Happiness Inequality #1: The Facts

There is less happiness inequality today than in the 1970’s or 1980’s. And this has occurred despite large increases in income and consumption inequality. Betsey Stevenson and I spell out these facts in a lot more detail in a new paper, “Happiness Inequality in the United States,” forthcoming in the Journal of Legal Studies.

The full paper is here, but if you just want the Cliff Notes version, Eduardo Porter did a terrific job in writing up our findings in this Sunday’s New York Times, here).

We make three main points which I’ll cover in three posts:

1. Today’s post: Happiness inequality has fallen.

2. Tomorrow’s post: Differences in happiness by education have risen; differences by race and gender have fallen.

3. Finally: How to put it all together.

The General Social Survey asks: “Taken all together, how would you say things are these days? Would you say that you are: very happy; pretty happy; or not too happy?”

The graph below shows the pattern of responses through time. (One of our contributions is simply to put together these data in a way that takes account of the various series breaks; these corrections are also shown.)


While the trends don’t look too dramatic to the naked eye, the proportion of the population choosing the middle category of “pretty happy” rose from 52 percent in the 1970’s to 55 percent in the 1980’s, then 57 percent in the 1990’s, before declining a bit to 56 percent in the most recent decade.

And when more of us choose the middle category, inequality falls. As the next graph shows, this decline in happiness inequality is actually pretty important.


Two trends are pretty clear. First, average happiness is roughly unchanged since the 1970’s. And second, happiness inequality — measured here as the variance of happiness — fell pretty dramatically from 1972 until the late 1980’s; this compression has since stalled, and about one third of the total decline has subsequently been reversed.

There are lots of different ways of turning these surveys into a single index, and the figure above shows that our main findings are not sensitive to the approach used. (You will need to read the paper and plow through some math for the details.)

These changes yield some pretty striking changes in the distribution of happiness:


The good news is that the unhappy end of the distribution has become somewhat happier; the bad news is that the happy end has become less happy. On average, we get the well-documented puzzle that U.S. happiness hasn’t risen.

Tomorrow I’ll say more about the evolution of happiness inequality between groups.

S Ramanujam

I dont know if it was Lincoln who said people will themselves to be happy. Education is acquired by the strong willed, eg Helen Keller.

And so it is no surprise that Education makes people happier. And with more comforts, will power diminishes in general and hence the decline in average happiness and its standard deviation.


The study to which this column refers states, "Our analysis is based on responses to the General Social Survey (GSS), which asks: 'Taken all together, how would you say things are these days—would you say that you are very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?'"

This points out a WHOPPING hole in the logic used to conclude ANYTHING from this study about actual trends in happiness per se.

The only thing this study shows is how ANSWERS TO THE SURVEY QUESTIONS have changed.

There is very likely, of course, a correlation between people saying that they're happy and people being happy.

But who can say with the remotest certainty how the relationship between the words and the feelings may or may not have changed with time?

NO ONE can say, and there is absolutely no basis for assuming that from 1972-2008 the relationship between the words and the feelings has remained the same or changed radically.

Possibly it has remained the same. But there is no logical basis for making that presumption.


joe yohka

Drivel, nonsense and pseudo-science. What is the goal of such silliness?

Mothers, please don't let your children grow up to be cowboys or social scientists. Real science involves facts and measurable things; "happiness" is a very very important concept but can be easily skewed by social pressures as subjects might respond they way they think they "should", or by the weather that day, or by the tone of the questions.

Fun read, sort of, but meaningless drivel and not exactly actionable information.

Happiness by Mathieu Ricard, however, is an interesting scholarly work which attempts to define happiness and plots a roadmap as well.

Mike Deruki

I can't believe anyone is taking this seriously.

This analysis has no statistical significance.

For as subjective a question as "How happy are you", you'd better see a more convincing change than this if you're going to try to draw something out of it.


You're defining happiness inequality two ways here: as the percentage of people who are "pretty happy" and as the variance of happiness relative to the year-by-year mean (which has gone from 0.023 to -0.019). Why?

While the inequality in happiness has decreased (generally), I would interpret the quantitative data to mean that we are in general slightly less happy than we used to be (by around 4%), not that it hasn't changed.


