Income = Happiness? A Strangely Tough Sell in Aspen

I spent last week at the Aspen Ideas Festival, talking about Betsey’s and my research on the Economics of Happiness. You might think that my message—that income and happiness are tightly linked—would be an easy sell in Aspen, which is the most beautiful and most expensive city I’ve ever visited. But in fact, it’s the millionaires, billionaires and public intellectuals who are often most resistant to data upsetting their beliefs. You see, the (false) belief that economic development won’t increase happiness is comfortingly counter-intuitive to the intelligentsia. And it’s oddly reassuring to the rich, who can fly their private jets into a ski resort feeling (falsely) relieved of any concern that the dollars involved could be better spent elsewhere.

Over at The Atlantic, Clive Crook provides a useful summary of the talk (and a few pointers for how I could have done better). But we agree on the conclusion:

I came away thinking the Easterlin Paradox was a smoking wreck, and that pursuit of economic growth remains a worthy objective even for rich countries.

If you are interested in seeing the full talk—without paying thousands to visit the conference, here it is:Also, don’t miss an entertaining take from The Atlantic’s Jennie Rothenberg Gritz who—in a career-first for me—cites my hair as evidence of expertise:

Wolfers, a Wharton professor with an Australian accent and surfer-style blond hair, certainly seems like someone who should be an expert on happiness

On a related note, you might enjoy a video of the interview that Charles Kenny and I did with the irrepressible Felix Salmon.

If there’s one lesson I learned from this, it’s that economists need to stop dressing so similarly.

Finally: See also Matthew McClearn’s useful piece on the age-old happiness v. GDP debate.

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  1. wlajfa says:

    “All I ask for is a chance to prove that money can’t buy happiness.” Ashleigh Brilliant

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  2. Wes says:

    But money can’t buy me love.

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  3. WholeMealOfFood says:

    “If you are interested in seeing the full talk—without paying thousands to visit the conference…”

    Not to mention the millions you’d have to pay for a time machine…

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  4. Enter your name says:

    Is it really money, as money itself, that matters, or is it the social status that goes along with it? Would I be as happy having an income at the 90th percentile if everyone believed that I was dirt poor?

    Is it really income, or wealth? If I have zero debt, millions of dollars in the bank, a no need to work — but a merely average income from my investments — am I less happy than if I had a mortgage, a car payment, and a large salary?

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  5. Andreas Moser says:

    I found complete happiness here the other day, with almost no money: – I bet this is even more beautiful than Aspen.

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  6. Caleb b says:

    I can’t remember who said it but…
    “money doesn’t buy happiness, but neither does poverty.”
    Amen brotha.

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  7. James says:

    Maybe the reason this concept is such a tough sell in Aspen is that the millionaires there have spent (probably literally) millions to escape most of the unhappiness-causing side effects of economic development.

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  8. Impossibly Stupid says:

    Having been on both ends of the continuum I can say this: Being rich will never make you as happy as being poor will make you sad.

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