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The Economics of Happiness, Part 6: Delving Into Subjective Well-Being

What good is G.D.P., anyway? While my postings this week have shown that it is correlated with happiness, I have not spent much time asking just precisely what it is about our subjective experiences that is correlated with higher G.D.P.

In fact, the analysis in my previous posts, focused almost exclusively on simple responses to surveys asking people how happy they are, how satisfied they are with their lives, or where they think they are on a satisfaction ladder.

But we can do a lot better.

The Gallup World Poll asks an amazing battery of questions about the subjectively-experienced lives of people across the globe, and hence offers an unparalleled opportunity to contrast the subjectively-experienced lives of those in rich and poor countries.

This chart is my personal favorite, showing the proportion of people in each country who report having smiled or laughed a lot the previous day. Higher levels of economic development are clearly associated with more smiles and laughter. But equally, there are a lot of exceptions to this rule, and plenty of puzzles.

Laotians are more likely to smile than anyone else, and the Irish appear to have earned their national reputation as jolly japesters. My own country, Australia, comes in as the 29th of the 131 countries in the Smile Stakes, while the U.S. is a disappointing 45th.

Smiling and Laughing

This survey also asks about a range of feelings that might have been experienced the previous day. It is clear that G.D.P. is correlated with more people reporting enjoyment, while those in richer countries are less likely to report experiencing physical pain, depression, boredom, and anger.

Interestingly, G.D.P. appears uncorrelated with feelings of worry.

Recalled Feelings

And as I mentioned last Valentine’s Day, love is very democratic; it is as likely to be experienced in rich as poor countries.

It is also interesting to note some of the experiences that were reported in rich and poor countries.

Daily Experiences

Perhaps it is unsurprising that those in rich countries are more likely to report having eaten tasty food. But I was also interested to learn that people in rich countries are more likely to report having been treated with respect, or having autonomy about how to choose their time. Equally, many of these reports — including things like feeling well-rested, or having pride in one’s recent achievements — are surprisingly unrelated to economic development.

My recent research paper with Betsey Stevenson only scratches the surface of what we can learn from these data. But I am confident that over the next few years, the social science community is going to learn a lot more about the relationship between our current objective (and primarily economic) measures of living conditions, and the subjectively-experienced lives of people all around the world.

Let the interdisciplinary research teams loose: there’s a lot here for economists, psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, and political scientists to better understand.