Lane Kenworthy, The Good Society
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 and a half 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?
Scientists measure happiness mainly via public opinion surveys. People are asked questions such as:
- “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.
- “Please imagine a ladder, with steps numbered from 0 at the bottom to 10 at the top. 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?”
Since the early 1970s, the General Social Survey (GSS) has regularly asked a representative sample of American adults the happiness question. In five-year intervals since the early 1980s, the World Values Survey has asked happiness and life satisfaction questions in a number of countries. Since 2005, the Gallup World Poll has asked adults in most of the world’s nations the ladder question.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. It used to be conventional wisdom that higher income increases happiness. 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 haven’t yielded a definitive conclusion as to which view is correct.
Figure 1 shows the pattern across individuals in the United States, and figure 2 shows the pattern across countries. Additional income increases happiness less at high income levels than at low income levels, but the increase does continue at high levels.6
What about when we look at countries over time? In a careful and thorough study, Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers concluded that as nations get richer over time, their average happiness has tended to rise.7 However, figure 3 shows trends in life satisfaction in the world’s rich democratic nations since the early 1970s. All of these countries have experienced economic growth during this period, and yet the data suggest that most have had either stagnant or slightly declining life satisfaction.
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.8
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 18% of those who are unemployed.9
Work conditions. Autonomy at work tends to increase happiness. Work stress and a long commute to work are associated with lower happiness.10
Labor market flexibility. In rich countries, life satisfaction tends to be higher where there aren’t stiff regulations limiting hiring and firing.11
Education. People with more education tend to be happier, though the payoff comes largely via higher income.12
Age. Among adults, happiness tends to decrease steadily until middle age — the late forties — and then begins to rise.13
Physical 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
Mental health. Poor mental health, such as diagnosed depression or anxiety disorder, is one of the best predictors of low happiness.15
Social support, family, friends. Having someone to count on in time of trouble, being married, and having close friends are positively associated with happiness.16
A generous welfare state. Average life satisfaction is higher in countries with public insurance programs that provide a more generous cushion to people who fall victims to economic and social risks.17
Freedom to make life choices. Persons who feel they have the freedom to choose what to do with their life tend to be happier.18
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.19
Tolerance. Tolerance of diverse lifestyles is positively associated with happiness.20
Trust. Trust in other people is positively associated with happiness.21
Religiosity. Frequency of attendance at religious services is positively associated with happiness, though this may be chiefly because it increases friendships.22
Quality of government. People in countries with greater perceived government effectiveness tend to be happier, and when government effectiveness increases, happiness tends to rise.23
Can happiness increase? People have a strong propensity to adapt to changes in life circumstances and revert to their earlier level of happiness. Yet average happiness in a country can and does change, for two reasons. First, adaptation is partial; some individuals do experience lasting changes in happiness over time.24 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 4 shows the average level of happiness and life satisfaction among American adults since the early 1970s. Both measures have been essentially flat, perhaps with a decline since around 2000.
Figure 5 shows the shares responding not too happy, pretty happy, and very happy to the General Social Survey’s happiness question. Between the early 1970s and 2000, the pretty happy share increased and both the not too happy and very happy shares fell, yielding little if any change in average happiness. Since 2000, the very happy share has declined and the not too happy share has increased.
Figure 6 shows the share of Americans who say they are satisfied with how things are going in their personal life. This too has been flat since the 1970s.
The lack of increase in happiness since the early 1970s is surprising because a number of known happiness boosters have improved during this period:
- Rising GDP per capita
- Rising educational attainment
- Improved physical health
- Lower unemployment
- Greater tolerance
The United States has gotten richer. GDP per capita doubled between 1972 and 2016 (in inflation-adjusted dollars).25 This ought to have increased happiness. Educational attainment has increased. For instance, the share of American adults with four years of college or more rose from 12% in 1972 to 33% in 2015.26 Life expectancy has increased from 71 years in 1972 to 79 in 2016.27 Even with the deep economic downturn in 2008 and subsequent slow recovery, the unemployment rate fell from an average of 7% during 1972-1990 to 6% during 1991-2016.28 And Americans have grown increasingly tolerant. For example, the share saying homosexuality is “always wrong” dropped from 73% in 1973 to 40% in 2016.29
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
- Declining perceived physical health and more obesity
- Less marriage
- Reduced trust
- Declining religiosity
- Longer commute time
- The baby boom and happiness over the life cycle
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.30 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.31
Perceived health among American adults didn’t improve in the 1970s, 1980s, or 1990s and then decreased in the mid-to-late 2000s.32 The incidence of obesity increased sharply in the 1980s and 1990s and then stayed constant in the 2000s.33 The share of 35-to-64-year-olds who are married declined from 88% in the early 1970s to 63% in 2016.34 The share of Americans saying “most people can be trusted” dropped from 48% to 32%.35 Attendance at religious services has decreased in recent decades.36 Average commute time has increased steadily since the 1970s.37 The movement of the large baby boom generation through the happiness life cycle may also have depressed average happiness; 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.
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 7 shows the association between life satisfaction and GDP per capita among the rich democratic countries. The United States underperforms: it lies below the line, ranking fourth in affluence but only fourteenth in life satisfaction. Why is that?
