The Economics of Happiness, Part 1: Reassessing the Easterlin Paradox
Justin Wolfers and Betsey Stevenson discussed their happiness research on CNBC today.
Arguably the most important finding from the emerging economics of happiness has been the Easterlin Paradox.
What is this paradox? It is the juxtaposition of three observations:
1) Within a society, rich people tend to be much happier than poor people.
2) But, rich societies tend not to be happier than poor societies (or not by much).
3) As countries get richer, they do not get happier.
Easterlin offered an appealing resolution to his paradox, arguing that only relative income matters to happiness. Other explanations suggest a “hedonic treadmill,” in which we must keep consuming more just to stay at the same level of happiness.
Either way, the policy implications of the Paradox are huge, as they suggest that economic growth may not raise well-being by much.
Given the stakes in this debate, Betsey Stevenson and I thought it worth reassessing the evidence.
We have re-analyzed all of the relevant post-war data, and also analyzed the particularly interesting new data from the Gallup World Poll.
Last Thursday we presented our research at the latest Brookings Panel on Economic Activity, and we have arrived at a rather surprising conclusion:
There is no Easterlin Paradox.
The facts about income and happiness turn out to be much simpler than first realized:
1) Rich people are happier than poor people.
2) Richer countries are happier than poorer countries.
3) As countries get richer, they tend to get happier.
Moreover, each of these facts seems to suggest a roughly similar relationship between income and happiness.
What explains these new findings? The key turns out to be an accumulation of data over recent decades. Thirty years ago it was difficult to make convincing international comparisons because there were few datasets comparing rich and poor countries. Instead, researchers were forced to make comparisons based on a handful of moderately-rich and very-rich countries. These data just didn’t lend themselves to strong conclusions.
Moreover, repeated happiness surveys around the world have allowed us to observe the evolution of G.D.P. and happiness through time — both over a longer period, and for more countries. On balance, G.D.P. and happiness have tended to move together.
There is a second issue here that has led to mistaken inferences: a tendency to confuse absence of evidence for a proposition as evidence of its absence. Thus, when early researchers could not isolate a statistically reliable association between G.D.P. and happiness, they inferred that this meant the two were unrelated, and a paradox was born.
Our complete analysis is available here. An excellent summary is available in today’s New York Times, here, with a very cool graphic, and readers’ comments. Other commentary is available in the F.T. (here and here), and Time Magazine.
Given the broad interest in this topic, I thought that I would spend the next couple of days blogging about our new findings on the links between income and happiness. Tomorrow, I’ll describe comparisons of rich countries and poor countries. I’ll follow that up with separate posts describing comparisons of rich and poor people, and then assessing how happiness changes as countries get richer or poorer.