measure is an index, calculated as: 100 plus [share responding “most people can be trusted” minus share responding “you can never be too careful when dealing with others”]. Measured in 1999-2005. Data source: Jaime Diez Medrano, “Interpersonal Trust,” jdsurvey.net, using World Values Survey data.