An Unhappy Year

In a New York Times Op-Ed on Saturday, Sonja Lyubomirsky wrote that subjective well-being has remained high during the recession. But she’s dead wrong.

Here’s the gist of her piece, titled “Why We’re Still Happy” :

Research in psychology and economics suggests that when only your salary is cut, or when only you make a foolish investment, or when only you lose your job, you become considerably less satisfied with your life. But when everyone from autoworkers to Wall Street financiers becomes worse off, your life satisfaction remains pretty much the same …

So in a world in which just about all of us have seen our retirement savings and home values plummet, it’s no wonder that we all feel surprisingly O.K.

Unfortunately the claim she’s making — that we’re all O.K., thank you very much — isn’t one for theory, it is a factual claim. Let’s see how it checks out, updating my earlier analysis of daily data on life satisfaction through 2008, courtesy of the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index (and see that earlier post for the details on this chart):

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We’re still happy? No way. Life satisfaction has plummeted during the recession. Of course there remain important issues about how best to measure well-being. So here’s my challenge to Lyubomirsky: Find a single indicator of subjective well-being that hasn’t gotten worse through 2008. I’ll be happy to write about it, if she finds one.

Not only has happiness declined during this recession, it has declined through every U.S. recession for which we have data. Here’s a chart from a paper of mine (with Betsey Stevenson), documenting the clear correlation between the U.S. business and happiness cycles:

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I’m optimistic that research into subjective well-being can be useful. But careful science is about replacing conjecture with facts, and right now, happiness research could use a bit more empirical rigor.


Isabell Prophet

Those are two different pairs of shoes. A survey, where people are asked in a special context, always HAS to remind people of their worries. "Crisis" is in the news each and every day.

Still, consumers' situation has not changed too much (by now). They're worried, yes. Especially workers have to be worried bout their job. That makes them sad, of course. But it's their own single personal problem, right-now-SHORTTERM issue. Compared to others they'll be as happy as before, but that's a LONGTERM question.

Robert Torzynski

I also find it difficult to believe that the economic crisis has not affected our overall levels of measured happiness.

Part of the reason for this general malaise may be that our culture has promoted a vacuous 'happiness' based on the acquisition of unnecessary possessions and the fulfillment of sensory desires rather than the fulfillment of our human potential.

The wealth that supports this empty lifestyle has been created through decisions made without regard to their human consequences. We have been hoodwinked by leaders who claimed that the consideration of the results of our decisions on other human beings is not relevant to the discussion.

This includes economists that seek to elevate themselves by claiming that economics is a science, when in fact it is a belief system not consistent with what real scientists know about how the world works.

Many people had a great time while their homes doubled in value, re-financing to support this meaningless consumption of natural resources. Instead of creating wealth by manufacturing goods that benefit human beings or providing services that benefit human beings, we created wealth through sleight of hand and the manufacturing of 'weapons of financial mass destruction.'

Now that the chickens have come home to roost, thoughtful individuals look around and wonder how the heck we got into this mess. It's difficult to look inside and see how we ourselves have contributed to our own situation.

We need to reorder our priorities and take care of basic human needs and transition to a sustainable economy not dependent on 'growth' that is ultimately funded through massive Ponzi schemes.

I pray that our next President can turn this country around and is not sandbagged by the same arrogant fools that lead us into this mess.

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Luther Garcia

Is it any wonder that more people describe themselves as "struggling?" Is there really any wonder why the level of happiness has been steadily declining from year to year -- even contemplating the ups and downs of recession?

Only the self absorbed could fail to recognize that for the majority of people in the United States, incomes have failed to keep pace with the costs of living.

I find it interesting the graph shows a significant decline right about the time that the "free traders" pushed through GATT, NAFTA, and most favored nation status for China. Perhaps they will find a reverse corallary to the happiness scale in China, where per capita prosperity has increased during the same time frame.

