Honoring Dick Easterlin

The Bonn-based Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA) has just announced that this year’s winner of its annual prize in labor economics is happiness researcher Richard Easterlin.

This is a wonderful prize. Dick was the first economist to start taking subjective well-being data seriously. While this sort of research is now pretty mainstream, I have to imagine that it took a fair bit of courage back in the early 1970’s. Indeed, his most famous early paper on happiness was originally published as a book chapter; hundreds of citations later, one hopes that previously critical journal editors now see the error of this early skepticism.

But Dick has done more than simply light the spark of this research program; he has nurtured the field along, patiently helping younger researchers along the way. In fact, IZA Director Klaus Zimmermann said that “The economic analysis of well-being would not have been possible without his contributions.” Zimmerman is right. And I’m one of many who has benefited from Dick’s interest in seeing the field grow, as his research has been the inspiration for much of my own interest in the economics of happiness. And ever the patient colleague, he’s been very free in sharing his expertise over the years.

Right now, Dick and I currently disagree on a pretty important issue — whether economic development can play an important role in raising subjective well-being. In fact, arguably his most famous claim, the “Easterlin Paradox,” is a claim that economic development won’t raise happiness. This yields the startling conclusion that policymakers shouldn’t bother trying to raise G.D.P. Betsey Stevenson and I have argued that this may have been a reasonable reading of the data in the early 1970’s, but the accumulation of data since make it clear that economic development is a powerful force in raising well-being. The debate’s still not settled, but even though the stakes are high, the wonderful thing about debating a fellow like Dick Easterlin is that you know you’ll learn a lot along the way. We can be friends, yet still challenge each other in thinking through these issues.

And I can’t help but conclude with a remarkable aside about Dick. If you’ve ever met him, he’s the most remarkably active and engaged fellow you’ll meet — which is why I was startled to learn that he was chair of the U. Penn economics department way back in 1958. But over 40 years later at age 83, he’s still researching as strongly as ever, critiquing the work of others vigorously, and he takes seriously his role as the father of an important research program. He’s not only an intellectual inspiration, but also a personal inspiration: I can only hope to be half as productive as Dick in my early 80’s.


The happiness index comes up with some strange and interesting results. As when for example, a few years ago, it found that Russians, of all people, were among the happiest people on earth

But not so strange maybe after all? After the collapse of Communism?


I agree with the Easterlin Paradox and it is wrong to conclude that policymakers shouldn?t bother trying to raise G.D.P. They should try to raise it in the same magnitude of the population growth.

Jim Birch

The evidence on the Easterlin Paradox is mixed and to me it looks like GDP is a factor. The important take home is that even if GDP is a factor it is certainly not the only one and that attempts to improve GDP may have happiness downsides that should be evaluated. What's great about happiness research is that, even if it is difficult, it's clearly possible, so that we don't have to rely on individual mythologies to choose happier public polices.

BTW a lot of the happiness v. GDP seems to me to (mis)identify GDP as our obsession with material possessions with consequent alienation, environmental degradation, pollution, global warming, etc. It's important to remember that GDP also includes services like health care, education, and a weekly massage. As GDP increases, the proportion of services typically increases, and the environmental impact decreases and should go negative. Eventually, we can reasonably expect that GDP increases will result in better, happier lives plus a better environment. (Hopefully we won't have completely trashed the place by then.)



"...I was startled to learn that he was chair of the U. Penn economics department way back in 1958. But over 40 years later at age 83, he's still researching..."

Not incorrect, but hasn't it been over 50 years since then?


I think there is an alternative way to look at this. I do believe that increasing GDP can have a positive effect on well-being in certain circumstances. For instance, if GDP rises but income inequality increase in step, this may create more unhappiness than it produces. If unemployment rises but unemployment benefits increase, too, you can stem the downward spiral of unhappiness. So, looking at one number is not going to tell the story. How the benefits of a rising GDP are spent is the key.



"But Dick has done more than simply light the spark of this research program; he has nurtured the field along, patiently helping younger researchers along the way."

I love people like this - if only this trait weren't so rare.


I had the pleasure of taking Professor Easterlin's Econ 432 class while I was an undergrad at USC (2007). While I disagree with his particular conclusion, the amount of knowledge I had acquired at the end of the class was immeasurable. After having loaded up on a lot of math-heavy courses, he taught me to apply the analytical nature of economics to seemingly unrelated issues. One of the best classes I have ever taken. Congrats, Professor.


USC Trojan Family Magazine, our alumni publication, published a highly-readable profile of USC professor Richard Easterlin and his work two years ago -- with a not-to-be-missed image of Easterlin, who was a very good sport about being photographed holding a balloon with a smiley face on it. The link is here: http://www.usc.edu/dept/pubrel/trojan_family/winter07/happiness.html