Happiness Inequality #1: The Facts
There is less happiness inequality today than in the 1970’s or 1980’s. And this has occurred despite large increases in income and consumption inequality. Betsey Stevenson and I spell out these facts in a lot more detail in a new paper, “Happiness Inequality in the United States,” forthcoming in the Journal of Legal Studies.
We make three main points which I’ll cover in three posts:
1. Today’s post: Happiness inequality has fallen.
2. Tomorrow’s post: Differences in happiness by education have risen; differences by race and gender have fallen.
3. Finally: How to put it all together.
The General Social Survey asks: “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?”
The graph below shows the pattern of responses through time. (One of our contributions is simply to put together these data in a way that takes account of the various series breaks; these corrections are also shown.)
While the trends don’t look too dramatic to the naked eye, the proportion of the population choosing the middle category of “pretty happy” rose from 52 percent in the 1970’s to 55 percent in the 1980’s, then 57 percent in the 1990’s, before declining a bit to 56 percent in the most recent decade.
And when more of us choose the middle category, inequality falls. As the next graph shows, this decline in happiness inequality is actually pretty important.
Two trends are pretty clear. First, average happiness is roughly unchanged since the 1970’s. And second, happiness inequality — measured here as the variance of happiness — fell pretty dramatically from 1972 until the late 1980’s; this compression has since stalled, and about one third of the total decline has subsequently been reversed.
There are lots of different ways of turning these surveys into a single index, and the figure above shows that our main findings are not sensitive to the approach used. (You will need to read the paper and plow through some math for the details.)
These changes yield some pretty striking changes in the distribution of happiness:
The good news is that the unhappy end of the distribution has become somewhat happier; the bad news is that the happy end has become less happy. On average, we get the well-documented puzzle that U.S. happiness hasn’t risen.
Tomorrow I’ll say more about the evolution of happiness inequality between groups.