Owen Gard

Lyubomirsky was citing empirical analysis; it is an established result that *after* being fired we feel better about it than we expected we would, and that coping is easier if the decline is small relative to peers.

Of course, this result isn't very significant to the general population, since 92% of us have yet to be fired, and are (overly) anxious about it. The research cited on relative status would (ceteris paribus) predict increased well-being for those still employed, but depression conditions offset that gain-in-status-by-default with hightened worried for the future.

Taking the relative-change result in isolation clearly doesn't predict the macro picture correctly. But, the subset directly suffering lay-offs certainly will be happier than they would have been if the same disasters happened outside of a depression - if that's worth anything.

sociologist

You raise a very interesting question as to what makes people happy in life. Aside from having.making and keeping friends, Oprah appears to have discovered the real answer. Her word/advice is `sound.' Get Real. I know having been on the same diet that works for me for the last 37 years of counting calories. And trying to eat right (knowing that there will be moments when I just have to eat that piece of chocoate layer cake) yum yum!

My husband always talks about coming from a poor family (the youngest of ten and mom raising a family on her own since his dad died). Yet, there was food on the table (he always reminds me of the fact that her meals were the best) and, despite their difficulties (couldn't even afford a pair of shoes and had to look for bottle tops (each worth 5 cents) to go to the movies (his favorate past-time), there was a good deal of happiness that he had (playing ball, a house full of family and friends/family always visiting). Sociologists tend to treat poverty in mere monetary terms as if it is some sort of failure. I cannot see it that way- not the way my husband describes it. Perhaps a bit more money in the bank, a pair of new shoes would have helped-- but would it have made him any happier. I have not asked him that question, but I doubt it. What would have made him happier, I bet, is more control (which he could not have) over the trauma of losing a father at such a young age.

So as far as new years resolutions are concerned, my recommendation is-- make the one's you can keep. You will be happier. Am working on that one myself right now.

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Tim

Clearly, there is a certain vacuousness inherent in any notion of happiness that only involves "material wealth"- and by that standard, clearly we can only be less happy in the current enviroment.

However- and this may be Sonja's point- there is a certain liberating aspect to an economic episode such as this in that in reminds us of how many things on which our happiness hinges are immaterial; friends, family, exersize, pets (to a certain degree),sunrises, etc., are always there for us no matter how bad it gets. A lot of happiness has to do with managing expectations, after all, and the bar is being dramatically lowered....

PaulK

Justin seems to measure "happiness" using terms like "thriving", "struggling", and "subjective well being". None of these match what most people think of happiness, and I suspect this is the problem. There is no question that during recessions, people worry about their job, their financial situation, and their home (what all of his terms are about); but, that may or may not affect their level of happiness in the broader sense. In fact, during such times, many people rediscover their friends and family, and may actually feel happier on average.
So, I think Justin needs to critique measures of worry and "well being" and separate the broader (and more complex notion of) happiness. I think psychologists working with economists could do a study of the relationship between "happiness" and "well being". I suspect there is some correlation, but they may be quite de-correlated when economic times changes the measure of success. For example, when people think their goal has to be acquisition of goods and their measure of themselves is only on what they own, many likely come out lower on happiness measurements (since these are goals you can never reach - you can never be rich enough given that each level of wealth increases the requirements).

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Marc Resnick

Isn't this obvious? The happiness research shows that happiness depends on comparisons with:

1. Others in our environment
2. Ourselves in our salient memory
3. Our parents/grandparent in our salient memory

In a recession, #1 may go down for everyone equally and cancel itself out. But #s 2 and 3 suffer unless you did so well in the bubble that you are still better off than you were in recent memory and your parents were.

Personally, I am down in all three - and not very happy about it.

