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There is a reason why people immigrate to the United States

I bet you didn’t know MTV (the cable music and entertainment network) is also in the survey business. I didn’t until I saw this news story reported by Reuters. The story begins:

Young people in developing nations are at least twice as likely to feel happy about their lives than their richer counterparts, a survey says. According to an MTV Networks International (MTVNI) global survey that covered more than 5,400 young people in 14 countries, only 43 percent of the world’s 16- to 34-year-olds say they are happy with their lives.

It goes on to say:

MTVNI said this figure was dragged down by young people in the developed world, including those in the United States and Britain where fewer than 30 percent of young people said they were happy with the way things were.

The surprising winners in the survey:

Young people from Argentina and South Africa came joint top in the list of how happy they were at 75 percent.

They also calculated an overall Wellbeing Index:

The MTVNI survey took six months to complete and resulted in the Wellbeing Index which compared the feelings of young people, based on their perceptions of how they feel about safety, where they fit into society and how they see their future.
The overall Wellbeing Index was more mixed between rich and poor. India came top followed by Sweden and Brazil came last.

Happiness research is on the rise. In principle it makes sense to try to measure happiness and see what economic and social factors explain it. In practice, it turns out to be extremely difficult to do well for a number of reasons. For instance, there is very little consistency in a person’s rating of their own happiness from day to day, or even based on the questions that are asked on the survey before and after the happiness questions. This paper by Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan does a nice job of discussing some of the issues. (The link to their paper will only work if you are at an academic institution that subscribes to JSTOR.) My favorite part is the research they cite that shows that if you ask a young man about his last date before you ask him how happy he is, his reported happiness becomes extremely highly correlated with how his late date went. When you ask how happy he is first, and only ask about the date later, the two responses are almost uncorrelated.

As Dan Gilbert points out in his fantastic book “Stumbling on Happiness” and also in this brilliant talk he gave at the TED conference, people make many mistakes in forecasting what will or will not make them happy in the future. Gary Becker and Luis Rayo have written an interesting paper on this subject as well.

I think this MTV survey shows how badly you can go awry when taking responses to happiness questions too literally.

Economists have a notion called “revealed preference.” By looking at people’s actions, you can infer how they feel. Applied to this MTV survey, if their measure of happiness or Wellbeing Index were meaningful, then I would expect that we would see a steady flow of unhappy young people from the United States and the United Kingdom immigrating to happy places like South Africa and Argentina and Wellbeing places like India.

History tells us that the flow of immigrants has always been and continues to be in the other direction, which to an economist, is the strongest evidence that whatever people are looking for, developed countries like the United States are where they are finding it.

(Hat tip: Tim Gowan)