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
- Health: longevity and obesity
- Social support
- Public insurance generosity
- Freedom to make life choices
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.38
The US is middling or below on several measures of educational attainment, including college completion among recent cohorts, the share of adults with at least secondary education, and literacy.39
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.40
The US has one of the lowest shares of households consisting of a couple, and the highest with just one adult.41
The Gallup World Poll includes a question asking “If you were in trouble, do you have relatives or friends you can count on to help you whenever you need them, or not?” This is a good predictor of life satisfaction, and Americans are less likely than their counterparts in a number of other rich nations to say they have someone they can count on to help.42
The United States has a less expansive and generous set of public insurance programs than do many of the countries with higher levels of life satisfaction.43
Compared to other rich nations, Americans are middle-of-the-pack when it comes to trusting others.44
Another Gallup World Poll question asks “Are you satisfied or dissatisfied with your freedom to choose what you do with your life?” On average, those who respond “satisfied” tend to have higher levels of life satisfaction. Despite the emphasis on liberty in the United States, respondents in the Nordic countries and some others are more likely than Americans to say they feel free in this respect.45
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, reducing commute time, and expanding public insurance programs. 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.
- 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. ↩
- 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?” ↩
- 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. ↩
- 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. ↩
- 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. ↩
- See also Angus Deaton, “Income, Health, and Well-Being around the World: Evidence from the Gallup World Poll,” Journal of Economic Perspectives, 2008. 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. ↩
- 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. ↩
- 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; Andrew E. Clark, Sarah Fleche, Richard Layard, Nattavudh Powdthavee, and George Ward, “The Key Determinants of Happiness and Misery,” World Happiness Report 2017, 2017. ↩
- 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. ↩
- Bruno S. Frey and Alois Stutzer, Happiness and Economics, Princeton University Press, 2002; Diener et al, Well-Being for Public Policy, pp. 150-154. ↩
- Christopher J. Anderson and Jason D. Hecht, “Happiness and the Welfare State: Decommodification and the Political Economy of Subjective Well-Being,” in The Politics of Advanced Capitalism, edited by Pablo Beramendi et al, Cambridge University Press, 2015. ↩
- Layard et al, “The Causes of Happiness and Misery.” ↩
- Layard et al, “The Causes of Happiness and Misery”; David G. Blanchflower and Andrew Oswald, “Do Humans Suffer a Psychological Low in Midlife? Two Approaches (With and Without Controls) in Seven Data Sets,” Working Paper 23724, National Bureau of Economic Research, 2017; David G. Blanchflower and Carol L. Graham, “The Mid-Life Dip in Well-Being: Economists (Who Find It) Versus Psychologists (Who Don’t),” Working Paper 26888, National Bureau of Economic Research, 2020. ↩
- 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; Helliwell et al, “Social Foundations of Happiness.” ↩
- Layard et al, “The Causes of Happiness and Misery”; Clark et al, “The Key Determinants of Happiness and Misery.” ↩
- Layard, Happiness, ch. 5; Layard et al, “The Causes of Happiness and Misery”; Helliwell et al, “Social Foundations of Happiness.” ↩
- Radcliff, The Political Economy of Human Happiness; Anderson and Hecht, “Happiness and the Welfare State.” ↩
- Helliwell et al, “Social Foundations of Happiness.” ↩
- Ruut Veenhoven, “Quality-of-Life in Individualistic Society: A Comparison in 43 Nations in the Early 1990s,” Social indicators Research, 1999. ↩
- Ronald F. Inglehart, Robert Foa, Christopher Peterson, and Christian Welzel, “Development, Freedom, and Happiness: A Global Perspective,” Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2008. ↩
- 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.” ↩
- Robert Putnam and David Campbell, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, Simon and Schuster, 2010. ↩
- Helliwell et al, “Social Foundations of Happiness.” ↩
- Diener et al, Well-Being for Public Policy, ch. 6; John Helliwell, Haifang Huang, and Shun Wang, “Social Foundations of World Happiness,” in World Happiness Report 2017,, 2017. ↩
- St. Louis Fed, FRED Economic Data, series usargdpc. ↩
- Persons aged 25 and over. Census Bureau, “CPS Historical Time Series Tables,” table A-2. ↩
- National Center for Health Statistics. ↩
- St. Louis Fed, FRED Economic Data, series unrate. ↩
- General Social Survey, series homosex. ↩
- Claude S. Fischer, “What Wealth-Happiness Paradox? A Short Note on the American Case,” Journal of Happiness Studies, 2008; Lane Kenworthy, “Shared Prosperity,” The Good Society. ↩
- Lane Kenworthy, “Income Distribution,” 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. ↩
- General Social Survey, series health. It isn’t clear why this happened. Perhaps better diagnosis increased our awareness of ailments and diseases. ↩
- Lane Kenworthy, “Weight Moderation,” The Good Society. ↩
- General Social Survey, series marital. ↩
- General Social Survey, series trust. ↩
- General Social Survey, series attend. ↩
- Brian McKenzie and Melanie Rapino, “Commuting in the United States: 2009,” Census Bureau, 2011. ↩
- Lane Kenworthy, “Income Distribution,” The Good Society. ↩
- OECD, Education at a Glance, various years. ↩
- Lane Kenworthy, “Longevity,” The Good Society; Kenworthy, “Weight Moderation,” The Good Society. ↩
- OECD, “OECD Family Database.” ↩
- Helliwell et al, “Social Foundations of Happiness.” ↩
- Lane Kenworthy, “Social Programs,” The Good Society. ↩
- Lane Kenworthy, “Trust,” The Good Society. ↩
- Helliwell et al, “Social Foundations of Happiness.” ↩