PaulK

@8, Marc, "Personally, I am down in all three - and not very happy about it." - but are you unhappy in general? I am sure most people are not happy about their 401(K) and House value being smashed, but the question is how it has affected their overall happiness. If your financial situation is the only thing that indexes your happiness, then the answer is obvious. But, if your happiness is more impacted by family and other factors, then it likely has not had much effect.
I would argue that there is a point where financial situations affect happiness, although it can be counter intuitive: the person who is worrying about being foreclosed on and checking their mailbox each day is probably more unhappy than when it is over (assuming they land on their feet). In other cases, it is as we expect: suddenly being drastically poorer (such that every aspect of your lifestyle is destroyed) will likely affect your happiness level a lot. Being poorer indexed to the economy (so likely will bounce back when the economy recovers) will not affect your overall happiness. That is likely a big part of what she meant: your examples of #2 and #3 are also indexed to #1. Your parents were worse off in recessions no doubt, but they bounced back. If you are old enough to have gone through one before, then your memory of yourself will contain that shift and return.

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Eric M. Jones

This problem of personal wealth and happiness bothered Solomon in 250 BCE, too. Ecclesiastes looks into the heart of a king who understands that wealth ultimately means nothing and does not make him happy. All is vanity. What then does one do?

We have all benefitted from the cultural, architectural, scientific, creative wealth that others have left us. Abe Lincoln read library books by firelight and worked out math problems on the back of a shovel with a piece of charcoal. Now we live in a cyberworld of unimaginable riches that is growing exponentially. The Enlightenment defined 'wealth' as simply living as a human being in a just and functional society. Oh, would that it were...

The economics of Star Trek speaks of a world where the acquisition of riches has become banal: (Picard speaking here from two different episodes) "A lot has changed.... People are no longer obsessed with the accumulation of 'things'. We have eliminated hunger, want, the need for possessions.... The economics of the future is somewhat different. You see, money doesn't exist in the 24th century.... The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force in our lives. We work to better ourselves and the rest of Humanity."

I haven't a clue if this will become true, but I suspect it will trend in that direction-- after battles, tyrants and brutalities come and go.

"For ye have the rich always with you...." But it may be that becoming just rich will be a path that is not worth pursuing.

Now just watch somone call me a commie.

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PaulK

Eric, I do not know about calling you a communist, but the communists have learned the problem with this mindset. The problem is that a large portion of the human population is motivated by things and/or power/control. Any system that does not allow people to be "rewarded" for their efforts will end up with most people not putting in any effort.
As much as people talk about the "happy poor", many of the poor want to better their lives or that of their children. Being held from doing that leads to hopelessness and anger. Hopelessness and anger tends towards crime and militancy. In Muslim countries, we have seen the effects of that.
As to making everyone "equal" or creating "workers paradises", these just do not work because of human nature. It does not take an economist to see that some will always try to get the better of others. This leads to lack of motivation in the "oppressed" and greed in those with power.
Sad, but true.

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Gale Thorne

The problem with the author's analysis is that he has come to equate emotional states with subjective assessments of wealth and economic prosperity (how else are we to interprete thriving, struggling, and suffering - these are not words we generally use to describe our happiness and satisfaction). When you assume that these two separate conditions are the same, and then compare them, you will obviously find a strong correlation.

To properly assess the correlation of these two ideas, we need to take the datasets or charts above, and compare them to data of population happiness or satisfaction.

I can be struggling personally in the job market or stock market, and still be happy or satisfied with life. Indeed some of my happiest memories and experiences have been from times of great struggle and hardship.

Gale Thorne

A follow up to my earlier comment...

Some of the happiest people I've known have been very poor subsistence farmers from my time in the Philippines. Happiness is a complicated state, which is only partially influenced by prosperity, and then only with limited duration (the exception being those who truly suffer due to extreme hardships - which also tend to be culturally relative).

Also, the pursuit and expectation of prosperity can bring more pleasure than the achievement of it, just as the thrill of Christmas Eve for a child can dwarf the excitement of the following morning.

Andrew

I thoroughly enjoyed reading all the above posts and the article that spawned these responses. I wonder where to begin in a witty retort or a ponderous enflame on such a small, yet large issue.

