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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):


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:


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.