I don't like the choices in the survey. What about "Mad As Hell" How many would have ticked that one?

I'm also really dubious about the correlation with income inequality. Particularly when the charts don't track that at all. What questions precede this one in the survey? In what context are people thinking about how happy they are?

"How many children do you have?"

"Do you have difficulty obtaining food and water?"

"Do you think the fire department in your community is doing a fantastic job?!"

"How many TV channels do you get?"

"How happy are you?"

Sci Ed

I am not sure what "happiness" means, but I suspect it has to do with our wishes and expectations, and how close we come to achieving them. Therefore, I imagine that happiness might also differ by age groups. Not having read the full paper yet, it would be interesting to see how happiness changes as we age, and how this age-related trend has changed over time.

Science Editor


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Kevin H

Do you have paired income stats? That would be interesting...

B. Riley

OK I'll bite.

I wonder how this correlates with the dramatic expansion of credit in the US over the same time period.

I also wonder how it correlates with all the new happy drugs that weren't around 10-20 years ago.

Steve Roth

Putting aside the statistics--whether this mostly noise given the small percentage moves--what is being measured?

Could the changes simply reflect people's different approach to defining "happiness"?

Demographics have changed hugely. I would guess, for instance, that the Hispanic community has different standards for what happiness is.

Not sure this study tells us anything useful.


Different Mike here, I tried submitting this before but may have misclicked.

That last graph doesn't tell me anything; to me, it's simply a nice example of regression to the mean.


Maybe this shows the readiness of people to trade happiness for other goods and conversely. Maybe those people who had the greatest potential for income growth decided to trade it off for a bit of happiness, while those people who didn't have enough income sacrificed a bit of happiness for earnings growth.

Scott Drouin

You should want everyone to be happy, happiness increases productivity and quality of work and can be a boon to the economy. I'm not sure where you received the concept that happiness equals apathy without exemption.

Also, a society where people are happy means a society where people are more agreeable, theoretically. If you are to take this supposition as truth, then it's a possibility the average worker may be able to work harder, in the hopes that it may give them a larger financial return and the hope of an increase in "happiness".

The downside of this could occur as well, people who are happy are often unwilling to sacrifice time, money or energy if that doesn't immediately guarantee a return of "happiness". So if we are happy, we may be less willing to invest in something that could benefit society (money donated to charity's, time donated to assist in charitable efforts, etc.).

The reason a person is more likely to sacrifice time for work but not time for charity is because charity ends up being a financial cost, and a cost of time as well, and since most people pursue finances as a way to gain "happiness", they are unwilling to sacrifice it unless necessary, that is, when it threatens their happiness, or social status.

Now that I consider it, a "happy" society may actually be more apathetic towards anything that would be a threat, even a minor one, to their stability and thus their safety. This is why taxation exists, because as a general rule, people will not give their money willingly even if it means a guarantee of safety, security, and yes, their "happiness"



I figure many people may find a decrease in "inequality" to be a positive sign, but to me this trend looks like a long dull road toward apathy. Do we really want a society where everyone identifies themselves as "pretty happy"?


Scott, the data doesn't show a trend toward being happier, it shown a trend to be more AVERAGE in the happiness scale. I loosely define this as apathetic.

I agree we should try to be happier, and relish the idea that our neighbors are happy too - but not that we are all average (neither happy nor unhappy).


This is a reply to Daz and Steve Roth, since they have similar questions...


You have a good point..... However, we have all basis to assume that style of the responses has not changed over the years.

Firstly, we are measuring the same population (with random sampling), so any differences there may have been between different populations should have cancelled out in a way. (The point by Steve: I doubt the demographic changes would have been large enough to make a large enough difference to the overall survey results. The researches should have checked for any significant differences in the population being surveyed.)

Secondly, about interpretation of the results; of-course we do not know what people really mean when they say "very happy", and different people may mean different things although they say the same thing. But that is the reason we only have 3 basic answers to the question. Generally, we are not asking for any detailed description of happiness levels, if that was the case, then it WOULD be difficult to interpret the results....

Hope that is helpful!



Kind of weak survey, the individual responses should have been related to income level and etc.