For starters, the article shows measurements of the general well being of society, or more aptly, those who were poled, responded, and could be trusted with an honest response. Hence some of the barrier I can't seem to get past with a "measurement" of a general "well-being". All responses a of the assertion of this general well being yet introspectively respond for the commonwealth regarding their own mirth. I, for one, Am mirthless in general, yet don't remember being polled so can't be counted among the general feeling. I could see this equivocating measuring the amount of fresh and salt water on earth. Meaningless and irrelevant.

See, I am married. Not physically, or really spiritually. I'd like to introduce my wife, Ms. Anthropy. Why? This is MY view on society, my outlook on the general happiness of our country's populous. The disdain I hold for the marketing and subjugation of people to advertising makes it hard to find the line where free thought exists and our lives are manifest by this capitalist nightmare. Truly, can anyone identify where the self begins and the lust for all things in life inherent due to years upon years of irradiated images, sound bites, cardboard cutouts, banners, billboards... ends? Do we identify ourselves based on the level of materialism we're at or judge our happiness based on what we've already achieved?

I can never see a 24th century where want of consumption ceases to dominate our forethought. Technology prohibits this by segregating the parts of society that cannot compensate for the desire within for the new, shiny, perceived improvement by compounding the level of intensity of each new invention. Those of us who can't learn how to operate a computer, create an html web page, open a pdf file and send it to our phones, subscribe to an rss link, open an xml link in the correct browser, operate our Dyson, program the thermostat on our HVAC system, turn the car alarm off, program the digital answering machine, and so many other common place things for those of us who can keep up, will be inevitably left behind.

So, the point of this rambling. To each of us who reads an article like this stops to ponder our own happiness, the judges that level against this, or our friends or family, whatever. I would say that's the entire point of this, to stop and realize "Hey, I'm not as symptomatically affected by the economy as the rest of these people." And if enough of us read this and realize that, then more and more of us will be happier. Thus continuing the chain of unidentifiable self and identifiable clothing label.

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RJ

I, for one, have had my happiness go up in this recession.

I had been struggling, off and on, with freelancing, being self-employed, having left the corporate world.

Suddenly, when everyone is supposed to be struggling, it's OK to ring others and ask for work, to admit that you could use some help finding it.

So I did. And work has been forthcoming : This year looks like it will be better for me than the past 3

So, my happiness and wealth are increasing (despite the economy) because the general perception of recession meant I could reach out and ask for help more easily.

The "Aha" moment for me happened when I rang a colleague and said I was a bit slow - did she know of any work. She said a lot of people had been ringing her and yes it was a bit slow.

I suddenly felt a lot better. Letting go of high expectations has, paradoxically, freed me up to enjoy more of what I have and to cease trying to keep up appearances.

It's great. That said, Keith Ng's post on the human consequences of recession in China (it's on publicaddress.net) shows a different side of things.

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ZBicyclist

Following Sonja's logic, we will all be much unhappier in 2009. It will become clearer that "just about all of us" have NOT seen the value of our house go down in a way that affects us. Some will be foreclosed, some will be house poor, some will find they are now able to afford housing, and some really won't care because falling house prices mean they sell for less but their next house can be bought for less.

Right now, we're in the early stages and the winners/losers are less clear.

friend

Dear Paul:

I can see this economic down turn having differential effects. In my case, work has improved. I have more adjunctive work than I need. But I can recall so many times, when this was no so. And I wasn't just worried, but frightened to death of not being able to afford the bills and of loss of health insurance benefits. I sold jewelry, worked as a waitress, just to get by, These were scary times and according to family members, it shows in my face. So I can see the benefits of social welfare, security etc programs that serve to reduce the stress of hard times. Now I think we all need to learn the lesson of saving/preparing for a rainy day. An ounce of preventive medecine.

ross christopher

I'm calling for a season of GRACE.

GRACE extended to everyone. People in need, people not in need, people of every age, race, gender - you name it, GRACE should be at hand.

Why?

