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Are Health, Wealth and Happiness Linked Worldwide?

Levitt and Dubner have blogged quite a bit about the growing literature on happiness studies. Meanwhile, the media has been abuzz recently over the relationship (or possible lack thereof) between happiness and wealth.

Enter Angus Deaton, a professor of economics and international affairs at Princeton. Deaton has a published new paper, “Income, Aging, Health and Wellbeing Around the World: Evidence from the Gallup World Poll,” that analyzes the results of a 2006 poll in which participants from 132 countries were asked identical questions on topics including standard of living, personal health, and their country’s healthcare system.

Deaton compared the data on “health and life satisfaction” (also described as “happiness”) to national income, age, and life expectancy. In some aspects, his findings aligned with the conventional wisdom that wealth brings happiness:

Like earlier studies using a smaller range of countries … the citizens of richer countries are on average more satisfied with their lives than the citizens of poorer countries. Unlike … earlier studies, [the] effect of income is not confined to poor, unhappy countries, but extends right across the range, from Cambodia, Sierra Leone, Togo, Niger, and Chad, which share the unenviable distinction of being in the bottom ten countries both by income and by life-satisfaction, to Norway, Switzerland, Denmark, Australia, and Canada, which rank in the top ten according to both income and life-satisfaction. Each doubling of national income is associated with a near one unit increase in average life-satisfaction measured on an eleven point scale from 0 (“the worst possible life”) to 10 (“the best possible life”). If anything, the effect of national income on national happiness is somewhat stronger in the rich countries than in the poor countries.

But this intuitive result becomes counterintuitive in the following scenario:

Recent growth in national income, unlike income itself, lowers average life-satisfaction. This result appears to be new, and contradicts much earlier literature that argues that improvements in living standards make people better-off, but that the effect wears off over time.

His findings on life satisfaction, meanwhile, directly contradict the idea that countries with high adult mortality rates (such as African nations ravaged by AIDS) would have correspondingly low rankings in life and health satisfaction. In fact, Deaton writes, “HIV prevalence in Africa has little effect on Africans’ life or health satisfaction; the fraction of Kenyans who are satisfied with their personal health is the same as the fraction of Britons and higher than the fraction of Americans.”

As for Americans’ rating of their own health and medical resources, Deaton had this somewhat remarkable finding to report:

Particularly remarkable is the position of the largest rich country, the United States, where only 52 percent of the population express themselves satisfied with the healthcare and medical system, a figure that is not only much lower than the comparable figure in any other rich country — for example, in Britain the fraction is 63 percent — but also lower than the fractions in (to take a few examples from many) India, Iran, Sierra Leone, or Malawi. The US ranks 81st among the 115 countries for which these data were collected … Indeed, the fraction of Kenyans who are satisfied with their personal health is the same as the fraction of Britons, and is higher than the fraction of Americans.