What's going on in Washington D.C. is nuts. On one hand you have corporate executives failing at their jobs; producing products that don't sell, can't compete in free markets, lend to risky individuals, and in turn have collapsed a system that is spiraling out of control. On the other hand, you have the media screaming that "the sky is falling!" Possibly. Probably not.

Nonetheless, their voice is loud and people are scared.

So what does Washington do?

Washington writes HUGE checks labeled "bailout" and our fears are all supposed to be quelled. Banks were given billions - that's with a "b." They were given billions to in turn lend to builders, buyers, manufacturers, importers and exporters, on and on and on. They were given the task to help UN-freeze the credit market. In essence, to extend GRACE.

But each day the DOW continues to fall and fall and fall and fall and fall and fall...

These folks not only NOT un-freezing loans, they are using this government "bailout" to recoup their own resources, failures, and the like. No GRACE.

I don't like the direction D.C. took this whole thing. But in the end what they did was extend some real GRACE to help cover our rears and HOPEFULLY stop the media-supported (if not created) crumble of America.

GRACE should beget GRACE.

Maybe I'm giving D.C. way too much credit, but is it possible we could all learn from this season of generous printing of money and loan taking from China and the like? Its by no means ideal, but maybe we could turn a crappy situation into a time of Jubilee (see the Jewish tradition of Jubilee).

Not sure how to close other than persuading you to extend grace whenever you can. When you are shown grace, give thanks. Lets turn our chins up and make this a time of Jubilee!

Grace & Peace,
Ross

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Sonja Lyubomirsky

Dear Dr. Wolfers,

Thank you for your instructive response to my op-ed piece (NYT, Dec 27, 2008). I appreciate your comments and enjoy a lively discussion. Unfortunately, I only became aware of the Gallup-Healthways data a few days ago, and would have loved to have included them in my brief essay. I would not have changed the basic thesis, however. The point I was making really was a small one – that human beings are highly attuned to social comparisons (or relative standing). I was not arguing that the sliding economy has not affected people's happiness. (The title that NYT gave my piece was an unfortunate one. My original title was, “When everyone loses.”) Instead, I was arguing that the economic turmoil has not affected our happiness as much as we might expect (hence, the last line about us being “surprisingly OK,” not “happy”). Of course, this is a speculation based on previous research in economics. (I did not cite any research, as you imply, in my area of psychological well-being). I don't know of any recent data on people's expectations, but it would be fascinating to see it.

I am also a bit wary of interpreting the results of surveys taken during or after major personal life events or collective transitions. Using Gricean maxims, survey respondents cannot help but consider recent uplifts or downturns when formulating their responses (e.g., “Am I satisfied with my life right now? Well, let's see, the economy is tanking, so I can't say I am.”) Indeed, an individual may even appear irrational or foolish to profess that he or she is really happy to a researcher who has called in the last few months. The kind of happiness measures I had in mind were those that tap daily emotions – daily satisfactions, frustrations, and fulfillments (e.g., like ones used by Danny Kahneman's group; perhaps they might even have some relevant data to show us?). This is why I referred in my piece to our daily lives, which have gone on much unchanged since September (unless, of course, our friend or newspaper reminds us – “you know, the Dow hasn't declined this much since 1931” – and we feel terrible; witness the work of the focusing illusion). Of course, if a person has lost a job or badly needed health insurance or had a really severe downturn (and, even in these bad times, the far, far majority of people have not had severe downturns, at least not yet), then that event will dominate their attention. But I was speaking for the majority of us who have experienced financial losses and some hardship, but have not had our daily lives overturned. I would bet that you spend your days focused on writing papers (or fighting traffic or enforcing curfews or thinking about what you'll have for lunch, or say to your colleague at tomorrow's meeting, or whatever) rather than thinking about how unhappy you are.

--Sonja Lyubomirsky

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Marco

Native Americans measure weath in terms of how many friends one has. We all know the yardstick of wealth of currently worshipped in consumerland.